During the Qin Dynasty (221BC–206BC), the area of today's belonged to Xiang Shire and the central government of the Han Dynasty (206BC–220AD) set Xuwen County administering the whole Leizhou Peninsular. It was one of the earliest departure points on the Marine Silk Road. The population spiked during the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties.
The region was still a small fishing port when it was occupied by the French in 1898. The next year, the French forced the Chinese to lease a small enclave of Zhanjiang to them for 99 years as the territory of Kwang-Chou-Wan. The French wanted to develop the port, which they called Fort-Bayard, to serve southern China, in parts of which France had exclusive rights to railway and mineral development. Their efforts, however, were hindered by the poverty of the surrounding land. The French retained control of the region until 1943, when the Japanese occupied the area during World War II. At the end of the war the region returned briefly under French rule before being formally returned to China in 1946 by general Charles de Gaulle, then French head of state.
Following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Zhanjiang developed new importance. In 1955 a rail link was built to Litang in Guangxi province, where it joined the Hunan-Guangxi Railway. Since then, Zhanjiang has developed into a major modern port serving southern China, usable by ships of up to 50,000 tons. In 1984 Zhanjiang was designated one of the “open” cities of China, where the central government invited foreign investment; this spurred the city’s further industrial development. It has shipyards and engineering works; automobile, electrical-appliance, and textile plants; and sugar refineries, flour and rice mills, and chemical works. In the early 1990s a new rail line was completed, linking Zhanjiang with Guangzhou, the provincial capital. The line was later extended to Hai’an, at the southernmost tip of Leizhou