Shawan (沙湾古镇) is an impressive ancient village located just southeast of Guangdong’s capital city of Guangzhou. With it’s 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 looks untouched by time.
History & 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) half-moon shaped riverside (湾), the ancients gave it the named ‘Shawan’.
According to local history, the town was the birth place of a number of men who dedicated their lives to art. Indeed, Shawan is considered to be the birthplace of Cantonese music and folk art; in addition, brilliant craftsmen contributed to wood and stone sculpture and artistic features that have become characteristics of the Lingnan culture (岭南文化) that prevails in southern China.
The ancient murals, the miniature scenes meticulously carved in the niche of temples, ancestral halls and hall mansions, the layout of the houses and their architecture contribute to make Shawan a jewel of Lingnan architecture.
Another interesting feature of Shawan, is the shell walls : during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), shells were used to build walls and some of them are still standing.
Architectural and historical highlights of Shawan
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.
Yuxu Palace 玉虚宫
Yuxu Palace is a Taoist temple adjacent to the Liugeng Hall and is dedicated to the Xuan Wu (玄武), the Mysterious Heavenly Upper Emperor (玄天上帝), a powerful Taoist deity capable of great magic and controlling the elements. One of the most interesting feature of the Yuxu Palace (which means ‘Empty Jade Palace’), is the amount of giant incense coils burning all over the temple.
In the main hall dedicated to Xuan Wu, 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 Xuan Wu.
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). Like the Yuxu Palace, this much small temple, is dedicated to Xuan Wu, but under the name of Wu Di (武帝), the acronym for the True Martial Great Emperor (真武大帝). Much small than the Yuxu Palace, 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.
How to get there
The easiest is to ride the subway. Jump on the overcrowded 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.
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.