The Once & Future City: Dongguan’s Influence on the Pearl River Delta

0514_FeatureDongguan stands as one of Guangdong’s most prosperous cities, its influence at one point spread out across an area almost three times its current size. More than 1,000 years ago, Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Zhongshan and parts of Guangzhou were under Dongguan’s jurisdiction. It’s a history that can’t be forgotten and has had lasting effects.

As a political, cultural and economic center, Dongguan secured for a long time a leading position in China’s southern tip. Although these long-emancipated offspring have flourished on their own, they couldn’t have achieved their bounding success without the nurturing influence of Dongguan. Historic sites, some significant, others more trivial, still carry the influence from the bygone era, and make for a pretty decent day trip.

Dongguan was established in 757 A.D. based in the county named Bao’an, which had existed since 331. The capital of this ancient county also moved from Shenzhen’s Nantou area to Guancheng, emphasizing the importance of Dongguan. Today, Bao’an in name still exists as a western district of Shenzhen.

As time went on, Dongguan’s territory diminished three times, as outlying regions grew in population and economic independence, before it settled in 1985 into the city we know today.

Zhongshan, Zhuhai and Macau were the first to separate from Dongguan, taking the name Xiangshan County in 1152 for the layered fragrances of Zhongshan’s Wugui Mountains.

Shenzhen and Hong Kong separated in 1573, setting up a new county named Xin’an. Nowadays, the cities’ populations include over 5 million Hakka people, who mostly moved in between the years 1700 to 1750 due to policies of the Qing government to repopulate the area after the “Great Evacuation” of 1661 and 1662. Guangdong’s coastal areas had been strategically abandoned in defense against a Ming Dynasty loyalist movement coming from Taiwan. It meant that Xin’an County was abolished and remerged with Dongguan until 1669 when the order was lifted.

Guangzhou’s Nansha District, important to the income of an imperial Confucius Academy belonging to powerful Dongguan tycoons, remained a part of Dongguan the longest. Lasting until 1953, it changed when the Communist Party took power and re-arranged administrative divisions.

Hong Kong (757-1573): Son Lost to War

Remnants of the South Gate of Kowloon Walled City,  built in 1847 as a military outpost to reinforce the coastal defence of the region. It was discovered by archaeologists in 1987 during the course of demolishing the modern buildings of the infamous complex. (Credit: Underbar dk)

Remnants of the South Gate of Kowloon Walled City, built in 1847 as a military outpost to reinforce the coastal defence of the region. It was discovered by archaeologists in 1987 during the course of demolishing the modern buildings of the infamous complex. (Credit: Underbar dk)

The confiscation and destruction of smuggled opium in Humen Town, executed on order of Guangdong Governor Lin Zexu, triggered the First Opium War and eventually resulted in the colonization of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s current economic achievement wouldn’t have been realized without this event that took place in Dongguan. Hong Kong has the most dramatic connection with Dongguan, who ruled over the region for over 800 years and lead to its modern success.

Another obvious connection between the two cities is the name, Hong Kong. There are a few versions surrounding the origin story of Xiāng Gǎng, the “fragrant harbor.” The best known among them, tells of Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbor and how it was an important port for the export of “Guan” incense, a product of premium agar wood grown in Dongguan, the same that gifted its name to the city and that had been exported to the Middle East since 1368. Hence the place was first named “fragrant harbor” then referring to the whole area.

As time moved on, British Hong Kong annexed the New Territories from the mainland. That meant that the Legendary Walled City of Kowloon was overtaken from the government of the Qing Dynasty. Once the most densely populated place on Earth, the South Gate of the area originally built as an outpost for salt traders, and then a military fort for observing British troops, still stands today. The rest was demolished in 1993.Ignored by both British and Chinese officials, the self sufficient community of over 30,000 resided in an area of only 2.6 hectares and was a haven for criminal activity.

 Nansha (757-1951): An Education fundraiser


On a sunny winter afternoon, farmers from Xinken Town, Nansha District, Guangzhou, finish a day’s work of digging out lotus roots by carrying them to their trucks. (Credit: CFP Agency)

For almost 1,000 years, the small island district of Nansha belong to Dongguan with little significance. Until, at the end of 18th century, river silt, carried and accumulating around Nansha by the rushing waters of the Pearl River, made it a valued commodity for the wealthy tycoons. Four of them in particular, recognized the opportunity and managed to gain possession of the new land under the name of the Minglun Tang Confucius School through a lawsuit with the before mentioned Xiangshan County.

With over 46 sq. kilometers of fertile farmland, Minglun Tang differentiated itself from other counties’ Confucius schools by its abundant wealth, enabling the school to support, in large part, the construction of public schools for Dongguan during the 19th and 20th centuries. The 112-year-old Dongguan Middle School in Guancheng still stands as a testament to the time that Nansha paid homage to the city. As the Communist Party took over in the 1950s, Minglun Tang was dismissed and its land was taken over by the central government.

Shenzhen (757-1573): Heart of the Past

The east gate of Nantou Ancient Town, the capital of Bao’an (former Dongguan) since 331 A.D. and later the capital of Xin’an (Shenzhen and Hong Kong) after 1573. The current site was built in 1394. (Credit: CFP Agency)

The east gate of Nantou Ancient Town, the capital of Bao’an (former Dongguan) since 331 A.D. and later the capital of Xin’an (Shenzhen and Hong Kong) after 1573. The current site was built in 1394. (Credit: CFP Agency)

Dongguan County was first established in 757, before that the area was Bao’an. Holding over from that time, Nantou was Dongguan’s capital for over 400 years. When Xin’an County split from Dongguan in 1573, Nantou remained the capitol under its new borders. It stayed that way until 1953, when the Kowloon-Canton Railway brought prosperity to Dongmen, and the seat of power moved there as well.

Shenzhen’s Nantou Ancient Town, a popular tourist destination, is based on town plans preserved from 1394, a time when the area belong to none other than Dongguan, including eight streets and buildings such as the Xin’an government office, the Xin’an prison, coastal defense headquarters, a few shops, and Taoist and family temples.

Walking through the torn yellow sand-brick alleys, it’s hard to imagine that the heart of a region with over 1,300 years of history still beats in the fast-developing metropolis of Shenzhen.


Zhongshan (757-1152): A Man and His History

A shared connection between Zhongshan and Dongguan link the cities to the famous revolutionary, founding father and first president of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Dr. Sun was born and grew up in a peaceful village in Zhongshan, but his ancestors had lived in Chang’an for three generations before moving there. A museum built to commemorate the hero was built in Chang’an’s Shangsha Village, and the Sun Clan Temple has been renovated. It is one of only a few old family temples that remain in the village.

0514_Feature_ZhongshanThe Museum of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in Zhongshan is a national key cultural heritage site and one of the patriotic educational bases. It preserves Sun’s old two-story house and showcases many of his hand written letters, photos and used artifacts, revealing Sun’s childhood and teenage life. Nearly two dozen museums have been created among all the locations Sun had dwelled, including Guangzhou, Beijing, Nanjing, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. In fact, the great man’s impact to Zhongshan is so tremendous that the city was renamed after him (his mandarin name is Sun Zhongshan) in 1925 when he perished.

Zhuhai (757-1152): The Resources of the Trail

0514_Feature_ZhuhaiThe area of Zhuhai while under the reign of Dongguan, for a long time was underdeveloped. Its small population made a living as fishermen up until the end of the 10th century. That was when a sea salt industry took off, followed by the discovery of a silver mine, two of ancient China’s most essential resources. And this economic life blood had to flow up the Pearl River to the center of Dongguan before it could be distributed to Guangzhou and other places within the county.

This, unfortunately, opened the shipments to the risk of robbery and bandits upon the journey. The aggravation, bolstered by new wealth, compelled the formation of a new county equal in level with Dongguan. And in 1152, Zhongshan, Macau, Panyu and Shunde, ducking the authority of Dongguan, formed Xiangshan County.

The thriving industries lasted for over 600 hundred years, bringing sufficient wealth to the Zhuhai people. Nowadays, little record and few sites are left to reveal the glory days of its past, but a look at the Fenghuang Mountain, the biggest mountain in Zhuhai and the location of the ancient silver mine, provides a moment’s thought into the city’s history.

The mountain was once the only path to Macau and still has some historic relics, such as the Daguan Bridge and stunning cliff inscriptions. Starting from a Humen encampment in 1277, the last of the Song Dynasty imperial family retreated to Macau from encroaching soldiers of the Yuan Dynasty through the Fenghuang Mountain. The officials of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) also passed through the mountain for inspection visits to Macau.

Macau (757-1152): Melting Pot of the West and East

0514_Feature_MacauThe city of excess that is now called Macau is rarely mentioned in the annals of Chinese history before it was colonized by Portugal in 1557. But one thing is for sure, on the southwest tip of the Macau Peninsula existed a temple dedicated to the goddess of seafarers and fishermen.

Those fishermen moved down the coast bringing their beliefs with them when they settled in the Macau of ancient Dongguan County. Eventually they built the A-Ma Temple, by most accounts, in 1488 and gifted the modern mandarin name, Àomén, and, as it came to be known in international circles, Macau. That name was derived from the old Cantonese, Ma Gok, when the Portuguese first landed in the area and were told the name by local fisherman.

Throughout history, Macau has nurtured a unique cultural exchange as an important gateway for Western civilization to enter China. In 2005 the Historic Center of Macau including a collection of 22 historic buildings was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Walking alone along the old streets of Macau inspires the feeling of travelling back in time to the colonial times with the distinctive blue-and-white-tiled signs in Chinese and Portuguese to direct pedestrians through brick-paved streets.


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