why is shenzhen called shenzhen and not bao’an city?

Just when I thought it was safe to go out in public without having to refute the fishing village myth and the city’s nets-to-riches origins, I attended a meeting organized for foreigners visiting Shenzhen. The host (from England via Beijing) asked me point blank to talk about the city that used to be a fishing village. Clearly, my efforts to get a more accurate first impression into the world have not been as successful as I had hoped. Sigh.

There was, however, an unexpected silver line to this encounter; I’ve streamlined my takedown!

Shenzhen as a place name referred to a market town, which was the County Seat of Bao’an. Second, the territory that today we think of as “Shenzhen” used to be known as “Bao’an.” Thus, there are two levels of analysis at which the fishing village myth fails to help us understand Shenzhen. Factually, there was never a fishing village called Shenzhen. Also, development in the city was not a case of expansion from a single epicenter until all of Bao’an was occupied, but rather, the component elements of Bao’an all became epicenters for development. Integrating these diverse elements into a single city has been the real work of urban planning in Shenzhen.

There was a second and more interesting silver lining to this encounter.

After the event, as I was mulling and redrafting my response in the silence of my own head, I realized something I hadn’t noticed before: Shenzhen is the only city in the PRD that changed its name due to reform and opening up. While other counties, such as Huizhou, Dongguan, Zhuhai and Jiangmen, for example, eventually were elevated from rural to urban status, none of them changed their name in the process. So, there’s a direct and easy to follow in writing the history of Huizhou County to Huizhou City, Dongguan County to Dongguan City, Zhuhai County to … In contrast, we speak of Bao’an County to Shenzhen City, which not only complicates the telling of history, but also begs the question: WHY? Why use the name Shenzhen, rather than simply calling the new city, “Bao’an?”

And my head was no longer a tranquil place. I don’t actually know the answer to this question. I suspect that the reason is tied to Shenzhen’s place on the KCR and to the town’s importance on postwar Hong Kong maps, which tend to include Shen Chuen / Shum Chun. But I don’t have enough evidence to make any claims. I’ve started asking around, and hope to encounter someone who’s heard something from someone (six degrees of anthropology, anyone?) In the meantime, however, I’m throwing this question out into the universe; why is Shenzhen called Shenzhen and not called Bao’an City?

3 thoughts on “why is shenzhen called shenzhen and not bao’an city?

  1. Interesting question. I would suggest that it must have been a result of a decision made in about 1979 when someone decided that the new SEZ was going to be called Shenzhen and not Bao’an or Luo Hu. Named after the river I think, the deep ditch? Then as the industrialisation spread out from Luo Hu (I don’t think there could have much there before 1979, certainly not a “fishing village”), it swallowed up hundreds of existing villages, and the name got transferred by common usage to the city.
    I do sympathise about the “fishing village”. It is something I dwell on in the film which is nearly complete.

  2. Thinking further. When the SEZ was first mooted, all they had to compare was the Shekou Industrial Zone already set up on just 2 square km of the Nantou Peninsula. So the conversation might have gone like this.
    What shall we call it?
    Well, where will it be?
    Along the border with Hong Kong, along the Shenzhen river.
    Then we’ll call it the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
    Things got a bit more ambitious later but they were stuck with the name.
    Just a thought!

  3. It may be a deliberate differentiation between the SEZ and the non-SEZ area. In fact, one year after the Special Economic Zone was established, Bao’an was reverted back to county level in 1981, and the name “Shenzhen” to refer to the entire city never catch on among the older generations of Shenzheners living in Baoan County / district — for them, going to Shenzhen means going to Luohu / downtown / former SEZ except Yantian.

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