Formerly one of the most important cities in southern China, Zhaoqing lost importance during the Qing and is now primarily known for tourism and as a provincial "college town". Residents from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and the other cities of the Pearl River Delta visit it for weekend excursions. It is also a growing manufacturing center.
Zhaoqing was known to the Qin and Han as Gaoyao. It was renamed Duanzhou from its role as the seat of Duan Prefecture under the Sui. The present name, meaning "Beginning Auspiciousness", was bestowed on the area by Emperor Huizong of the Song in 1118. "Zhaoqing" is the pinyin romanization; the earlier Postal Map form "Shiuhing" derives from the name's Cantonese pronunciation.
Gaoyao was located on the south bank of the Xi River, named for its district's principal feature: the river's Lingyang Gorge (then known as "Gaoyao"). In the late 6th and early 7th centuries, the administration was relocated to Duanzhou on the opposite bank of the river, which became an important administrative and military center of the southern Sui Empire.
When the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, Zhaoqing was still an important center, serving as the seat of the Viceroy of Liangguang (Guangdong and Guangxi). Matteo Ricci's On the Christian Expedition among the Sinae tells of the early visits of Macanese-based Europeans to Zhaoqing. The Viceroy Chen Rui (陈瑞) summoned Macao's mayor and bishop in the early 1580s, but the town sent its auditor Mattia Penella and the Italian Jesuit Michele Ruggieri in their place in 1582. After several false starts, Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci were allowed to establish their residence in the city, the first Jesuit mission house on mainland China, after Zhaoqing's governor Wang Pan learned of Ricci's skill as a mathematician and cartographer. Ricci drew the first modern Chinese map of the world in Zhaoqing in 1584. Ruggieri left for Rome in 1588 but Ricci remained until the next year, when a new viceroy expelled him from the city and obliged the Jesuits to relocate to Shaozhou (now Shaoguan).