A historical record – Heaven is High, the Emperor Far Away: Merchants and Mandarins in Old Canton

I read this book for my sojourn to Canton, Zhuhai via Macau from 2 to 6 Nov 2019. The city of Canton is nowadays seen more like a commercial centre and pales in comparison with the romance of Beijing’s forbidden splendour and the charm of Shanghai’s decadent past.

And yet, Canton boasts of history from the Qin dynasty onwards. Canton was formerly known as Pan Yu, named after two nearby hills, Pan and Yu. Foreign visitors wrongly called it Canton taken from the Chinese name for the province which was Guangdong / Canton.

In the 14th century, its population was almost 150,000 nearly equal to that of Beijing. By the early 19th century, its population was a million, the second-largest after Beijing.

All these facts can be gleaned from this excellent book by Garrett. She traces the history of Canton to the 20th century. There is also a chapter on Shamien, the foreign concession from the 1860s to the 1940s, from which the Chinese were excluded except for Chinese servants. Her research is impressive. The illustrations are many and mostly in colour.

This book will reveal the full glory of Canton to history buffs. Before Hong Kong there was Canton. With the ongoing riots in HK in 2019, history may well repeat itself and Canton reclaims its place at the top table.

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