Pearl of the Pearl River

BY :China Daily

UPDATED :February 26, 2019


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A stone lion at the Chen clan's compound in Guangzhou. [PHOTO BY ERIK NILSSON/CHINA DAILY]

Guangzhou carries Cantonese culture from the past into the future and from Guangdong to the world, Erik Nilsson discovers. 

Lore holds that Guangzhou was founded by five immortals, who rode rams gnawing on stalks of rice to the settlement formerly known as Canton.

Guangdong province's capital is still known as "the city of rice", "the city of rams" and "the city of immortals".

Indeed, the pearl of the Pearl River Delta shines as a destination for people hoping to experience the traditions, lifestyles and art of the 2,000-year-old port city that's today a modern metropolis.

Like any pearl, it's built layer upon layer over time.

Ancient thoroughfares can be seen through glass panels in the ground along Beijing Road. [PHOTO BY CHEN BAOZHONG/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Nanyue palace ruins

A 2,000-year-old garden was uncovered when construction crews were excavating foundations for high rises in the 1990s.

Ruins of the 30,000-square-meter palace complex of the Nanyue (203 BC-111 BC) and Nanhan (917-971) kingdoms near the city's center are pocked with over 500 wells drilled over two millennia and streaked by more than 160 meters of man-made streams with "speed bumps" to create waves.

About 120 legible bamboo slips were found inside the wells in 2004-a remarkable discovery, since few such historical records have survived the region's humidity. Iron and leather armor for soldiers and horses was also found in the founts.

The garden grounds, selected for their outstanding feng shui, also hosted the bones of 20 animal species, including crocodiles, bears and porcupines. The shells of 120 turtles averaging 35 centimeters were discovered, along with the remains of 40 plant species.

Visitors can uncover how the city has transformed over centuries and then step outside to explore the modern metropolis it has become.

An ancestral hall featuring colorful rooftop statues at the Chen clan's compound. [PHOTO BY ERIK NILSSON/CHINA DAILY]

Zhongshan No 4 Road

Enamel. Embroidery. Copperware.

Zhongshan No 4 Road, near the Nanyue Palace, hosts stores and workshops devoted to Cantonese handicrafts along qilou, walkways with traditional rooftops particular to the rainy region.

Olive-pit carving is one of the unique folk arts to survive the centuries. Ancient "red boats" for roving Cantonese Opera troupes are the most common motif. The ships are only about 2 centimeters long but typically feature five people, eight windows and doors that swivel open.

Other subjects include such auspicious symbols as lychees, dragons or children carrying corn.

Cantonese porcelain-distinguished from other varieties by gold thread, paint and jade inlays-was once a major export to Europe and the United States. It takes a master five days to create one piece.

Ivory carvers, who can whittle 52 intricate layers, have replaced the material with ox bone and wood.

Travelers can watch craftspeople work, buy their wares or simply learn about these traditional folk arts-and, consequently, Cantonese culture.

Beijing Road

Beijing Road is built over the ruins of 11 layers of pavement from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) through the Republic of China period (1912-49).

The roughly 30,000 daily visitors, who stroll along the pedestrian street that intersects with Zhongshan No 4 Road, can see bricks from these ancient thoroughfares through glass panels in the ground.

Red lanterns bejewel green trees.

The street leads to an ancient city gate and a replica of an ancient clepsydra featuring dragonhead spouts.

Other relics are nestled along the thoroughfare.

It has maintained its ancient function as a shopping area, and hosts what the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes as the world's oldest pharmacy.

Today, it's also home to the likes of McDonald's, Goelia and Rolex.

An artisan paints plates at his store at Zhongshan No 4 Road, which hosts stores and workshops devoted to Cantonese handicrafts. [PHOTO BY ERIK NILSSON/CHINA DAILY]

Chen Clan Ancestral Hall

The superlatively flamboyant Chen clan's compound would make a peacock blush.

The visually resplendent Chen Clan Ancestral Hall showcases Cantonese craftsmanship at its best-and most hyperactive.

The 15,000-square-meter complex completed in the 1870s is the province's largest constructed in the regional Lingnan style.

Its 11 shrines and exhibition halls house local deities, totems of filial piety and such artifacts as folding fans, local pith-paper watercolors and shell carvings.

Rooftop statues, tiles and engraved wooden screens feature such local totems of good fortune as banana trees or groups of eight chickens, 18 lobsters and 48 crabs. (The numbers also have auspicious meanings.)

Locals joke that the hall was the world's first "crowdfunding" project. It was built with contributions from over 1,700 people with the surname Chen-the most common in Guangdong-although not all were blood relatives.

Those who presented receipts for their donations were able to stay overnight for free in olden days.

Today, it's a major ticketed destination for people with all surnames-including some whose happen to be Chen.

Nanyue king's mausoleum

The Nanyue king's mausoleum could be the setting of an Indiana Jones film.

Visitors descend 20 meters into the tomb of the Nanyue's second ruler, Zhao Mo, bored into an artificial hill. They can explore the burial passages, where the monarch was interred with 15 human sacrifices, 200 fowl and abundant seafood.

A concubine's skeleton can be viewed through glass. And the ruler's teeth and cranium are displayed outside.

Guests can also see the burial suit created with over 2,000 small jade tiles sewn together with silk in addition to over 1,000 other relics discovered when this underground afterworld was unearthed.

Visitors to Guangzhou will find much of the city's cultural appeals are, like its ruins, under the surface-and it's worth digging deeply to uncover its layers.

Source: China Daily
Editor: Dong Han