In Guangzhou and the Peal River Delta, I often see the two Chinese characters for ‘Lingnan’ (岭南). Closely related to local Cantonese culture, the concept of ‘Lingnan’ is used to describe local architectural styles.
Semantically, ‘Lingnan’ (岭南) means ‘South of the Five Ranges’ (五岭之南), a group of mountains that run between Guangxi and Hunan province. In ancient China, it was an euphemistic terminology given by scholars from the Yangtze bassin to the ‘barbaric south’ (南蛮).
The term refers to the geographic area that encompasses Guangxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Fujian and Hainan Island. Today, it is often used to describe local architecture, the most essential characteristic of the Guangdong-centric ‘Lingnan Culture’ (岭南文化).
Classical Lingnan Architecture
The ancient village of Shawan (沙湾) near Guangzhou was, according to local history, the birthplace of craftsmen who developed the carving on stone, brick, wood as well as mural painting which became essential elements of the classic Lingnan architecture.
Stories of China classical literature such as the legend of the ‘Eight immortals crossing the Seas’ (八仙过海), the ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ (三国演义), or the ‘Water Margins’ (水浒传) constitute the basis of inspiration for the monochromatic bas-reliefs and the elaborate painted miniature scenes that ornate the facade and the roofs of ancestral halls (祠堂).
The Chen Clan Academy (陈家祠) in Guangzhou 广州, the ancestral temple of Foshan or Zu Miao (祖庙), the Zizheng Dafu Hall (资政大夫祠) in Huadu 花都 (north of Guangzhou) and the Liugeng Hall (留更堂) in the ancient village of Shawan 沙湾 are considered to be the most refined example of the classical Lingnan architecture.
Another important element of the Lingnan architecture is the curvy firewalls also called ‘wok-handle roofs’. We rarely see them in Guangzhou, but they can be found in nearby villages like in Daqitou (大旗头), in the Bagua village of Licha (黎槎) near Zhaoqing (肇庆), in Shawan (沙湾) and in the ancient port of Huangpu (黄埔) in the east of the city.
From Classic to Modern Lingnan architecture
Most people do not realise that among China’s three first-tier cities, Guangzhou is by far the oldest. Beijing really started to exist when the Mongol dynasty of the Yuan made it their new capital and Shanghai developed only in the 19th century under the impulse of foreign trade.
Situated at the tip of the Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou has been a gateway for trade between China and the rest of the world. Guangzhou was the departure point of the Maritime Silk Road (海上丝绸之路). The precious Chinese fabric was worn by Roman emperors.
Guangzhou has always been tied to international trade. It was the first Chinese city Western merchants (from a Chinese point of view it includes people from the Middle-East and Occident) ever arrived to.
Under this ‘western’ influence, the buildings that line the streets of Xiguan neighbourhood which was located west of the city walls are known as qilou (骑楼) or arcades and reflects an other kind of Lingnan architecture.
It is in Enning street (恩宁街) and the network of streets behind Shamian Island (which was invested by French and Brits during the second half of the 19th century) that we find most of these qilou – arcade buildings, most of which were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the classical Lingnan architecture, its modern version can be found throughout the Pearl River Delta.
The case of the Kaiping Watchtowers
Between Guangzhou and Zhuhai / Macau, west of the town of Kaiping, historical circumstance gave birth to a East-meet-West architectural hybrid embodied in the Kaiping watchtowers (开平雕镂).
Considered to be a particular feature of the Lingnan architecture, the Kaiping watchtowers were built at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Local impoverished Kaiping people left their land to seek fortune in the new world. The most wealthy of them decided to return from the USA back to their hometown in southern Guangdong province.
The return of wealthy immigrants attracted bandits who raided the Kaiping region. Locals therefore started to build fortified villas and watchtowers to protects their wealth, family and fellow villagers against these raids. More than 1800 of these structures (some of which are protected by UNESCO) were built near Kaiping. They incorporated architectural elements of both the West and China.
In this article I focused on the Lingnan architecture, however the Lingnan Culture (岭南文化) also encompasses the arts and crafts that contributed to make the classical Lingnan architecture what it is, the Cantonese opera (粤剧) and the Cantonese cuisine (粤菜).