3. The Cantonese – The Mountain is High and the Emperor is Far Away
The Siyi (Szeyup) Counties – A Special Place
Canton (Guangzhou) is the capitol of Guangdong province, the home of the Cantonese people.
From 1760 to 1843 Canton was the only port open to trade with the West. Being the entry point for commercial intercourse with the West would have tremendous impact on this province. As trade developed, Guangdong began to develop a rudimentary market economy. A growing infrastructure developed to handle foreign trade, including the construction of new transportation facilities and development of local industries to meet export demands. Traditionally Guangdong was always considered a rich province because of its productive farmlands, abundant rainfall, an extensive river transportation system, a history of commercial activity and a reputation for academic achievement. With a monopoly on trade with the West, Guangdong further secured its status as a rich province. That status continues to this day. Guangdong has the highest GDP of any province in China.
The Cantonese are the most independent of all the Chinese. They are the natural rebels of China. “The mountain is high, and the emperor is far away,” the Cantonese like to say. It is a reminder that the central authority must travel a long and difficult road to reach Guangdong. The Cantonese think of themselves as the true Chinese, unlike the northerners that have been tainted by too close a contact with the barbarians that invaded from beyond the Great Wall. For the Cantonese, unlike the rest of China that considers the Yangtze Rive the dividing line, everything north of Guangzhou is “the North”.
Both Chinese and Western observers have noticed the special characteristics of the Cantonese.
Cantonese are worldly men of affairs, shrewd bargainers, knowledgeable in technology, frank in criticism, oriented to defending their own interest. They are quick, lively, and clever in catching on to new skills…
– Vogel, 1969
The Cantonese compared to people in other parts of China, were traditionally regarded as adventurous, progressive and combative people.
– Zo, 1971
These characteristics would prove very helpful as China responded to the new challenges from the West.
Located 50 miles from Guangzhou in the western part of the Pearl River Delta, Siyi (“Four Counties), comprised of Taishan (Toishan), Sunwui, Enping, and Kaiping (Hoiping) played a leading role in the emigration of the Chinese to America. Taishan was and is the most important county among the four with the largest population and land area, and by far the longest seacoast.
The Siyi counties are a beautiful part of Guangdong with rich river valleys and rolling hills that in places erupt into rugged mountains. The area is blessed with rich soil that supports two or three crops of rice a year. It is famous for the variety of fruits and vegetables grown there.
These four counties are the home counties of 80% of the pre-1965 Chinese emigrants to America. More than half came from Taishan alone. In China, Taishan is called the “Home of the Overseas Chinese”.
All the characteristics of the Cantonese people apply to the people from the Siyi counties, perhaps to even a more exaggerated degree. The one characteristic that best define the Siyi people is their stubbornness. They refuse to give up even when the situation appears hopeless.
They are heirs to a rich history of resistance. When the Mongols invaded China in 1271, they swept in from the north and forced the ruling Song Dynasty south. The Song Dynasty armies fought bravely but they were no match for the Mongol hordes. By the end of the decade, the imperial court had retreated to Siyi. It was in Siyi that the Song Dynasty would make its last stand.
In 1279, the Song naval forces suffered a devastating defeat at the battle of Yamen near Szeyup. The end was near. Vowing never to surrender to the barbarians, the prime minister of the Song dynasty, Lu Xiofu strapped the Song boy emperor to his back and leaped into the South China Sea near a seaport on the Taishan Sunwui county line.
With the death of the emperor, the Song forces, composed of many high ranking officials and military officers, disbanded and settled in Taishan, Sunwui, and the surrounding counties. The presence of the remnants of the Song Dynasty imperial court would have a strong influence on Siyi. Even today, many families with the surname Chew, Jew, and Jue claim descent from the Song royal line.
Siyi people have never forgotten the loyalty of Lu Xiofu, and a memorial has been erected to him in the western part of Taishan. Never give up became part of the history of the Siyi people.