Always a center of trade to outsiders, the city of Guangzhou was established during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). By the year 200 AD, Indians and Romans were coming to Guangzhou and in the next five-hundred years, trade grew with many neighbors far and near from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Europe Comes Knocking
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive buying Guangdong's silk and porcelain and in 1557 Macau was established as their base of operations in the area. After several attempts, the British also gained a foothold into Guangzhou and in 1685, China's Imperial Qing government gave in to the pesky foreigners seeking its wares and opened Guangzhou to the West. But trade was restricted to Guangzhou and the foreigners restricted to Shamian Island.
Ever Heard of Canton?
A quick aside about the name: the Europeans called the area Canton which came from the Portuguese transliteration of the Chinese regional name, Guangdong. Canton referred to the region and the city where the Europeans were forced to live and trade. Today "Guangdong" refers to the province and "Guangzhou" refers to the name of the city formerly known as Canton.
Annoyed by the trade imbalance, the British gained the upper hand over the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) by dumping opium on Guangzhou. The Chinese generated quite a habit for the stuff and by the nineteenth century, trade was heavily weighted against the Chinese. The British were feeding the Chinese addiction with cheap Indian opium and ferrying away silk, porcelain and tea.
First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking
A very large thorn in the Qing's paw, the imperial commissioner was ordered to eradicate the opium trade and in 1839, Chinese forces seized and destroyed 20,000 chests of the drug. The British didn't take this very well and soon the First Opium War was fought and won by Western forces. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. It was during these tumultuous times that thousands of Cantonese left home to seek their fortunes in the US, Canada, Southeast Asia, Australia and even South Africa.
In the twentieth century, Guangzhou was the seat of the Chinese Nationalist Party founded by Dr. Sun Yatsen. Dr. Sun, the first president of the Republic of China after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, was from a small village outside Guangzhou.
Guangzhou today is struggling to overcome its image as Hong Kong's little sister. An economic powerhouse in southern China, Guangzhou enjoys relative wealth compared with many other parts of China and is a bustling and vibrant city.