SHA DONGXUN recalls the embarrassment of being snubbed as a lowly native of Guangdong Province while at a university in Beijing in the 1960s."Guangdong was considered a terrible, backward place, a place of exile," says Professor Sha, a historian at the Guangdong Academy of Social Science. "We were called 'little Guangdong.' After graduation, everyone who came from the province tried to find a way to stay in Beijing," he says. Guangdong's image as a poor, ends-of-the-earth outpost was made worse by its political ostracism. Under the regime of Mao Zedong, the province's mercantilist past and extensive links with overseas Chinese were easy targets for criticism, Chinese and Western scholars say. But today disdain for Guangdong has melted into envy. Many skilled professionals, including Mr. Sha's former classmates, are scrambling to find jobs in the province's flourishing coastal cities. And in recent years millions of peasant migrants have flooded into Guangdong from other parts of China seeking work. "Now people here are saying: 'We're something special," says Sha, dressed in a dark Western suit and tie. No longer ashamed of their heritage, Guangdong's Cantonese-speaking natives are unabashedly proud of their cosmopolitan character and distinct culture. Taking advantage of its historic role as China's gateway to Hong Kong and the West, Guangdong built a booming, export-oriented economy that is now a powerhouse of southern China. The province is also becoming a major political force for Beijing to contend with. Reflecting the old adage "Heaven is high and the emperor is far away," Guangdong's loyal cadres tend to resist Beijing's dictates whenever they hamper economic advance. Unrivaled prosperity combined with popular pride has spurred a revival of native cultural forms such as Cantonese opera and even the first in-depth studies of the region's history since the 1949 communist revolution. Some scholars believe a new "southern nationalism" is emerging as many Chinese pin their hope for the nation's development on the continued entrepreneurial dynamism of Guangdong and other southern provinces. "One increasingly finds Chinese rearranging their history such that the progressive thrust invariably comes from the south," says Edward Friedman, chairman of the East Asian Center at the University of Wisconsin. "The optimists in China believe that ... this economically dynamic force ... that is especially strong in the south, will be channeled successfully as part of a new and rapidly developing Chinese nation."