Guangdong is one of China’s provinces. It is both the most populous province in China and the richest with a GDP that not only surpasses the more glamorous Shanghai but is also bigger than Turkey. Not bad…for a province.
Set on the southern coast of China around the Pearl River Delta the provincial capital is Guangzhou. Other major cities include Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Dongguan. Hong Kong and Macau have historically been part of Guangdong province and while both are now separate Special Administrative regions of China following their return from Britain and Portugal respectively, both cities remain very much part of the region culturally and part of Guangdong’s economic success.
‘It’s a long way to Beijing’ – a common saying on the streets and in the boardrooms of the province. Guangdong has long tread its own path both in culture and in politics. The province first came under the control of imperial China around 200AD but has historically been a centre for political debate and revolution. Guangdong has a long history of not doing what it’s told.
Back in the 16th century Guangdong was the first province to open up to foreign merchants and traders – picking up a nasty opium habit and getting on the wrong side of the Imperial government in the process.
It was also here that Dr Sun Yat Sen – the founder of modern China – was born and where his Kuomintang party –who brough about the end of Imperial China – were founded. In more recent times, Guangdong was where Deng Xiaoping – the leader of the Chinese Communist Party began the economic reforms that have driven the country forward. His open door policy was replicated on a national scale and has resulted in the state capitalist economy currently in place in China.
Mandarin vs Cantonese
Guangdong also remains distinct from China in its traditions and culture. This is the home of the Cantonese people who have their own language, cooking and celebrations.
Cantonese as a language remains the predominant lingua franca of Guangdong’s major cities and unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin. It’s a similar story with the Chinese alphabet. Guangdong uses traditional brushstrokes which can be difficult to decipher for those used to the simplified brushstrokes advocated by Beijing.
The use of the Cantonese is in decline in Guangdong due to the large number of immigrants from other provinces and pressure from Beijing for increased use of Mandarin for official purposes. Many of these Chinese communities you see abroad – including New York and san Fransisco – are mostly Cantonese and Cantonese speaking.
Cantonese is also more than just a language – it’s reflected in food and cooking and in festivals and celebrations.
Guangdong is said to be the best place in China to eat and the selection of food is simply fantastic. Seafood is common with freshness and simplicity prided. The Cantonese generally believe that fish should be killed minutes not months before hitting your table.
You can find out more in our guide to Cantonese cuisine.
What to See in Guangdong?
Being such an industrialised region, Guangdong’s major pull is its cities.
Hong KongWhile it might not technically be part of Guangdong, historically and in its heart Hong Kong remains the home of Cantonese culture. This city of gravity defying skyscrapers and bargain basement shopping is one of the true cities of the world.
GuangzhouThe provincial capital, Guangzhou is the Chinese dream built in concrete and steel. Its forest of skyscrapers are the measure of the city’s ambition and the crowds of migrants heading to work on the subway a testament to Guangzhou’s appeal to those looking to make a better life.
ZhongshanWhile Hong Kong may have his school and his church, Zhongshan is where Dr Sun Yat Sen was born and the museum at his birth place is a place of pilgrimage for fans of China’s founding father.
Mount DanxiaThese mountains in the north of the province are marked by their dusty red sandstone cliffs carpeted by thick forest. Now a UNESCO world heritage site there are several monastraries that can be visited in the mountains.
Getting to and around Guangdong
Hong Kong has one of the biggest airports in the world, although Guangzhou has an increasing number of international flights and – along with Shenzhen – is better for domestic connections.
Guangzhou is the best base for travelling around inland Guangdong with an extensive bus network while Hong Kong has ferries that connect with most of the major settlements around the Pearl River Delta.