Shenzhen is often called “China’s Silicon Valley.”
The southern coastal city just north of Hong Kong started as a manufacturing hub and is now home to some of the world’s largest tech companies, valued at over $91 billion. Recently, it’s also gained a reputation for art and nightlife, with Lonely Planet naming it one of the top cities to visit in 2019.
But the actual city of Shenzhen is just 40 years old.
Before Shenzhen was incorporated in 1979, it was nothing but a fishing village. Years of foreign investment and government backing helped grow the city into the modern metropolis it is today, with teeming skyscrapers, cool cafes, and cutting-edge technology.
This year, there are signs all over the city publicizing its 40th birthday. But Shenzhen’s rags-to-riches story, while a potent one, belies the fact that the city has a rich history predating 1979—at one point, it even ruled over Hong Kong as the region’s capital—and much of that history is still visible today in its walled villages.
To understand Shenzhen’s history, we have to go all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), when the first attempt was made to incorporate the area into China.
Back then, the region was seen as “disease-ridden barbarian territory” because it was far from China’s then-capital of Xianyang—about 1,000 miles away—according to Jonathan Fenby, author of The Dragon Throne: China’s Emperors from the Qin to the Manchu.
It wasn’t until 111 BC, under the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), that the area around Shenzhen was brought under Chinese control.
By the Jin Dynasty (265-420), a small town called Nantou—now a district in the western part of present-day Shenzhen—had emerged in the area, with 2,000 soldiers tasked with safeguarding maritime trade.
For centuries, Nantou governed the region that included Shenzhen (then a separate town), Hong Kong, and Macau. That region, called Dongguan prefecture, fell under the purview of Guangdong province (then called Canton, leading to the people to be called Cantonese).
“You have to understand that what was here was not Shenzhen per se, but a place that was part of a wider story of the Nanling people [the Cantonese].”
“Nantou was the administrative center because if you trace your finger northwards along a map, you don’t encounter any mountains,” says Simon Tsai, a guide at the Shenzhen Museum.
But after a railroad opened in 1911 connecting Hong Kong and Shenzhen, Nantou gradually lost its status and was eventually subsumed under Shenzhen.
What’s left of the ancient city today is a fortress that looks out of place amid the skyscrapers that surround it.
Inside its walls is a town in itself—a mish-mash of fruit and vegetable stands, cheap noodle restaurants, and bathroom-tile tenements that are built so close to each other that residents can reach out and touch the next building.
Many of these structures were built recently, and some parts of Nantou are gentrifying, but about 40 or so residential buildings date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and have retained their historical look.
A number of them are ancestral halls and family homes that are open to the public, offering a peek into what life was like in the ancient city.
Aside from Nantou, there are other well-preserved villages scattered throughout the city. Many of them are home to a subgroup of the majority Han Chinese called Hakka, who had been steadily migrating south from the northern plains for centuries and speak their own language separate from Cantonese.
The Hakka first arrived in the Shenzhen area during the Qing Dynasty.
According to Stephen Platt, author of Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, the Qing faced a naval threat of over 1,000 ships in the 1660s.
Instead of meeting the fleet head-on, the emperor at the time, Kangxi, chose to evacuate China’s entire southeastern coast.
About 16,000 people were forced inland. Villages were razed and farmland dug up, according to Platt. Few returned after the evacuation was rescinded, and the Hakka settled in their place, building massive residential compounds.
The Dawan Residence in Shenzhen’s remote Pingshan district is the most impressive. The Zeng family built it in 1791, and at 240,000 square feet, it is one of the largest Hakka compounds. Its imposing walls show how threatened the Hakka felt as they settled on the traditional domain of the local Cantonese people.
But if there’s anything of serious historical value on the Shenzhen map, it is the Dapeng Fortress, first constructed in 1394 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to defend against pirate attacks.
Dapeng remains “the best example of ancient architecture anywhere in Shenzhen,” Tsai says.
Another compound, the New Crane Lake Residence, dating back to 1817, is the most tailored to tourism, with English-language signs and a folk exhibition displaying old farm tools, traditional clothes, and dragon boats, as well as portraits of notable Hakka individuals.
Today, many of these compounds and villages are surrounded by new buildings and office towers. They look out of place in a city that’s become better known for its economic development than rich cultural heritage.
But the old forts and walls remind people that Shenzhen has a long history, even if it wasn’t always known by that name.
“You have to understand that what was here was not Shenzhen per se,” Tsai says, “but a place that was part of a wider story of the Nanling people [the Cantonese].”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.