Foshan’s ancestral temple : between folklore and Taoist gods

Lingnan architecture at the ancestral temple of Foshan

Lingnan architecture at the ancestral temple of Foshan

One of the main reason to head over to Foshan’s ancestral temple or ‘Zumiao’ (祖庙) is to admire a jewel of architecture. It is considered along with the Chen Clan Academy (陈家祠) in Guangzhou or the Liugeng Hall in the ancient village of Shawan (沙湾) as one of the most representative and the most achieved example of Lingnan (岭南) architecture.

Foshan’s ancestral temple, is much more than just a beautiful temple. It offers foreign visitor a unique experience that is hard to find in other Chinese temples.

Pak Tai Hall

Detail of Pak Tai's Hall roof in Foshan's ancestral temple

Detail of Pak Tai’s Hall roof in Foshan’s ancestral temple

Behind the screen wall that features two ceramic dragons, one in the sky and one in the sea, a small entrance pierced in the long red wall leads to the main temple compound. Facing the geomantic Jinxiang Pool (锦香池) the entrance to a series of three hall in the last of which solemnly thrones the bronze statue of Pak Tai. The roofs eaves are decorated with gold-leaf plated wood-carved miniature scene. On top of the roof a myriad of painted figures are absorbed into another world.

Worshippers carrying sticks of incense and tourists armed with their cameras evolve from the front hall (前殿) to the Palace of the Celebration of the Truth (庆真殿). Worshippers kneel in front of the Emperor of the North(北帝), Pak Tai in Cantonese or Bei Di in Mandarin. Guardian of society, he is believe to descend from this other-worldly residence in the sky to restore order on earth when chaos reigns.

Temples dedicated to Pak Tai are usually called ‘Palace of the Jade Vacuity’ (玉虚宫) like the ones in Shawan (沙湾), Huangpu (黄埔) and on the island of Cheung Chau (长州) in Hong Kong.

Elderly entertainment centre

An animated Chinese chess game inside Foshan's ancestral temple

An animated Chinese card game inside Foshan’s ancestral temple

Travellers who have visited Southeast Asian temple are sometimes baffled by the lack of solemnity behind the walls of a temple compound like this one.

The process of secularisation of temple that started under the Republican Era (well before the destruction of the Cultural Revolution) has allowed for a mix-used religious places. This is why, on the square in front of the main temple and the in front of the stele alley, elderly seat around stone tables. Women play cards and men gather behind two opponents, loudly affronting each other around a game of Chinese chess. We hear very animated conversations in Cantonese, about, I presume, what the next move should be.

On the square behind the screen wall, many elderly people come for their morning exercise. Men do their Taichi exercise in loose-fitting clothes and next to them a small group of women practice the fan dance on the sound of a loud speaker.

Martial art and lion dance

The lion dance at Foshan's Ancestral Temple

The lion dance at Foshan’s Ancestral Temple

Behind the temple proper, there is an exhibition dedicated to Huang Feihong (黄飞鸿), a local man born in the mid-19th century and famous thanks to his mastering of kung-fu.

That is where the highlight of a visit at Foshan Zumiao takes place. Inside the Huang Feihong memorial hall (黄飞鸿纪念堂), a daily performance of kung-fu takes place every day at 10 AM and 3 PM and on the square in front of the hall, visitors gather every day 10:30 AM, 2:30 PM and 3:30 PM for a lion dance show.

Cantonese opera

The Wanfu Stage at Foshan's Zumiao

The Wanfu Stage at Foshan’s Zumiao

On the other side of the geomantic Jinxiang Pool (锦香池), opposite the entrance to the Pak Tai temple, behind the impressive Lingying archway (灵应牌坊), you will find the Ten-thousand Happiness stage or Wanfu Tai (万福台) where weekly Cantonese opera performances take place  every Saturdays and Sundays between 1.30 and 3.30 PM.

The stage is truly impressive. With impressive wood-carved gold-leaf plated bas-reliefs and miniatures scenes on the roofs eaves the Wanfu stage is, like the ancestral temple, a pure product of Lingnan architecture.

It may be weird that the performance stage is facing directly the temple. In , Yunnan province, we find the same layout where the Sideng old theatre (古戏台) was built right in front of the Xingjiao temple (兴教寺) so that actors could entertain both the populace and the gods. Unless the geomantic pool as act a screen, it’s likely that Pak Tai and the other gods who reside in the temple join the visitors during performances.

How to get there

Foshan’s ancestral temple is situated on Zumiao Road #21 (祖庙路) in Chancheng urban district (禅城区).

The Zumiao (祖庙) has a stop on the Guangfo subway line (广佛线), an extension of Guangzhou subway system which links downtown Foshan to Xilang (西朗) exchange station, on the edge of Guangzhou, where you can switch over to line 1 towards Shamian Island, Chen Clan Academy and Zhujiang New Town.

Foshan's ancestral hall main entrance

Foshan’s ancestral hall main entrance


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