Tianjin (Chinese: 天津; pinyin: Tiānjīn; Mandarin; Tianjinese, Postal map spelling: Tientsin) is a metropolis in northern China and one of the five national central cities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is governed as one of the four direct-controlled municipalities of the PRC, and is thus under direct administration of the central government. Tianjin borders Hebei Province and Beijing Municipality, bounded to the east by the Bohai Gulf portion of the Yellow Sea. Part of the Bohai Economic Rim, it is the largest coastal city in northern China.
In terms of urban population, Tianjin is the fourth largest in China, after Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Tianjin is a dual-core city, with its main urban area (including the old city) located along the Hai River, which connects to the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers via the Grand Canal; and Binhai, a New Area urban core located east of the old city, on the coast of Bohai Sea. As of the end of 2010, around 285 Fortune 500 companies have set up base in Binhai, which is a new growth pole in China and is a hub of advanced industry and financial activity. Since the mid-19th century, Tianjin has been a major seaport and gateway to the nation’s capital.
The city has many sights; it’s the streetscapes – an assemblage of historic nineteenth – and early twentieth-century European architecture, juxtaposed with the concrete and glass monoliths of contemporary China – that are its most engrossing attraction. Though wide swaths of the city are being redeveloped, much of the colonial architecture has been placed under protection, and the shopping opportunities, especially for antiques, just about justify a day-trip from the capital, an hour away by train.
In the nineteenth century, the port city caught the attention of the seafaring Western powers, who used the boarding of an English ship by Chinese troops as an excuse to declare war. With well-armed gunboats, they were assured of victory, and the Treaty of Tianjin, signed in 1856, gave the Europeans the right to establish nine concessionary bases on the mainland, from which they could conduct trade and sell opium. These concessions, along the banks of the Hai River, were self-contained European fantasy worlds: the French built elegant chateaux and towers, while the Germans constructed red-tiled Bavarian villas. Tensions between the indigenous population and the foreigners exploded in the Tianjin Incident of 1870, when a Chinese mob attacked a French-run orphanage, and again during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, after which the foreigners levelled the walls around the old Chinese city to enable them to keep an eye on its residents.
The dense network of ex-concession streets south and west of the central train station, and south of the Hai River, now constitute the areas of most interest to visitors. Unmistakable are the chateaux of the French concession, which now make up the downtown district just south of the river, and the haughty mansions the British built east of here. Farther east, also south of the river, the architecture of an otherwise unremarkable district has a sprinkling of stern German constructions.
People from Tianjin speak the Tianjin dialect of Mandarin, from which it is derived. Despite its proximity to Beijing, the Tianjin dialect sounds quite different from the Beijing dialect, which provides the basis for Putonghua, the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China.
Tianjin is a respected home base of Beijing opera, one of the most prestigious forms of Chinese opera.
Tianjin is famous for its stand up [comedy] and comedians including Guo Degang and Ma Sanli. Ma Sanli (马三立) (1914–2003), an ethnic Hui and longtime resident of Tianjin, is renowned for his xiangsheng (相声), a hugely popular form of Chinese entertainment similar to comedy. Ma Sanli delivered some of his xiangsheng in the Tianjin dialect. Tianjin, along with Beijing, is a center for the art of xiangsheng.
Yangliuqing (Green Willows), a town about 15 km (9.3 mi) west of Tianjin’s urban area and the seat of Xiqing District, is famous for its popular Chinese New Year-themed, traditional-style, colourful wash paintings (杨柳青年画). Tianjin is also famous for Zhang’s clay figurines which are a type of colourful figurine depicting a variety of vivid characters, and Tianjin’s Wei’s kites, which can be folded to a fraction of their full sizes, are noted for portability.