Dwarfed by the size of the surrounding residential high-rises of Guangzhou’s Liwan district (荔湾区), the Chen Clan Academy (陈家祠) looks like an architectural anachronism in a city where buildings have taken their heights to the sky.
Everyone I brought to the Chen Clan Academy, could not help but stop and ‘wow’ at the impressive amount of meticulously carved miniature scenes and colorful mythological beasts half-dragon half-lion which populate the top of the gabled roofs. On the front buildings’ facades, a myriad of characters who populate Chinese classical literature, delicately sculpted in limestone, watch over a steady crowd of tourists.
The finest example of Lingnan architecture in Guangzhou
Chen Clan Academy, a perfectly symmetrical structure, composed of 19 buildings and long corridors, is acclaimed as the pinnacle of ancient Lingnan architecture in the region.
The structure was completed in 1898, towards the end of Qing Emperor Guangxu. It was built by members of the Chen clan from different parts of Guangdong province who came to Guangzhou attracted by foreign trade and business opportunities. The building had three main functions.
It was first an ancestral hall (祠堂), that also acted as an academy for the youngster of the different Chen families (hence the name Chen Clan Academy, translated into 陈氏书院) as well as an assembly hall (会馆) where the Chen men would discuss and organize their business endeavors in the thriving port city of the Pearl River Delta.
For the Chen, money was not a problem. They chose the best artisans from the region and beyond. Ceramics and iron-casting were made in the nearby city Foshan (home to the Ancestral Temple or Zumiao 佛山祖庙, another impressive example of Lingnan 岭南 architecture), stone carvers from Panyu (which is now one of Guangzhou’s urban districts). The wooden beams on which rest the gabled roof were imported from Southeast Asia and carved on site. With this building, the Chen clan gave Guangzhou its finest piece of art.
Guangzhou’s folk museum
The Chen Clan Academy was transformed into a folk art museum (there is a 10 RMB entrance fee) with temporary and all-year-round exhibition that features Guangdong’s (lost) craftsmanship such as silk embroidery, Chaozhou’s wood carving, ceramics manufacturing. Although most people just saunter through the buildings and admire the art embedded in the structure.
How to get there
The easiest way is to take the Guangzhou subway line 3 and get off at “Chen Clan Academy” station.
Take exit D, the building is on your right hand-side.