Ancient villages of Guangdong | Shawan, the birthplace of Lingnan culture

Shawan (沙湾古镇) is an ancient village located in the southwestern urban district of Panyu (番禺), in Guangzhou (广州), the capital city of Guangdong (广东) province.

With its narrow cobblestone streets that meander in the middle of shrines, ancestral halls (祠堂) and Taoist temples, all built in the local Lingnan (岭南) architecture, Shawan is a cultural escape easily accessible from downtown Guangzhou.

Wok handle-shaped roofs in Shawan, Guangdong, Guangzhou

Wok handle-shaped roofs in Shawan, Guangdong, Guangzhou

The birthplace of Lingnan culture

The village of Shawan was founded by a man named He Renjian (何人鉴) at the end of the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279). Located near a sandy (沙 pronounced sha in Chinese) half-moon shaped riverside (湾 pronounced wan in Chinese), the ancients thus gave it the named of ‘Shawan’.

According to local history, Shawan was the birthplace of a number of men who dedicated their lives to arts. Whether it is music, folk arts, wood or stone sculpture, Shawan natives are considered to have laid the foundations of the Lingnan culture (岭南文化) that prevails in southern China.

Carved miniature scene in Shawan

Carved miniature scene in Shawan

Ancient murals, meticulously carved  miniature scenes that adorned temples, ancestral halls and mansions, the layout of the houses and their architecture all contribute to make Shawan a jewel of Lingnan architecture.

Another distinctive feature of Shawan are the shell walls : during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), oyster shells were used  to build walls. A few of them are still standing today in the village.

Liugeng Hall 留耕堂

Situated in front of pond according to the rules of geomancy or fengshui (风水), the Liugeng Hall was built in 1275, four years before the Southern Song dynasty collapsed under the Mongol invasions.

The Hall was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries and took its final and definitive layout under the reign of emperor Kangxi (康熙) of the Qing (1644-1911). With its rigorous layout, large scale, its majesty and the excellent quality of craftsmanship, Liugeng Hall is one the oldest and most quintessential example of Lingnan architecture in the Guangzhou area.

Also known as the He Clan Ancestral Hall (何氏大宗祠), it commemorates and honors the ‘He’ family whose ancestor, He Renjian, founded Shawan in 1233.

With the Chen Clan Academy (陈家祠) in Guangzhou and Foshan’s ancestral temple (佛山祖庙), the Liugeng Hall is considered to a be one of the finest example of Lingnan architecture in the Pear River Delta region.

Entrance to the Liugeng Hall, a jewel of Lingnan architecture near Guangzhou, Guangdong

Entrance to the Liugeng Hall, a jewel of Lingnan architecture near Guangzhou, Guangdong

Yuxu Palace 玉虚宫

Yuxu Palace is a Taoist temple adjacent to the Liugeng Hall. It is dedicated to Bei Di (or Pak Tai in Cantonese) -北帝 -, the emperor of the north, a powerful Taoist deity capable of great magic and controlling the elements, hence his second name as ‘Superior Ruler of the Dark Heavens’ (玄天上帝). One of the most interesting feature of the Yuxu Palace (which means ‘Palace of Jade Void’) is all the incense coils hanging from the temple’s ceiling.

In the main hall dedicated to Bei Di, the smoke of incense coil has blackened the roof and create a mysterious yet quiet atmosphere you can only find in remote Chinese temple. Behind the main hall, you will find a small pond home to a dozen of turtles, and more incense coils. There are also two other altars dedicated to deities related to Bei Di.

Incense coils

Incense coils

Wenfeng Pagoda 文峰塔

The pagoda is situated on a small hill, right in the middle village. Translated to English, Wenfeng means “Cultural Peak”. You will have to walk through narrow streets and pass in front of many doors decorated with the guardian doors. There is a small temple at the base of this six-stories pagoda, and unfortunately, we can’t climb up to get a view of the village. Since the pagoda was built on a hill, you can have a pretty nice view on a mixture of Lingnan style roofs and contemporary flat roofs.

Wudi Temple 武帝古庙

This temple is located on Anning East Road (安宁东路), across Guangyu Lu (光裕路). This temple is dedicated to Wu Di (武帝), the acronym for the True Martial Great Emperor (真武大帝), an avatar of Bei Di.

It is another temple where you can admire Lingnan carving on the outside facade, giants incense coils; on the second floor, there is a small makeshift altar dedicated to Great Star Prince Kui (魁斗星君), the god of examination and associate of the god of literature Wen Chang (文昌).

Inside the Wudi Temple in Shawan

Inside the Wudi Temple in Shawan

How to get there

From downtown Guangzhou, the easiest way is to ride the subway. Take line 3 towards Panyu (番禺) and stop at Shiqiao (市桥). Once in Shiqiao, you can choose between riding bus 68 or simply take a taxi. Bus is slow and cheap, taxi is obviously faster and more expensive. Negotiate a flat rate with the taxi driver; the normal rate for the one way ride from Shiqiao to Shawan costs around 20 RMB, but most drivers will try and charge double, because, they argue, it is hard for them to find a ride back to Panyu / Shiqiao. A good occasion to practice your Chinese (or Cantonese) and bargain skills.

Lingnan architecture in Shawan, Guangzhou, Guangdong

Lingnan architecture in Shawan

Entrance fee

You will be charged 55 RMB to visit Shawan ancient town. There is no formal entrance to the village, so don’t look for a formal ticket office; the ticket office will find you. When the ticket office found me, it was a short chubby woman with a bright yellow vest. She will give you a map of Shawan and a ticket that will allow you to get into the different mansions, temples, ancestral halls and other sites.  In front of each temple / mansion, there is a lady with a bright yellow vest. She will stamp your ticket.

How to get back

If you arrive by taxi, the driver will drop you on Guangyu Lu (光裕路) at the core of old Shawan will be on your right. Once you have finished visiting, walk on Dagxiangyong Lu (大巷涌路). You will find buses and taxis at the end of the cobble stone street.

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