Yangzhou has a history of almost 2,500 years, being founded in the Spring and Autumn Period when it was called Guangling. It was called Hancheng during Warring States Period (403-221 BC) (Perkins). In 590 AD, the city began to be called Yangzhou, which was the traditional name of what was then the entire southeastern part of China.
Under the 2nd Emperor Yangdi (604-617) of the Sui Dynasty (581-617), was the southern capital of China and called Jiangdu upon the completion of the Jinghang (Grand) Canal until the fall of the Dynasty. It has been a leading economic and cultural center and major port of foreign trade and external exchange since the Tang Dynasty (618-907). There lived many Arab and Persian merchants, but they were massacred in 760 AD during the An Shi Rebellion (Perkins).
The city, still known as Guangling, was briefly made the capital of the Wu Kingdom during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.
Marco Polo served there under the Mongol emperor Kubilai Khan in the period around 1282-1287 (to 1285, according to Perkins). Although some versions of Polo's memoirs imply that he was the governor of Yangzhou, it is more likely that he was an official in the salt industry. The discovery of the 1342 tomb of Katarina Vilioni, member of an Italian trading family in Yangzhou, suggests the existence of a thriving Italian community in the city in the 14th century. Until the 19th century Yangzhou acted as a major trade exchange center for salt, (a government regulated commodity), rice and silk. The Mings (1368-1644) are largely responsible for building the city as it now stands and surrounding it with 9 km of walls.
The Yangzhou riot in 1868 was a pivotal moment of Anglo-Chinese relations during the late Qing Dynasty that almost led to war. The crisis was fomented by the gentry of the city who opposed the presence of foreign Christian missionaries there. The riot that resulted was an angry crowd estimated at eight to ten thousand who assaulted the premises of the British China Inland Mission in Yangzhou by looting, burning and attacking the missionaries led by Hudson Taylor. No one was killed, however several of the missionaries were injured as they were forced to flee for their lives. As a result of the report of the riot, the British consul in Shanghai, Sir Walter Henry Medhurst took seventy Royal marines in a Man of war and steamed up the Yangtze to Nanjing in a controversial show of force that eventually resulted in an official apology from Viceroy Zeng Guofan and financial restitution made to the injured missionaries.
From the time of the Taiping Rebellion (1853) to the end of the Communist revolution (1949) Yangzhou was in decline, due to war damage and neglect of the Jinghang Canal as railways replaced it in importance; unfortunately, initial plans for railways connecting Yangzhou were deemed to be unimportant, and its status as the leading economic centre of China declined rapidly into a city of little importance. With the canal now partially restored, Yangzhou is once again an important transportation and market center. It also has some industrial output, chiefly in cotton and textiles. In 2004, a railway linked Yangzhou for the first time with Nanjing.