Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong Province and is a major city and port in the Pearl River Delta. It has a population of over 2.7 million and a long history as a center of trading and commerce.
Guangzhou was founded around 214BC during the reign of First Emperor Qin Shihuang (221-210BC). When Silk Road merchants started transporting their goods by sea, Guangzhou’s location on the South China Sea was ideal. It enabled traders from east Asia and beyond to bring their wares into China. Arab merchants successfully traded with China through Guangzhou and one of the first mosques in China was built here in the 7th century. In the 16th century, Portugal began trading with Guangzhou from Macau but by the mid 18th century other European nations led by Britain dominated commerce in the region.
From the late 18th to mid 19th century Guangzhou was the only port in China allowed to trade with the rest of the world. Guangzhou’s foreign merchants set up trading houses on Shamian Island but found little market for their goods in China and great demand for Chinese tea at homes. The British East India Company started selling opium, conveniently grown in a nearby colony, to China. Soon British companies began to reap fortunes from trading in opium. The Chinese authorities’ first attempts to halt the trade ended in defeat during the 1st Opium War (1840-1842). This led to the leasing of Hong Kong Island and the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which opened new "treaty ports" to foreign trade. Subsequently, Guangzhou lost its domination over the outside world’s trade with China and its fortunes went into decline.
Far from the scrutiny of Beijing, during the early 20th century Guangzhou was a center for revolutionaries dissatisfied with the rule of the Manchu emperors. In 1911 Guangdong native, Sun Yatsen became the first president of republican China. During the alliance between the Kuomintang and the Communists in the 20s, Guangzhou’s Peasant Training Institute, whose lecturers included Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, sent young idealists out into the countryside to educate their compatriots. The Communists tried to overthrow the Nationalists in Guangzhou in the December 1927 uprising but failed and the 5,000 who were killed are commemorated in the city’s Martyrs Memorial Garden.
In the 80s as China’s economic reforms took hold, Guangzhou resumed its role as a key city for trade with the outside world and has taken to modernization with a vengeance. The maze of highways are congested, new buildings are crowded together but Guangzhou has a vigorous, if at times overwhelming, energy and drive.
The city is at its busiest during the biannual Canton Fair, which is the largest trade fair in China. If the metropolis becomes too much, you can escape to the 19th century avenues of Shamian Island, the green expanse of Yuexiu Park or visit historic memorials in landscaped gardens.