A land of stunning natural beauty with some of China’s most unique culture, Guangdong, at the southeastern coast of the country, is one of China’s brightest gems.Today, the Pearl River Delta is one of China’s premier economic hubs, much to the credit of Macau and Hong Kong, but Guangdong’s capital Guangzhou had a big hand in that too. Take a trip up north for some of the region’s most untamed mountain- and waterfall-filled landscapes, or swing by the UNESCO-listed Kaiping watchtowers for a stunning glimpse of China’s most unique architectural medleys. Be sure to take in plenty of Cantonese culture along the way, and don’t forget about the pristine beaches and the mouth watering dim sum that that make this region so famous.
Administration over today’s Guangdong began during the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE). The Qin were the first to unify the multi-ethnic area under a centralized state and abolish the landowning lords governing the areas, and they also directly increased trade, agricultural output, and military control. In fact, it was Qin Shihuang – founder of the Qin Dynasty and first unifier of China – who commissioned the Nanhai Commandery post in Panyu (番禺) in present-day Guangzhou, which led to the city’s rise as the provincial capital.
After the fall of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century CE, the Guang Prefecture was created under the rule of the Wu Kingdom (229 – 280 CE), one of the trio of the Three Kingdoms period. The first Guang Prefecture was huge, which is connoted by the word guang, which mean “expanse” or “vast.”
Political instabilities and invasions in the north caused mass Han migrations into the Guangdong prefecture, swelling the population and leading the province to become a Han Chinese-dominated area.
A millenium later, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to settle in Guangdong when they arrived in the 16th century, a time that saw an increase in trade links to the outside world via the Straits of Malacca. The capital of Guangzhou (known in the West as Canton, a name coined by the Portuguese) served as the stomping grounds for Portuguese and British traders, but by the 19th century, foreign incursions and intervention in south China increased enormously.
During the 19th century, in what many Chinese refer to as the start of the turbulent Century of Humiliation (1840s – 1940s), numerous foreign powers began taking land from Chinese territories. It was during this period, right after the Opium Wars (1839 – 1842 and 1856 – 1860), that Great Britain annexed a piece of land in Guangdong known as Hong Kong, and Portugal incorporated the former Guangdong territory of Macau under their empire’s banner.
By the late 20th century, the province was booming thanks in part to Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Openess policy of 1978. Guangdong greatly benefited from its proximity to the ocean, its trade links with Hong Kong and Macau, and its historical links with overseas Chinese who had left Guangdong to live in other parts of Asia, Europe and North America. Shenzhen was chosen as Deng’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ), planting the seeds of capitalism in China, and the city proved to be such a tremendous success that other SEZs across the country modeled themselves off of it. Nowadays, Guangdong is one of the richest provinces in China.
Guangdong’s central regions are dominated by Cantonese speakers, but the economic boom during the past three decades has seen an influx of Mandarin-speaking immigrants, resulting in the decline of the number of Cantonese speakers. Though Mandarin is the official language in schools, Cantonese is still widely used around the province.
Cantonese is part of a branch of Chinese known as the Yue or Yueh (Yuèyǔ;粤语). Though widespread throughout Guangdong Province, Yue speakers are especially common in Hong Kong and Macau.