Matthew W. MOSCA

Cityscape by the Pearl River, Guangzhou. The river system has long been an important route of trade and settlement in southern China, connecting important inland markets. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The Pearl River is one of China’s major river systems, extending through several southern provinces. Historically and today, its delta has been an important region for agricultural production and foreign trade.

The Pearl River (Zhu Jiang ??, known also as the “Yue Jiang ??) is the third-largest river in China and took its name from an islet in the river at Guangzhou (Canton) known as Ocean Pearl Island (Haizhu Zhou ??? or Haizhu Shi ???). The Pearl River is formed from three main tributaries—the West River (Xi Jiang ??), North River (Bei Jiang ??), and East River (Dong Jiang ??). The largest of these, the West River, originates in Yunnan Province and has a total length of about 2,200 kilometers; the North River originates in Jiangxi Province and flows approximately 460 kilometers; the East River also originates in Jiangxi Province and flows 532 kilometers.

The entire drainage area of the Pearl River basin includes parts of the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Jiangxi. The West River and North River tributaries of the Pearl River converge just west of Guangzhou; the East River joins them on the east side of that city. The Pearl River enters the South China Sea by eight major channels. Some definitions reserve the term “Pearl River” only for that portion of the river formed by the convergence of all three of its major tributaries, which flows into the Pearl River delta through the Hu men ?? (often known in Western sources as the Bocca Tigris or Bogue), and call the remainder of the system the “Pearl River basin.” This latter definition prevailed historically, and the use of “Pearl River” as a general name for the system emerged only in the twentieth century.

The Pearl River has played a significant role in Chinese history. After Han Chinese settlers began cultivating the Pearl River delta in the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties the West River formed an important route of further exploration and settlement. The Pearl River system remained an important route of trade and settlement in southern China, connecting important inland markets. The importance of the Pearl River as a route of transportation was increased because the mountainous terrain of southern China impedes land transport. The Pearl River delta has also played a particularly important role in China’s economic history. Its fertility made it one of the most densely cultivated regions in China and the economic hub of Guangdong Province. The Pearl River delta is also associated with foreign trade: The former British colony of Hong Kong and the Portuguese colony of Macao are situated on the fringes of the delta, and from the mid-eighteenth century until the First Opium War the government of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) permitted European trade only at Guangzhou. During this period foreign vessels docked at Huangpu (Whampoa) in the Pearl River. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries residents of the Pearl River delta accounted for a major portion of Chinese emigrants, particularly those going to North America. Today the Pearl River delta is known for its industrial production, which in Shenzhen and elsewhere accounts for a significant portion of China’s exports.

Further Reading

Liao Yuanqi. (1993). Zhujiang liuyu guihua [Zhujiang River Basin Planning]. Zhongguo dabaike quanshu [Great Chinese Encyclopedia] (42) 531–533.

Shen Canshen. (1993). Zhujiang [Pearl River] Zhongguo dabaike quanshu [Great Chinese Encyclopedia] (44) 810–812.

Yamazumi Moto. (1970). Shuk? [Pearl River]. Ajia rekishi jiten [Encyclopedia of Asian History] (4) 315–316.

Situ, S. (2001). Zhujiang zhuan [Account of the Pearl River]. Baoding, China: Hebei daxu chubanshe.

Source: Mosca, Matthew W.. (2009). Pearl River. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1733–1734. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Pearl River (Zh? Ji?ng ??)|Zh? Ji?ng ?? (Pearl River)

Download the PDF of this article