Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2016 Aug. 7.
[Early twentieth-century map of the Siyi (Seiyap) Region, with the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong to the east. The red lines are probably railroads. Also note the doted lines representing oceanic trade routes to Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Americas.]
Before 1965, the vast majority of ethnic Chinese living in the United States and North America were either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from the “Four Counties,” or in Chinese the Siyi (Seiyap, Sze Yap) region 四邑, of central Guangdong province in South China. The people of the “Four Counties” are known as Taishan Cantonese (Taishanese) 台山人, and they speak their own dialect of the Cantonese language known as Taishanhua (Toishan Cantonese) 台山話. Among the immigrants, there were smaller numbers of Keijia (Hakka) 客家人, Chaozhou (Teochow) 潮州人, other Cantonese Chinese 廣東人 from Zhongshan (Chungshan, Heungshan), Guangzhou (Canton), and Hong Kong, Minnan-speakers (Hoklo) 閩南人 from Fujian province and Southeast Asia, and Mandarin-speakers from East and North China. But for over a century, almost every Chinese American community was dominated by the language, cuisine, and culture of the Taishan Cantonese.
The Four Counties are Taishan (Toishan, Hoishan, Sunning) county 台山縣, Kaiping (Hoiping) county 開平縣, Enping (Yanping) county 恩平縣, and Xinhui (Sunwui) county 新會縣. Siyi or Seiyap remains the most commonly used name for this region throughout the Chinese-speaking world. In 1983, the Guangdong provincial government added Heshan (Hokshan) county 鹤山縣 to the Four Counties, so today, the region is officially known in Chinese as the Wuyi (Ngyap) “Five Counties” region 五邑. The largest city and administrative capital of the region is Jiangmen (Kongmoon) 江門市, so the “Five Counties” are known in government publications as the Jiangmen prefecture 江門地級市. This region mostly consists of arable hills and plains, one large and several small rivers, and a rocky coastline with many bays and islands.
Many histories of Chinese Americans, including many academic papers in the English language, and most of the sources cited on this website, refer to this region as the “Pearl River Delta” 珠江三角洲. However, if you look at a map, you will see that the Pearl River (Zhujiang) 珠江 doesn’t actually pass through the region, and the term “Pearl River Delta” is rarely used for this area in the Chinese language. Actually, the Pearl River begins in the mountains of Southwest China, and runs north of the Four Counties, before forming a delta as it approaches Guangzhou (Canton) to the east. The city of Guangzhou 廣州市, the city of Foshan (Fatshan) 佛山市 and the “Three Counties” or Sanyi (Samyap) region 三邑, and the city of Zhuhai (Chuhoi) 珠海市 and Zhongshan (Chungshan, Heungshan) county 中山地級市, are actually located within the Pearl River Delta.
The Delta itself consists of three major distributary channels. The Xi River (West River) 西江 in the south runs west of Zhongshan, Zhuhai, and the Macau Peninsula 澳門半島, before emptying directly into the South China Sea 南海. The Lingdingyang Channel 伶仃洋 in the center runs south of Foshan into Lingdingyang Bay 伶仃洋灣. The Shizhiyang Channel 獅子洋 in the north passes through Guangzhou and also empties into Lingdingyang Bay, to the west of Dongguan (Tungkun) county 珠海地級市. The city of Shenzhen 深圳市, the Kowloon Peninsula 九龍半島, Lantau Island 大嶼山, and Hong Kong Island 香港島 are located along the eastern shores of Lingdingyang Bay, which is open to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Tan (Tam) River 潭江 runs through all of the Four Counties, west of the Xi River, before emptying into the South China Sea west of Macau. All of these waterways are quite large and are navigable by ship.
Knowledge of this geography explains the circumstances of the Taishan Cantonese both today and in the 1800s. In the 21st-century, the Pearl River Delta, including Guangzhou and Zhongshan, and the neighboring Hong Kong and Shenzhen areas, form one of the most populous and industrialized metropolitan regions in the world. Highly-educated professionals and migrant workers from all over China now live and work in this region. Much of China’s exports are manufactured in its factories and shipped from the ports of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Even in the 1850s, the Pearl River Delta was open to trade with the West much earlier than the rest of China. Guangdong province is one of the southernmost regions in China, far from the center of imperial political power in Beijing, or the center of modern Chinese culture in Shanghai. The Cantonese have always enjoyed greater independence and economic freedom than Chinese in other provinces, and were more receptive to new ideas and cultural exchange with the West.
But compared to the more urban and affluent Pearl River Delta, the Four Counties today remain a predominantly agrarian region, consisting of farming villages, rural townships, and a few small cities. The Four Counties have always been considered a backwater. While the northwestern area around Jiangmen is more developed, much of the region is still characterized by a lack of modern infrastructure and slower economic development. In the 1850s, this region was also characterized by poverty, high crime and violence, frequent famine and civil war, and widespread opium addiction. The Columbian Exchange introduced corn, potatoes, and other “New World” crops to China in the 1700s, resulting in the expansion of agriculture on marginal farmland, such as the mountains and sandy coastline, where the soil was poor. Guangdong province experienced a population explosion, but as fertile farmland became more scarce in the 1800s, and as Western economic and political influence intensified after the First Opium War in 1842, any drought or flood could result in starvation and social chaos.
The people of the Four Counties were especially vulnerable to such chaos. The Qing Dynasty officials in distant Beijing were limited in their ability to manage the situation, and they were not allowed to interfere with the movement of Western traders, smugglers, and soldiers because of the Unequal Treaties. And yet, all of the Four Counties were located within a week’s walking or sailing distance of the great cities of the Pearl River Delta. Some of the earliest railroads in China were being built in Guangdong province at this time, and passenger steamships were now traveling the waterways of the region, allowing for even faster and cheaper travel. The ports of Guangzhou and Hong Kong were connected by oceanic trade routes to remote foreign cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and New Orleans. It was much easier for a merchant, a farmer, or a fisherman from the Four Counties to travel to these foreign cities than other Chinese, and they certainly had reasons for doing so. And so, for over one hundred years, between the California Gold Rush and the Communist Revolution, hundred of thousands of Taishan Cantonese made this difficult and dangerous journey, seeking work and economic opportunity, and defying the many obstacles created by both the Chinese and American governments to stop them.
Google Maps website: Taishan. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Taishan,+Jiangmen,+Guangdong,+China
Lary, Diana. Chinese Migrations: The Movement of People, Goods, and Ideas over Four Millennia. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2012). Pages 91-94, 96-100.
Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2003 (originally published in 1972). Pages 190-191, 198-201, 212. http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/american-indians/essays/columbian-exchange
New Frontiers: Kaiping Watch Towers. CCTV, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTuTM3oRtZg