At first, the sound of Tianjin as one of China’s four municipalities – that is, a city so large and important it has no provincial governing body – does not seduce a whole lot of interest from the average traveler. The city may be one of China’s richest, it may be a centuries-old port city, and it may may have a pretty riverfront that seems to grow better-looking skyscrapers by the day. But what really makes Tianjin special in most people’s eyes is its European flavor. In fact, when its roaring economy and glitzy, cosmopolitan ambitions are taken together with the swaggering old foreign concessions and their Italian architecture, Tianjin evokes a bit of the spirit of Shanghai. Perhaps equally impressive to those traveling China’s northern ambit, this sparkling port city is hardly a half-hour train ride from Beijing.
Tianjin, formerly known as Zhigu, or Straight Port, was established during the Sui Dynasty (581 – 618 CE) with the opening of the Grand Canal that connected (and still connects) northern and southern China. However, the marshy land at the mouth of the Yellow River only really blossomed when Beijing anchored itself as the country’s center of power during the Yuan Dynasty (1260 – 1368).
The subsequent Ming Dynasty saw Emperor Yongle change the name of the city to Tianjin, or Heavenly Ford, in 1401, and by 1725 the city was promoted to a prefecture by the reigning Qing. After the British and French victories of the First and Second Opium Wars, China’s reluctant signing of the Unequal Treaties opened Tianjin and several other Mainland cities up to foreign trade.
These treaties also granted concessions to a number of European powers – notably Italy, Germany, France and Britain – in several cities around the country, including Shanghai, Qingdao, Hong Kong and Tianjin. Each concession was a virtual self-contained autonomous city, complete with its own schools, prison, barracks, police force and government.
Conceded land was eventually returned to China over the course of the 20th century, and today these former European mini-colonies add a unique zest to a city already boasting an alluring flavor.
Tianjin is largely a business city, and that means that it still holds a particularly internation vibe today. A multitude of international businesses call the city home, and the resulting fruitfulness of the economy has attracted its fair share of Fortune 500 companies from across the globe.
The city’s close proximity to Beijing has led many to assume that the city is an extension of the Chinese capital. While this in some ways may be true, Tianjin does have its own, unique culture. Urbanites from Tianjin speak a local dialect of Mandarin, which is quite distinguishable from Beijinghua (the Beijing dialect) and its heavy use of the “er” (儿) sound.
One peculiarity that the city does share with Beijing is xiangsheng (相声; crosstalk), a form of Chinese standup comedy that often involves one or two comedians on stage. Xiangsheng is known to use props, loud body language and various puns, which are often comically condescending, boisterous and dirty.
Green Willows (Yángliǔqīng;杨柳青) – a town about 15 km (9.5 mi) west of Tianjin’s urban area and the government seat of Tianjin’s Xiqing District (Xīqīng Qū;西青区) – is famous for its traditional Yangliuqing bright wash paintings (Yángliǔqīng Niánhuà;杨柳青年画). The municipality is also known for Zhang’s clay figurines (Nírén Zhāng;泥人张), small and colorful statuettes depicting diverse and vivid characters. Keep these two in mind when souvenir shopping, as they definitely make for a more original and authentic keepsake than some of the kitsch items you’ll find around other cities in China.