The “South” in Chinese History

By D. W. Y .Kwok



In Chinese cultural awareness, the “South” is a composite term which acquired complexities and layers of meaning as her cultural geography expanded with the movement of history. Some of these meanings and connotations may be noted for the purposes of this brief treatment of the subject.

First, north-to-south was from earliest Chinese history the principal orientation of any view of the south. Both cosmology and geography reinforce this view. While the North Polar Star serves as the guiding reference point of cosmic bearing, the Chinese compass has always been called “South-pointing needle (zinanzhen.) To the extent that early Chinese cosmology was intricately involved in conceptions and theories of kingship, often invoked to lend earthly rule cosmic sanction, the ruler on earth took on the position of the North Polar Star and was also known as the nanmianjun (south-facing ruler). The Classic of Change (Yi Jing) is a rich source for this topic. Facing south has become not only propitious in the celestial and terrestrial affairs of life itself, but also a position of enormous honor, often, in social situations, offered to the guest of honor.

Then again, tradition has it that there was a poem called the “South Wind” (Nanfeng, which may also be rendered as the “Air of the South”) attributed to Yu Shun. The lyric no longer exists, but by attribution, it is a poem of the humanizing influence of the Southwind, nurturing people’s sense of filiality and enriching their wealth of being.

“Yet, within this Central Kingdom, there are several souths as viewed from the north. The two major ones are Jiangnan and Lingnan.”

Not all connotations of the south in early lore, however, enjoyed cultural salubriousness. The notion of man, denoting barbarity, was reserved for inhabitants of the southern lands. Such a usage, in company of the yi or hu of the East, the di of the North, and the rong of the West, reflects the earlier-mentioned orientation of the five directions now coupled with cultural disposition regarding “self” and “others.” Thus, in a narrow sense, the center is occupied by the Han people, arrayed on four sides by the non-Han barbarians. In the larger sense, all these peoples, Han and non-Han together form Zhongguo, the Central Kingdom.

Yet, within the Central Kingdom, there are several souths as viewed from the north. The two major ones are Jiangnan and Liagnan. The first, “south of the river,” actually refers to the regions immediately north and south of the Yangzi river, the zone of transition from wheat to rice cultivation and of enormous cultural and commercial growth since the Ming-Qing period (fourteenth to nineteenth centuries) The North-South sectionalism which developed in the three and a half centuries (220-589) of division and disunion before the Tang period (seventh to tenth centuries) had produced a sense of the north as associated with nomadic incursions and warring conditions or conquest and battle, and one of the south as a reservoir of true Chinese culture. Moreover, the silken landscapes of the south, interlaced by numerous waterways, now coalesced with this sense of Chinese civilization. But this sense of the south, later on reinforced by the renewed sectionalism caused by the Northern Song and Southern Song division during the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, was that of Jiangnan, of such areas as the Grand Canal towns and West Lake environs.

The Lingnan south refers to lands “south of the Nanling Mountains” comprised principally of Guangdong Province and Guangxi autonomous area, home of the most intensive cultivation of the rice crop, fishery and marine industries, and China’s most cellular linguistic communities. To this general “South” may be added the area and people of Minnan, southern Fujian province on the southeastern coast of China which is separated from the rest of China by the Wuyi Mountains and whose language is related linguistically to the speech of eastern Guangdong. This is the home of settlers of Taiwan.


(Courtesy of lolani School Archives)

Panoramic view of Cui-heng (Choy-hung Village, birthplace of Sun). From Commemorating Sun Zhongshan.


The whole of the Lingnan area is home of the millions of Chinese who have become sojourners and settlers in mainland and island Southeast Asia, Australasia, North and South America, Hawaii, and the rest of Oceania. Their view of the South is naturally different from the northern prospect, if for no other reason than the fact that the history here is experienced and not viewed from the seat of power which, having brought the area into its administrative orbit, set policies for it throughout more than two thousand years of the imperial state and modern regimes.

“Put simply, China had entered a demographic change that was to outstrip any Confucian theory of the economic and fiscal management and organization of society.”

…Populous as early as the Tang dynasty, the southerners (especially the Cantonese) have always referred to themselves as the Tangren (People of the Tang). Canton in the early ninth century boasted a foreign population of a hundred thousand. Thus, while the northern regard of the south views it as frontier and culturally uncouth, it has always been the China of first contact for sea-borne, non-Chinese visitors and influences, as well as the home of the Chinese civilization abroad. This sea-borne influence dates to an antiquity at least co-eternal with the start of land-borne contact made famous by the silk trade in the first century B.C.

Being farthest from imperial grace or wrath, and the closest to the sea lanes of the western Pacific and South China Sea, the people of this area possess in addition to a habitual defiance of the north a liveliness of outlook and quickness of temper and wit commensurate with their advantageous geographical location. These traits, along with their shorter, lighter wirier build, contrast tellingly with the sturdy build, steady deportment and stoic temperament of the people of the north. From early centuries these southerners and northerners worked intensively as agriculturists over a land that is over sixty percent mountainous. This has meant an ecological approach to nature and its resources that over the centuries influenced Chinese mores, values, institutions and culture.

From the rice economy of the south to the cultivation of drought resistant crops in the north, the Chinese to this day practice intensive farming. With China’s perennial population density, which is highest in the Pearl River Delta, this intensive agriculture has accustomed the Chinese to the fullest use of human labor in the closest of human association for the utmost human advantage. Yet, at best, only a marginal living was possible during “good” years in the well-watered valleys of the Yellow, Yangzi, and Pearl Rivers. The view of nature and humans fostered from this experience contrasts distinctly with that of a variegated landscape. This view deals with the foibles of nature, fortuitous or calamitous, in intimate and personal terms. From the earliest of times, the Chinese learned to live within this landscape, not to alter or to command it.

It is a special characteristic of this south that from among this intensive agrarian population were to come some of China’s numerous and noteworthy seafaring personages of commerce and various enterprises. But, unlike their Western counterparts, these Chinese of Guangdong and Fujian traveled far not to “discover” other peoples and leave sagas of their voyaging adventures. Many of them left with intentions to return. There were reasons for departures and there were reasons for return.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Chinese had entered one of their great turning points within their own geohistorical paradigms of change. The alien Manchu dynasty had already enjoyed a hundred years of splendors of conquest and now faced, with no escaping, the inevitable and traditional downward sweep of the dynastic cycle – cyclical patterns of corruption, excessive taxation, natural disasters, rural unrest and banditry. For another 112 years to come, the Manchu rulers fitfully coped with these traditional causes and results of dynastic decline, without fully knowing some other fundamental factors which conspired to make the Qing the last of China’s dynasties.

Put simply, China had entered a dernographic change that was to outstrip any Confucian theory of the economic and fiscal management and organization of society. The population rose from 143 million in 1741 to 430 million in 1850, a rise of 200 percent, while cultivable land increased from 549 million mu (1 mu equalling 1/6 acre) in 1661 to 737 million in 1833, an increase of only 35 percent. On a new continent, a doubling or even tripling of the population over a century would be a boon to life, but not so in an old economy of essential self-sufficiency. That marginal balance between humans and nature, so preferred in philosophy and arduously maintained in tillage, now began to tilt increasingly toward personal and collective disaster.

The Pearl River Delta area had enjoyed during the Ming and high-Qing eras a long period of economic well-being. During the Ming especially, the economy of the area, while mostly agricultural, had seen great advances in porcelain and metal crafts, silk manufacture, pond fish industries, sugar growing and milling, and other activities. The region had also come to be tied to northern areas in a rich web of inter-regional trade through numerous river valleys that penetrated the Nanling Mountains. All such economic well-being however, was not blessed by official economic policies and in the end rested upon the sufficiency of agricultural production. Demographic changes now dislocated this base.

The woes of south China increased throughout the nineteenth century. The demographic imbalance made this part of China restless and prone to foreign covetousness. Great Britain, which had been knocking on Chinese doors for about a century seeking trade, now settled upon opium to enter the China market, for it was the only commodity that the Chinese would pay for. Every vice associated with opium now exacerbated other conditions afflicting South China. The war between Great Britain and China over opium (although British reasons referred to practices of law, state and commerce), far from settling the opium issue, actually multiplied the throes of hardships attendant to dynastic decline and pressure of population on land. The opening of five ports in the 1840s (eleven by the 1860s) shifted economic activities northward along the eastern seacoast, thus adversely affecting the livelihood of boatmen, carriers, transport workers, craftsman and the like who depended on the inland interregional trade. Such a dislodgement created a drifting population in the southern river valleys to mix with the soldiers who were not formally decommissioned and demobilized after the Opium Wars. This way, a restless and floating population became armed in their discontent.

The land, however, saw increasing activities of the secret societies, known in the north as jiao and in south as hui. They provided law, stability and identity, not on the national level but meaningful on the local and sectarian level, a sign of both the problem and its partial solutions. Then again, south China absorbed all these dislocations into its existing separatism of language and peoples. The people of the Xiangshang (Fragrant Hills) district thought of themselves as the bendi (boondi in dialect pronunciation, meaning “original locals”), while a group that had settled in the East River area came to be called the kejia (Hakka in local pronounciation, meaning “guest people”). Social and economic irredentism now inflamed each other, soon to involve other nationality groups, especially in Guangxi province.

“It is no wonder that most of the great figures of reform and revolution hailed from the south of China.”

These mid-nineteenth century difficulties within and without are known in Chinese parlance as neiluan waihuo (literally, “internal disorder and external disaster”). Into this midst came the Yellow River in rampant anger, breaching dikes and changing its exit to the East China Sea and causing untold hardship, with drought and famine in the wake.

All human and natural factors seemed to have converged in producing the great Taiping upheaval in mid-century. Hong Xiuquan, a Hakka and feverish after repeated failures at the imperial civil service examination which would have rewarded turn with honor and his family with status, took to rebellion as a way to redress injustice. He fancied himself as the younger brother of Christ and coupled this eclectic Christianity with an appeal to egalitarian elements in the popular Chinese tradition to win himself a following. Something of this mix must have appealed to people, for his movement to topple the Manchus became a phenomenon that covered sixteen of China’s eighteen provinces and lasted fourteen years from 1850 to 1864. The Taipings (meaning “grand peace”), starting in the Canton area, passing into Guangxi province and ending with a capital at Nanking, nearly succeeded as a heavenly kingdom on earth. Many still see in this movement a revolutionary nature, although it cast itself in the rhetoric of a traditional rebellion. Its appearance at all summed up the social and economic ills of the Chinese state at the time. As a movement, it linked the Lingnan and Jiangnan areas to give the Manchu rulers a composite set of “southern” problems. The Manchus, eventually with northern and central gentry-official aid, quashed the rebellion, even though internal dissension of the Taiping movement should shoulder a good part of the responsibility for its failure and demise.

In any event, the Taiping and its suppression illustrated the premium Chinese have habitually given to internal factors of causation. The government viewed this uprising by far as a greater problem, because of its internal (nei) character, than the external (wai) challenge of the western powers. It bent its resources to cope with it, while the foreign presence continued to increase. When the movement was finally quelled in the mid-1860s, the foreign threat had consolidated and the southern element had been greatly weakened, though not necessarily appeased. The Manchu, or northern, suppression now drove many abroad. Economic distress, social disgruntlement and now political displacement moved the southern outlook overseas. Macao and Hong Kong became staging points for farther havens. Was it merely accident that the first contract for Chinese labor to come to Hawaii, for instance, dated to 1852?

Be that as it may, the Chinese exodus from this southern homeland was now in earnest. Plantation laborers and railroad workers, restaurant owners and laundry operators, small shopkeepers and creditors in several continents bore southern Chinese surnames. While these figures helped to write the history of Chinese overseas, there were also reformers and revolutionaries among them who had the home country at heart. It is no wonder that most of the great figures of reform and revolution hailed from the south of China. Among the reformers, Kang Youwei came from Nanhai and Liang Qichao from Xinhui, the former of the Hundred Days’ Reform fame in 1898, and the latter as the singlemost important publicist of new ideas in early twentieth-century China. The revolutionary Sun Wen (Sun Yat-sen as he is known to the world), born when the Taipings were quelled, came from Fragrant Hills (Xiangshang) and felt inspired by the exploits of Hong Xiuquan, perhaps a fellow Hakka. San came to Hawaii (known to China as the Sandalwood Fragrance Mountains even to this day) in the 1870S for schooling and returned to Honolulu in the mid-1890s to found the Xingzhonghui (Revive China Society), ancestral organization of modern China’s nationalist revolutionary party. Sun Yat-sen enjoined the sentimentalities of the two fragrant hills, his country of birth and his overseas base of pioneer revolutionary aspirations.

With the mid-nineteenth-century emigration and Sun Yat-sen’s exploits, South China came to acquire an overseas (haiwai) character. The North may persist in viewing the South as Jiangnan, Lingnan, and now haiwai, but the view of China from abroad is essentially that of this southern character of Chinese, slight of build, wiry and diligent, alert in wit and commercial acumen, restless and yet purposeful, defiant of the North and of orthodoxy of power (undifferentiated most of the time) as well as patriotic to a China of imagined unity, and resilient in every human situation.

Which is the truer China, the North which views the South in auxiliary terms, or the South which experienced the demographic realities of the mother body to produce reformist impulses, a revolutionary dedication and overseas character and credibility? History may yet produce a verdict.