There’s something very self-contained about the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan Island, which occupy 1200km or so of China’s convoluted southern seaboard. Though occasionally taking centre stage in the country’s history, the provinces share a sense of being generally isolated from mainstream events by the mountain ranges surrounding Fujian and Guangdong, physically cutting them off from the rest of the empire. Forced to look seawards, the coastal regions have a long history of contact with the outside world, continually importing – or being forced to endure – foreign influences and styles. This is where Islam entered China, and porcelain and tea left it along the Maritime Silk Road; where the mid-nineteenth-century theatricals of the Opium Wars, colonialism, the Taiping Uprising and the mass overseas exodus of southern Chinese were played out; and where today you’ll find some of China’s most Westernized cities. Conversely, the interior mountains enclose some of the country’s wildest, most remote corners, parts of which were virtually in the Stone Age within living memory.
Possibly because its specific attractions are thinly spread, the region receives scant attention from visitors. Huge numbers do pass through Guangdong, in transit between the mainland and Hong Kong and Macau, but only because they have to, and few look beyond the overpowering capital, Guangzhou. Yet while the other two regional capitals – Fuzhou in Fujian, and Hainan’s Haikou – share Guangzhou’s modern veneer, all three also hide temples and antique architecture that have somehow escaped developers, and other towns and cities in the region have managed to preserve their old, character-laden ambience intact. The pick of these are the Fujian port of Xiamen, where parts of the city seem almost frozen in time, and Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong, staunchly preserving its traditions in the face of the modern world.
Indeed, a sense of local tradition and of being different from the rest of the country pervades the whole region, though this feeling is rarely expressed in any tangible way. Language is one difference you will notice, however, as the main dialects here are Cantonese and Minnan, whose rhythms and tones are recognizably removed from Mandarin, even if you can’t speak a word of Chinese. Less obvious are specific ethnic groups, including the Hakka, a widely spread Han subgroup whose mountainous Guangdong-Fujian heartland is dotted with fortress-like mansions; the Muslim Hui, who form large communities in Guangzhou, coastal Hainan and in Quanzhou in Fujian; and the Li, Hainan’s animistic, original inhabitants.
While a quick look around much of the coastal areas here leaves a gloomy impression of uncontrolled development and its attendant ills, most of this is actually contained within various Special Economic Zones (SEZs), specifically created in the mid-1980s as a focus for heavy investment and industrialization. Beyond their boundaries lurk some respectably wild – and some nicely tamed – corners where you can settle back and enjoy the scenery. Over in western Guangdong, the city of Zhaoqing sits beside some pleasant lakes and hills, while the Wuyi Shan range in northeastern Fujian contains the region’s lushest, most picturesque mountain forests. Way down south lie the country’s best beaches – encouraging the tourist industry to hype Hainan as “China’s Hawaii” – and there’s also a limited amount of hiking to try, through the island’s interior highlands.
Anyone wanting to stop off and explore will find plentiful local and long-distance transport, though accommodation can be expensive and suffers huge seasonal fluctuations in price. The weather is nicest in spring and autumn, as summer storms from June to August bring sweltering heat, extreme humidity, thunder, afternoon downpours and floods. In contrast, the higher reaches of the Guangdong-Fujian border can get very cold in winter.