Tropic of Cancer: Guangzhou Then and Now

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THEN: Guangzhou, the port city in southern China, in the late 18th century. Because of its position at the meeting point of inland rivers and the South China sea, it has long been one of the country’s main commercial and trading centers. The city is a historic center of learning. It has served as a doorway for foreign influence since the 3rd century CE, and was the first Chinese port to be regularly visited by European traders, who called it Canton.

The pattern of foreign trade changed as the supremacy of the Arabs ended with the coming of the Europeans. The Portuguese sent their first embassy to Guangzhou in the early 1500s, followed by the Dutch and the British in the 17th century. The British East India Company established a “factory” (foreign traders’ residences and business offices) in Guangzhou in 1685, and annual trading operations began in 1699. Throughout the 18th century, French, Dutch, American, and other foreign nationals also established trade relations with the city; what became known as the “13 factories” (shisan hang or shisan yiguan) were located on the waterfront. Trade moved with little difficulty until friction began to mount in the 1820s. The Chinese seized and destroyed large quantities of illegal opium brought in by the British in 1839, and in retaliation the British attacked Chinese positions in the Pearl River Delta. The first Opium War (1839–42) ended in humiliating defeat for China, and the city saved itself from destruction only by paying a large ransom. The Treaty of Nanjing (1842) with the United Kingdom negotiated at the conclusion of the war provided for Guangzhou to be opened as a treaty port. In 1844 the French and the Americans obtained similar treaties. However, anti-foreign sentiment ran high in Guangdong province, and the city refused to open its gates until 1857. The coolie trade (the shipment of Chinese contract laborers overseas) and the use of foreign flags to protect pirates caused several crises. The second Opium War broke out between China and Britain and France in 1856. Guangzhou was occupied by Anglo-French forces until 1861.

In 1911–12, the port city became one of the cradles of the Chinese Revolution. The Guangzhou Uprising paved the way for the success of the Chinese Revolution. Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Zhou Enlai began their careers in Guangzhou. The Peasant Movement Training Institute, which flourished in the mid-1920s under the leadership of Mao Zedong, is located in the heart of the city.


NOW: Guangzhou is northwest of Hong Kong and one of the most densely inhabited areas in China. It’s a major center of research and innovation in the Asia-Pacific with a high level of scientific research output. The port city is home to many of China’s most prestigious universities and features avant-garde architecture such as Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House (known as the “double pebble”); the carved box-shaped Guangdong Museum; and the iconic Canton TV Tower skyscraper, resembling a thin hourglass. Population: 15.31 million (Dec 31, 2019). Metro population: 37,110,000:

A notable demographic feature of the city is the large number of “overseas Chinese” who emigrated to Southeast Asia, the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world. Since the 1980s many of them returned and resettled in and around Guangzhou. Another phenomenon that emerged since the 1980s is the presence of a large transient population of workers from other provinces or even overseas. These workers temporarily reside in the Guangzhou area to work in factories or at other jobs before returning to their home regions.

Location of Guangzhou
Topo map of China

Tropic of Cancer Series: Aggregated from Britannica, Google, Digital Maps of the Ancient World, Vintage Maps.