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Legend has it that Guǎngzhōu was founded by five immortals who descended from the sky on rams and saved the city from starvation. Thus the city earned the nickname ‘Goat City’ (Yáng Chéng). Goats or no goats, the first settlement on the site of the present-day city dates back to 214 BC, when the so-called First Emperor of Qin sent his troops south to gain control of the sea.

Because of its fortuitous location on the northern end of the Pearl River, Guǎngzhōu from early times was China’s most important southern port. It was the starting point for the Silk Road of the Sea during the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), an important maritime route for shipping silk and other goods to the West. It was a trading post for the Portuguese in the 16th century, and for the British in the 17th.

The city was a stronghold of the republican forces after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Sun Yatsen (1866–1925), the first president of the Republic of China, was born in Cuìhēng village, and in the early 1920s he led the Kuomintang (KMT; Nationalist Party) in Guǎngzhōu, from where the republicans mounted their campaigns against the northern warlords. Guǎngzhōu was also a centre of activities for the fledgling Communist Party, and Mao Zedong and other prominent Communist leaders were based here in 1925/26.

Since liberation, Guǎngzhōu (Broad Region) has put all its energies into the business of making money. Even when China had effectively cut itself off from most of the rest of the world, what was then called the Canton Trade Fair was the only forum in which the Middle Kingdom did business with the West. Today, it remains a vital import-export centre.