Sunday, 24 August 2014

Late Imperial Guangzhou 广州 or "Canton", its gardens and temples. Part 1, Introduction

Map of Guangzhou in 1860. Source:

Guangzhou 广州, also known as Canton, is the capital of Guangdong province, situated in the south-east part of China. It is also the third Chinese city, behind Shanghai and Beijing. Its unique location on the Pearl River is the origin of its wealth, linked with the nearby Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is generally believed that the city was inhabited before the Zhou dynasty (1046 - 256 BC).

Guangzhou has long been a harbour of international importance: the Muslin Arab merchants anchored there under the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and Western merchants began arriving in the sixteenth century. It continues today to overflow with Hong Kongese, Chinese, and foreign people of all origins, gathering to trade tea, porcelain, silk and more modern goods.

In the past, the trade between China and other countries underwent periods of disruption, but even when most of the Chinese harbours were closed to foreign merchants, Guangzhou often remained an exception. This is the reason why foreign accounts of China before the twentieth century always mention Canton; but this interest started to fade after new ports were opened to trade.
For a few posts I will embark on a trip through Guangzhou's 19th century lanes, and explore the gardens and temples which were part of this energetic city.

The late nineteenth century Guangzhou had many faces; its diverse population made for a contrasted city. This flourishing port was home to a diverse population: Manchu Bannermen, Han Chinese both local and sojourning, Hakka, Tanka people forbidden to live on shore, Foreigners (Arabs, Westerners), and many more. Their repartition in the city had an impact on urbanisation and created a unique pattern.

In 1900, Guangzhou was still under Manchu domination even though the Qing Dynasty was shaking, and the organisation of the city has not changed yet. When the Manchu first entered Canton the 24 November 1650, it was already the third largest city of China (after Beijing and Hangzhou[1]). A wall protected the heart of Guangzhou, last improved under Ming Dynasty in a 10 km belt circling the Old and the New cities. The whole was situated on the north bank of the Pearl River, the Northernmost point marked by the still existing watchtower culminating at 300 metres above sea level. At the south the city did not reach the river. 
 Guangzhou map in 1910. W. & A. K. Johnston Limited - Hosea Ballou Morse (1910). The International Relations of the Chinese Empire. Volume 1. p. 118.

This walled city was still there in 1900; the separation between the two inner parts not yet faded. Its irregular shape is well understood while observing the map of 1910. The northern part (the Old City) was mostly reserved for Manchu and Mandarin Chinese, while commoners lived in the smaller New City in the south. The result from an aesthetic point of view was a contrasted organisation, with on one hand bigger units better arranged in the north part, and on the other hand smaller units less systematically built in the south part.  

Next post will focus on the Old City part of Guangzhou in the late Qing Dynasty period.

[1]  Garrett, V. M. (2002). Heaven is high, the emperor far away: merchants and mandarins in old Canton. New York: Oxford University Press. p.13.

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