One river, one city

BY :lifeofguangzhou.com

UPDATED :June 16, 2017


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People live by the water and cities are built alongside the water. In olden days, all cities were built on the water. Without water, human beings would not exist.
Guangzhou is that kind of water city. In 214 BC, armies of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC) established Panyu Town, a village of about 0.4 square kilometers. The town was the origin of today's Guangzhou. Close to the south gate of the town flowed a big river, seemingly as wide as the sea. After 2,230 years, Guangzhou has grown to a city 2,500 times as big as that little village was, but the center of the city has been unchanged, just as the flow of the river is constant.

Mount Maxiong, about 60 kilometers north of the Zhanyi District of Qujing City, Yunnan Province, has a humble cave in a foothill that is covered with Yunnan pines. A small stream pouring out of the cave flows to the east and to the south, absorbing the waters alongside and becoming more and more vast, forming a river network that reaches what we call the Pearl River Delta. It then empties into the South China Sea through the Humen, Jiaomen, Hongqimen, and Hengmen estuaries on the east and the Modaomen, Jitimen, Hutiaomen and Yamen estuaries on the west.  
The 2,214-kilometer river formed by converging little streams ranks fourth in China in terms of both its length and basin area, but it is not until "she" reaches Guangzhou that a name came to mind for her.     
That's how the Pearl River got her name.
The Pearl River has nourished far more than the city of Guangzhou. Numerous famous cities are distributed alongside the river which actually consists of the East River, the West River, the North River and other rivers of the delta. It is due to the Haizhu Stone that people deem the Pearl River as Guangzhou and vice versa, just as the Huangpu River symbolizes Shanghai.
People of Guangzhou could barely exist without the Pearl River. She is like the age-old banyan tree on Shamian Island, the moonlight on White Swan Lake, tipsy feelings on the Party Pier, and the soldier's discipline on Changzhou Island. They all are integral to the river and the city, just like runners on the riverside, nighttime singers on Ersha Island, kids having fun in dragon-boat races, and tourists crossing the river on water buses. It is due to the river that a rich, water-oriented cultural landscape has developed, connecting a whole system brooks, canals and waterways. Private gardens throughout Haizhu District, Liwan District and Panyu District take full advantage of the many tributaries of the river. The masterwork, "Six Vein Drainage," built in the Song Dynasty cleverly utilizes the geography of the Pearl River and the theories of body meridians of traditional Chinese medicine. What's more, the "Dan people" (boat dwellers) who make the river their home also have exerted great influence on the modern history of China.   
The main stream of the Pearl River, with its great depth and width, is a golden waterway from the perspective of shipping. It has a symbiotic relationship with Guangzhou's status as a commercial center for more than 2,000 years. Traveling along the front course of the Pearl River from White Swan Lake, you will find the first foreign-funded hotel, the White Swan Hotel. You also can walk along Zhen'an Road and Renji Road, which had defined the core areas allocated to the Thirteen Hongs (factories) of the Qing Dynasty. At the same time, you can see the Post Office Museum and Guangdong Customs Office Mansion on Yanjiang Road West. You can find the Couper Dock on Changzhou Island, which bred the first generation of industrial workers in China. All of the above are relics of the area's commercial culture. Stepping forward, you will arrive at the Humen Fort, the Tianhou Pagoda and the lighthouses on the Shanban Islet, which are unique symbols of the Maritime Silk Road in ancient China.
The Pearl River Delta is the product of the interactions between the Pearl River and the waves from the South China Sea. These two forces — one going outward, the other inward — leave sediment and scour the river bottom at the same time. This might explain why cities located in the delta, such as Guangzhou, have characteristics of contradictory unity. On one hand, a number of outstanding traditional cultural treasures have spread through the Pearl River watercourse area, including the belief of Tian Hou (the guardian of the sea), southern styles of martial arts, the Guangdong opera and music movements, and various examples of craftsmanship and fine arts. On the other hand, the Pearl River has brought these cities brand-new nutrients for urban development from abroad, including science, art and religion. It wouldn't be too difficult for us to imagine images created by the frequent interchanges between the oriental and the occidental cultures in the early times, ranging from ancient Huangpu Harbour to the Temple of the South China Sea God, from the five temple complexes to Shishi Sacred Heart Cathedral, from Huaisheng Mosque to old villas in the Guigang area, as well as the Xin He Pu historical district. Similarly, it is easy to understand where the inspiration for early oil paintings and other art works collected by local museums came from.

Professor Ji Xianlin, a well-known great master in cultural studies, says, "There are several climaxes of cross-cultural communication during the 5,000 years of the history of China. The last and the most important one is the introduction of western culture, which started in the transitional period of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty in Macau." At that time, occidental missionaries, represented by the Italian, Matteo Ricci, reached Guangdong through Macau and progressively spread the occidental culture throughout China, setting off an upsurge of Western learning in the East. At the same time, as a consequence of these missionaries picking up culture from China and other Oriental sources, an expansion of Eastern learning in the West had been ignited. These two trends lasted for over 300 years, from the 1500s to the 1800s. Moreover, the Pearl River was one of the main communication channels of culture at that time.
The number of students traveling abroad and gold-diggers journeying overseas through Guangzhou Port in more recent history is extremely impressive. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, when the nation still considered traveling overseas as a perilous undertaking, the upswing of young people going abroad for further study was kindled here. The Pearl River and the South China Sea have brought significant mindsets to Guangzhou, which has resulted in people not always being content with staying where we are. Nevertheless, we find that ancient villages with intricate networks of waterways have maintained a large number of ancestral halls that are time-honored and have been well-renovated. Moreover, traditional ethics and etiquette, as well as social conventions and prevailing customs, are still considered as the governing criteria by youngsters, showing that we are attached to our native land and unwilling to leave it all behind. This may also be related to our drifting afloat from place to place as Guangzhou natives move around the world.
Huang Weizong, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University and president of the Culture Society of the Pearl River in Guangdong Province, points out that the preponderance of Pearl River culture has constantly been reinforced. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (BC 156-BC 87) sent the head of royal interpreters to depart from Xuwen and Hepu towards the Indian Ocean, officially developing the Maritime Silk Road and continually transporting special local products and Eastern cultivations — including silk, ceramics and tea — to the West. The overseas route from Guangzhou in the Tang Dynasty has a full range of 14,000 kilometers, going through more than 30 countries and regions along the way and reaching into East Africa and Europe. During the Song Dynasty, the number of countries and regions having trade relations with Guangzhou reached over 50, and that number increased to over 140 in Yuan Dynasty. When it came to the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, the commercial intercourse routes starting from Guangzhou had gone global. The South China Sea surrounds the Pearl River region and the eight estuaries of the Pearl River, as well as its neighboring rivers, all flow into the South China Sea. Therefore, from the perspective of waters and regions, the Pearl River and the South China Sea are an organic-whole and, from the perspective of culture, these two bodies of water communicate with each other and are linked together.   
The spirit of the Pearl River is enterprising, compatible, pro-business and open. Kwon-glazed porcelain, traditional Cantonese wooden sailboats, Canton embroidery, Cantonese cuisine, Cantonese opera and the works of the Lingnan school of painting are all generated under the integration of the above spirit. Tremendous cultural masters who surpassed the traditional direction and continuously improved themselves have continuously emerged in this land. For example, Master Huineng innovated the practices of Chan Buddhism; Chen Xianzhang had the courage to break the monopoly of the Studies of Zhuzi (Neo-Confucianism, a philosophy established by Zhu Xi in Song Dynasty); Dr. Sun Yat-sen led the bourgeois democratic revolution, which overthrew the monarchy. Guangzhou, on the frontier of China's reform and opening-up, has spearheaded a series of explorations and innovations over the past three decades, whose significant impact can be seen by everyone.  
In August 2016, the Ninth Plenary Session of the Tenth Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China in Guangzhou was convened. The meeting broke the conventional thread of spatial planning of the city and put forward a spatial structure that relied on the natural veins and took the waterways of the Pearl River as the cardinal line. With this, the significance of the Pearl River in Guangzhou has been further highlighted. According to the idea of optimizing and improving "One River, Two Sides of the River and Three Areas," Guangzhou would build up three junctions and a new city, giving priority to constructing a well-developed Pearl River for a range of 30 kilometers from west to east. This might help us imagine a much more magnificent future for the Pearl River.