Playing expat is Dangerous

Even in the PRD, where all are from somewhere else, it’s tough. Did the Sichuan waitress mock your tones? Are you sure that’s really chicken?


Fear not, intrepid Sino-naut, a quick look back in the history of our fair region shows it could always be worse. A lot, lot worse. One of the good things about the annals of Chinese history is that it’s pretty easy to find an event which makes your horribly bad day seem like an afternoon shiatsu and steak. Such is the case with the Guangzhou Massacre of 889.

Foreigners—in this case meaning people born somewhere west of Burma—have been coming to the PRD for centuries. Merchants from West Asia and the Arabian Peninsula braved the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca to trade with the people of the Pearl River Delta beginning sometime in the 7th century AD. Some of those merchants stayed even longer, forming communities around present-day Guangzhou. The Huaisheng Mosque claims to be nearly 1,400 years old, and while that seems like a stretch, there’s pretty good evidence that the site dates back at least 1,000 years.

Sometimes, it can feel like foreigners aren’t welcome in China anymore and to some extent, at least compared with 10-15 years ago, that may well be true. Still, it’s worth remembering that even as nationalism and anti-foreignism grow here, China is still a much more welcoming place for foreign residents than many other places in the world.

During the Tang Era (586-960), many cities along China’s southern coast, especially major ports Guangzhou and Quanzhou, had large populations of foreign residents. These communities of sojourners grew wealthy through their control of key trade routes. For many years, nobody really cared.

The height of the Tang Era was, after all, one of the high points of Chinese civilization. Tang China was—for centuries—the center of global trade and culture. No other state could rival its power or majesty. In that context, a few (or a few thousand) odd-looking traders in the market place didn’t seem like such a big deal. There was more than enough for everyone.

By the 9th century, things had changed. Following a catastrophic rebellion by erst-while Tang ally An Lushan in the mid-8th century, the power of the empire began to ebb. Central leadership weakened and power devolved into the hands of military strongman whom the court increasingly relied upon to guard the borders and maintain order.

The position of foreign communities within the Empire grew precarious.

During the An Lushan Rebellion, one of An’s generals, the rebel leader Tian Shengong, sacked the Yangtze River city of Yangzhou. Thousands of Persians, Arabs, Jews and other foreigners living in Yangzhou were killed by rebel soldiers as Tian’s forces scoured the city for treasure. It would be a grim foreshadowing of what would befall the foreign population of Guangzhou a century later.

In 874, Huang Chao, former salt smuggler and general bad ass, rebelled against the Tang state. It was a popular thing to do at the time, all of the cool kids were doing it, but Huang emerged as one of the most serious threats to the long-term survival of the Tang Dynasty. As Huang’s forces scourged China from north to south, they arrived at the gates of Guangzhou. In a fit of pique over a perceived slight from the still-trying-to-hang-in-there Tang court, Huang’s troops stormed Guangzhou, terrorizing the city and targeting the foreign population, which had grown quite wealthy over the years. In so doing, Huang Chao’s rebel forces tapped into popular sentiment that somehow the decline of the empire’s fortunes—and their own lives—had been made worse by the presence of avaricious foreigners. Vengeance was brutal, with a death toll in what became known as the “Guangzhou Massacre” possibly reaching nearly 200,000 casualties, according to Arab sources.

Despite the massacre and the ensuing chaos following the end of the Tang Empire (Huang Chao captured the Tang capital at Chang’an in 781), hardy communities of foreign merchants remained in China. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and especially during the period of Mongolian rule of China (1279-1368), cities such as Guangzhou and Quanzhou in Fujian continued to be polyglot trading entrep?ts, attracting merchants and ships from around the world. Quanzhou in particular, had a large foreign community, which maintained their own religions and culture, even as they began inter-marrying with the local populace.

But here, too, as in Yangzhou and Guangzhou centuries past, the presence of such a robust and wealthy foreign community inspired suspicion and enmity among the Chinese and their Mongolian overlords. In the mid-14th century, a mostly Muslim army led by two Quanzhou Muslim residents revolted against the Mongolians, an event known as the Ispah Rebellion. In 1366, that rebellion ended, crushed by a Chinese general loyal to the Mongolian court (who would be themselves be kicked out of China only a few years later). It resulted in yet another bloody slaughter of foreigners in that city.

Sometimes, it can feel like foreigners aren’t welcome in China anymore and to some extent, at least compared with 10-15 years ago, that may well be true. Still, it’s worth remembering that even as nationalism and anti-foreignism grow here, China is still a much more welcoming place for foreign residents than many other places in the world. And compared to some of the bloodier moments of the past, today’s Pearl River Delta looks even friendlier still.

Category Way Back When