A quick glance at the topography of this area speaks volumes. Apart from a few scattered river deltas, this is harsh and unforgiving mountain country, with just a narrow ribbon of land next to the sea, into which most of China's modern coastal cities are all tightly squeezed.

Although the indigenous peoples of this area were assimilated by Han colonists long ago, the isolated terrain has fostered a strong feeling of independence in the coastal dwellers, forever aware that "the mountains are high and the emperor far away." In fact, it was probably their relative isolation and the establishment of small cell network economies that led to their early successes.

Few people realize that this was the part of the world that Columbus sought when he first set sail for the East Indies. While Europe had been blindly staggering through the Dark Ages, some of the foremost trading ports of their time had developed in this region. From then on it was only a matter of time before the industrialization that swept across 18th-century Europe was to have similar disastrous effects in China. China's xenophobia, which appears currently to be aimed at Japan, was earlier focused on England, and China laid the blame for the subsequent "Opium Wars" firmly on the British, rather than on the emerging global economy and its corporate mercenaries, like the East India Company. Endless statues, museums, and memorials illustrate the "humiliations" of the Opium Wars to maximum effect for propaganda purposes, and yet nobody would dream of starting a cigarette war in retaliation for the 10,000 Chinese who now die from smoking-related illnesses every week. Still, beyond the misguided nationalism, this region is a treasure-trove of history for those willing to dig just a little bit further than the official media mouthpieces.

The relentless pressure and pace of the modern economy in business cities like Guangzhou and Wenzhou can make them appear harsh and unfriendly. Tourists are relatively few compared to the unending stream of businessmen, here to put yet more Chinese to work in factories. It is hardly surprising that foreigners are often treated with such mistrust and suspicion. Mass migration from the hinterland has put even more pressure on rapidly expanding urban areas until they now suffer the same problems that plague oversize cities all over the world: terrifying levels of pollution, rising crime, and social misery. The region now resembles a huge cargo ship in which the load is concentrated on only one side, and is dangerously listing.

Traveling throughout the region provides an excellent opportunity to see the process in action. Industrialization in the cities destroys the traditional economies of the hinterlands, which then takes its revenge via mass migration to the cities, crowding them further and making them even more unmanageable. The flat delta areas have become toxic rats' nests of industrialization, as more and more rice paddies are paved over to build ever more factories and express highways. Only the old and infirm remain in the rural areas, and with less and less land to cultivate every year, it is difficult to imagine how China can continue to feed itself.

Summers are hot and extremely humid around the coast; the mild months of October through March are the best times to visit, although some offshore islands are appreciated year-round for their breezes. Inland Jiangxi suffers from drier but furnace-like summers and chilly dank winters, making spring and autumn the best times to travel. Note: Unless otherwise noted, hours listed for attractions and restaurants are daily.