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  • Chinese/Japanese: 廣州 (Guǎngzhōu / Koushuu)

Guangzhou, historically known in English as Canton, is a major port city in southern China, and was from the 18th-19th centuries the chief port where Westerners - in particular the British East India Company - engaged in trade in China.


The name Canton derives from an Anglicized, or European, pronunciation & spelling of Guangdong, the province within which Guangzhou is located.


The site was an active port town as early as the 9th century. It is said that at that time, more than half of the 200,000 residents of Guangzhou were Jewish, Arab, Persian, and Indian traders.[1]

While Xiamen emerged in the late 16th century as the chief port where Chinese merchants trading in Southeast Asia were based, official tribute ships sent by Southeast Asian courts as part of formal diplomatic relations made port at Guangzhou. Such ships were typically piloted by Chinese navigators.[2]

While the Portuguese were restricted to Macao, the Dutch East India Company and later, from 1699 the British East India Company, came to trade at Canton. In the 17th century, policies and patterns of trade developed into what has come to be known as the "Canton system." The British, the Americans (from 1784 onward), and certain other Western powers were only permitted to trade at Canton, not at other ports, and furthermore, as of a 1759 Imperial decree, had to do so through designated guild merchants, who could serve to help guarantee the Westerners' good behavior and regular payment of fees.[3] Further, the Qing Court placed restrictions on the types and quantities of goods to be traded, the times of year trade could take place, etc.

The Westerners were not permitted to enter the city of Guangzhou proper, but were given land along the river, outside the city, where they then established small settlements and factories.[4] Foreigners were not allowed to bring their wives or other girls/women to the settlements at Canton,[5] were subject to Chinese law (i.e. they did not enjoy extraterritoriality), and had to contend with powerful competing Chinese merchant guilds. Only some thirteen Chinese merchant houses were permitted by the Qing authorities to trade with Westerners; dominating the trade in tea, porcelains, silks, and other goods being sold to foreigners, they gained extraordinary wealth.[6] Western ships anchored at Whampoa (C: Huangpu), a small island some ten miles south of Canton proper; this is where ships loaded and unloaded and where crews were able to take up lodgings while the captains and commercial agents resided at the factories.[7] The Westerners were also limited to a four-month trading season each year.[5]

It was through this trade that Britain and the other powers were able to obtain tea, silk, and porcelain to meet growing demand at home and in the colonies. They paid for these luxury goods chiefly in silver and gold, as Chinese merchants and authorities insisted they had little interest in English products such as wool.

Finding the Chinese regulations obnoxiously restrictive, the British send their first formal diplomatic embassy in 1793, headed by George Lord Macartney, in the hopes of securing more amenable trading conditions, including the opening of additional ports, the establishment of a formal embassy in Beijing, and certainly agreements on the level of tariffs. However, the embassy was ultimately a failure, and the British remained restricted to Canton.

By the 19th century, the British had managed to replace payments in silver and gold with the importation of opium. Efforts in 1838-1840 by local Canton authorities, headed by Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu, to stem the flow of opium led to the outbreak of the Opium War (1840-1842), in which China suffered a humiliating defeat, and was forced to agree to a number of concessions, including opening up more ports to trade, granting extraterritoriality to Westerners in those ports, and ceding Hong Kong entirely to the United Kingdom.


  • Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 118-119.
  1. Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures, vol. B, Bedford/St. Martins, 2012. p393.
  2. Craig Lockard, “‘The Sea Common to All’: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, Ca. 1400–1750.” Journal of World History 21, no. 2 (2010): 225.
  3. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 504.
  4. That is, in the pre-industrial meaning of the word "factory," referring to a base of operations for managing trade activities, headed by a factor - not a center of production, as in the industrial meaning.
  5. 5.0 5.1 On occasion, women snuck into Canton; when discovered, local officials often threatened to shut down trade entirely until the women left the city. "From Salem ... To China," gallery labels, Peabody Essex Museum.[1]
  6. Gallery labels, Peabody Essex Museum.[2]
  7. Gallery labels, "View of Whampoa," Peabody-Essex Museum.[3]