As one of the most popular and modern cities in China in which to do business, it's easy to forget that Guangzhou is an ancient metropolis with a long and fascinating history. So when the opportunity occurs, take time to delve a little deeper to uncover some of Guangzhou's glorious past.

Here are eight things you might not know about this famous city.

1.Over 2,000 years ago, Guangzhou was part of the Nanyue Kingdom, independent from the rest of China. When the ruler, Zhao Mei died, he went to his grave with several servants and guardians, four concubines, and some sheep and cows. All were buried alive to accompany the king to the next world. Zhao Mei's burial suit was made of more than 2,000 small plaques of jade fastened together with silk ribbons. Jade was often used at this time for funeral attire as it was believed to prevent the body from decaying. Along with the burial suit, over a thousand artefacts, including gold seals, jade ornaments, pottery and bronze vessels which were buried with him for use in the next world, can be viewed in the Nanyuewang Museum at 867 Jiefang Beilu.

2.The Pearl River was once so wide that the Arab merchants, who arrived in the Tang dynasty (618-906AD), could sail right up to the minaret on Guanta Lu, guided by a beacon on the top. They would then go into the Huaisheng Mosque next door, one of the oldest in China built about AD850, to give thanks for a safe journey. The mosque, which is now well inland due to the river silting up over the centuries, is still in use today by the many followers of Islam in the city.

Some of these early Arab traders settled in Guangzhou and lived in the fanfang, the foreign quarter, near the West Gate, Ximen Kou (now the name of a Metro station). Several street names in the fanfang still describe their original use, like Tianshuixiang (Sweet Water Lane), and Manaoxiang (Agate Lane).

3.Canton was the old name for Guangzhou. When early foreign visitors and map makers arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries, they had wrongly taken the Chinese name for the province, Guangdong (Canton), for that of the city. It reverted to its proper name, Guangzhou, in the 1980s.

4.Like many cities, towns and villages in China, a high wall was built around Guangzhou to keep invaders and wild animals out. Built in the 10th century, the wall was about six miles (10km) all round, with many gates in the wall, which were locked at night. A watchtower, Zhenhai Lou, or 'Sea-calming' tower, was built at the highest point during the Ming Dynasty in 1380.

The walls were Demolished in 1921 but it is possible to see a section remaining in Yuexiu Park, next to what was the watchtower. This is now home to the Guangzhou History Museum, and well worth a visit.

5.The Canton factories, subject of many paintings, were nothing like factories of today. These 13 classical European style buildings fronting onto the river, were occupied by traders from Britain, Denmark, France, Sweden, the USA, and other countries, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thirteen Hong Street, which ran behind the factories, or hongs, still retains its old name, in Chinese, Shisanhang Lu. On the ground floor were offices and storerooms for chests of tea, bales of silk, and crates of porcelain, while upstairs was accommodation for the traders. The English factory was most luxurious. Here the British traders lived very comfortably indeed with their well-stocked library and billiard-room. At one end of the dining room was a life-size oil painting of King George IV. Huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling, reflected in the polished mahogany table and silver plate. The factories burned
down in 1856 during the Second China War, and today the Wenhua Cultural Park stands on the old site.

6.Facing the factories, on the opposite shore of the Pearl River is the district of Haizhu. This corner of the island, once called Honam, became an important part of Guangzhou in the mid 19th century. By then, the West's demand for Chinese teas was so great that warehouses were built here along the shoreline where huge quantities of tea were stored before shipping to Britain and the USA. Some are still standing on the corner of Tongfu Xilu and Zhoutou Lu, used as godowns and a bar, but may not be there for much longer due to rapid developments in the area.

7.Also on the opposite shore is Huadi, which means flower garden. Here were numerous nurseries, many growing jasmine to flavour the teas which were exported the West. Huadi was also a popular place for a day out, and many Chinese families and Western merchants would cross by sampan and spend a pleasant time strolling and picnicking in the little arbours set up to serve refreshments. The only thing that now remains of those nurseries is the large flower and tropical fish market, Bai Nan Hao Jia Ju.

8.Fronting onto the Pearl River, the island of Shamian was once an anchorage for thousands of boat people. Formed from a sandbar, which gave it its name, Shamian was given to the British community in 1859 to compensate for property destroyed in the Second China War. A granite wall surrounded the artificial island, and stately mansions were built for companies and Consulates. Early residents planted fruit trees that were full of singing birds - wild pigeons, doves, thrushes and blackbirds. Leafy avenues of banyan trees encircle and bisect it through the centre.

This exclusive European enclave was linked to the mainland by two bridges, the English bridge to the north guarded by Sikhs, and the French bridge to the east guarded by Annamite French troops. Gates on the bridges were closed after an evening curfew. At this point all Chinese, except for the servants, must be off the island. Shamian is now a Heritage site and the old buildings are protected from further development.

廣州城中八典故
Eight Things You Might not Know About Guangzhou

photo & text by Valery Garrett