Chen Family Temple

The Chen Family Temple was an ancestral temple of the Chen families in Guangdong Province. As a Chinese saying goes, "people of the same surname were in the same family 500 years ago." This adage is known to all in China and is certainly true as applied to the fact that people of the Chen families in the 72 counties of Guangdong Province jointly built this temple, in 1894 in the present-day Zhongshan Qi Road, as a place of their clannish activities on special occasions as well as a shrine for offering sacrifices to their common ancestors. Otherwise called Chen Clan Academy, it was also a school for children of the Chen families. In 1959, it was converted into the Guangdong Folk Art Museum, for the temple structure itself is a comprehensive expression of the exquisite Guangdong folk arts and crafts.

Covering a ground space of 15,000 square meters, with a floor space of 6,400 square meters, the temple is built in the traditional Chinese architectural style. It is laid out in a symmetrical way, with the longitudinal central line as the axis and the structures on one side corresponding exactly with those on the other. Its wide-open main halls and the lattice-walled wing-rooms are interspaced by courtyards and connected with corridors, and huge suspended or floor screens as well as solid brick walls are used as partitions between halls and courtyards and between rooms; thus creating an artistic effect of being structurally compact but appearing spacious and magnificent, and producing a contrasting effect of the big with the small, the high with the low, the open with the hidden and the true with the false.

Another feature of the temple structure is that all the houses are gable-roofed, with two slopes to drain away the rainwater, which is the traditional style of roof structure corresponding to houses for the common people in old China and to temple buildings of this kind. 

Chen Clan Academy

In the feudal society of old China, a strict hierarchy was formed. Under this social estate system, everything was rigidly stratified. The size, height and color of a house and even the style of its roof must match the social status of its owner or user. That's why, in the former imperial palaces, all the back houses for servants and soldiers were low and gable-roofed with grey tiles, but the main buildings in the middle have yellow roofs with slopes on four sides.

While being constructed in the national style of architecture, the temple structure is unique in the way it is decorated, the way that is characteristic of this province. Stone-carvings, brick-carvings, lime sculptures, ceramic figurines, wood-carvings or artistic objects of iron-casting can be found everywhere. They are made into flowers and trees, insects and birds, animals and human figures and even architectural complex. These works of art are used not only for the purpose of decoration but are also symbols or implications of one thing or another, or depictions of various scenes from stories of Chinese history and legends. For example, the peony flower is a symbol of richness and wealth, the twin lotus flowers on one stalk stand for an affectionate couple of husband and wife and the lion sculpture, power and dignity.

Chen Clan Academy

Outside the Main Entrance

1.The Stone Lion and the Unicorn-like Animal

The Stone Lion and the Unicorn-like Animal sit in front of the temple. The one playing a ball is male and the other patting a baby lion is female. Such lion statues can also be seen in other parts of the country, squatting majestically at the main entrances of the houses for the upper class of old China, because they are a symbol of power and dignity.

But the unicorn-like animal on the roof, with a single horn on its head, is a fictitious animal that is peculiar to Guangdong Province. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), natural calamities were of frequent occurrence in the area. At that time, man was absolutely powerless before nature. When calamities occurred, people had no choice but to resort to superstition. They looked upon natural disasters as demons and ghosts and created this beast of prey to expel them.

So, this unicorn-like animal is a mythical beast that is endowed with supernatural power to exorcise evil spirits.

2.The Sculpture of Gourds – A Token of a Flourishing Family

The sculpture of gourds in pairs on the roof or in other places of the temple is a token of a flourishing family with ever-increasing members. It incarnates the Chen family’s desire that its clansmen would live and multiply continuously like gourds growing luxuriantly to propagate successively. This is because the gourd is a seedy plant and its many seeds will propagate in great members.

3. Masterpiece of Brick-carving

On the wall on either side of the main entrance is a picture carved on bricks, depicting different stories from Chinese historical novels. They are regarded as representative works of the exquisite Guangdong brick-carving.

The Guangdong brick-carving is unique in the technique of its making. It is made in such a way that different parts of a picture are carved separately on small pieces of ready-made fired bricks before they are laid onto a wall to form an integral whole, whereas those of other provinces are made by carving a whole picture on a big piece of adobe (unburned brick) before it is fired into a hard cube and embedded onto the wall. The former entails much more precision and skill and so is more exquisite and is of greater artistic value.

(1) Liu Qing Taming a Fierce Horse

The brick-carving on the east side (on our right hand side when facing the temple) depicting the story of Liu Qing, a valiant general of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), who succeeded in taming a fierce horse that was sent by an aggressive neighboring state. The aggressor state had sent the horse as a challenge, threatening that, if nobody in Song’s domain could get the horse under control, they would sent troops to attack. Liu Qing’s courage and valor greatly crushed the enemy’s arrogance and thus avoided a war.

(2)The Heroes Gathering in Revolt in Liangshan

The brick-carving on the west side (on our left hand side when facing the temple) illustrates the happy occasion for the peasant uprising leaders getting together to celebrate their unity in their revolt against the corrupt regime of the

Northern Song Dynasty. The story is written in a famous Chinese classical novel, The Water Margin, which is very popular among the Chinese.

4.The Stone Drums

The stone drums at the main entrance are a symbol of social status of the Chen family. In the feudal society of the Qing Dynasty, people could place a pair of drums in front of their house only when someone in their family had been

conferred an academic degree of (or higher than) “jinshi”, a title given to successful candidates in the imperial examination. In 1893, the year before the temple was completed, a member of the Chen family, Chen Botao by name, was awarded by the Qing court a title of “tanhua”, the number three scholar in the highest imperial examination, and so these drums were mounted here in his honor.

5. The Kylin and Its Treasured Books

The relief sculpture on the wall behind the stone drum on our left (when facing the temple) is called The Kylin and Its Treasured Books. The kylin is a Chinese mythical animal, with an appearance of a deer, a tail of an ox and a body covered all over with scales like a fish.

Tradition says that the kylin is an omen of auspice and was brought into being on the same day as Confucius was born. In the Chinese classics, the kylin is often likened to a great man of noble moral character; therefore the kylin here is, in fact, the incarnation of Confucius, who has been reputed as the greatest philosopher and teacher of morals for over 2000 years in China.

This sculpture was made to encourage people to strive for scholarly honors and official positions by way of studying the works of Confucius.

6. To Be Conferred a Title of Nobility

The relief sculpture behind the stone drum on our right hand side (when facing the temple) is also an implicative picture. The bird, the deer, the bee and the monkey combine to imply that people of the Chen family would be conferred scholarly honors and appointed high official positions with handsome salaries by the imperial court, because the Chinese characters for bird, deer, bee and monkey are homonymous respectively with those for "title of nobility", "official salary" and "granting titles to the nobles".

7.The Door Gods

The two portraits on the door-leaves are door-gods. Original door-gods were two legendary gods, Shentu and Yulei, who, it is said, were able to catch ghosts and protect a house from evil spirits. Attired in fancy armors, with a rope in their hands, they looked awe-inspiring. Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), door-gods have gradually been replaced by people in real life, which is a tradition started by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. It is said that, one day, the emperor was frightened by ghostly wailing from outside his bedroom and he could not fall asleep. Two of his faithful generals, Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong, offered to guard his bedroom at night, so the emperor slept soundly. His Majesty then ordered that the portraits of the two generals be put up on his bedroom door and this also kept the ghosts away. Since then the two generals have been regarded as door-gods.

Chen Clan Academy House Guangzhou

In the Front Hall

The Teak-Wood Screen

Among all the works of art in the temple, the wood-carving is the most outstanding. This teak-wood screen, together with the one in the central hall, is indeed a rare piece of wood-carving in the local province and in the whole country as well. The most prominent feature of the wood-carving in the temple is that most of them are carved to penetrating through the wood from one side to the other, so the two sides are carefully made with exactly the same things but those on the reserve side are placed just the other way round, as is the inverted image in the mirror.

(1) To Create a Great Property to Benefit the Flourishing of Posterity

On this picture. A hen and some chickens are walking leisurely looking for food under the shade of the big leaves of a banana tree. The chickens here are not portrayed just for chicken’s sake but are likened to the present generations of the family. Also, the big leaves of the banana tree are compared to the great property or great wealth created by past generations, because the Chinese words for “big leaf” and the words for "great property" or "great wealth" are homophones of each other.

The moral of the picture is that the great property created by the older generations is benefiting the younger generations; therefore, people of the present generations must also work hard to create more wealth for the benefit of the future generations.

(2) A Man of Great Learning is to be Appointed Official Positions

This picture is composed of many things and each has its own meaning:

a. This is the emblem of Daoism called "Bagua". Its eight diagrams stand for eight existences or phenomenon in nature (sky, earth, thunder, wind, water, fire, mountain and lake) and embody a profound theory. Here, they symbolize people's knowledge of all branches.

b. The wine-pot: In the Chinese classics, a wine-pot with much or little wine in it is sometimes likened to a person of great or poor learning.

c. The wine-cup: This is an ancient wine vessel and is likened to "title of nobility", because the two things are meant by the same word in ancient Chinese.

d. The ancient coin: Its meaning is self-evident, i.e., money and wealth.

e. The phoenix: A mythical chicken-like bird that is regarded as a mascot whose presence is supposed to bring good luck.

f. The kylin: A fictitious animal that is sometimes compared to a person of profound knowledge.

So, "A man of great learning is sure to be conferred a title of nobility and appointed an official position with a handsome salary" is the main idea the picture implies.

(3) A Man Filled with Elation and the Five Blessings

This is a picture of an incense-burner with a wisp of smoke curling upward to form a Chinese character meaning "longevity", which is surrounded by five bats. In the Chinese language, a person who is elated by his success is often described as one who proudly "blows off his breath" and "upwardly stretches his brows". Therefore, the smoke emitted from the incense-burner is likened to the breath blown out from a person’s mouth and the incense-burner with rising smoke is compared to a person who is proud of his success.

The five bats flying around the Chinese character for longevity stand for "five blessings" or "five good fortunes", because the Chinese word for "bat" and the word for "blessing" are homophones of each other. According to the Chinese classics, the five blessings are "to live long, to be wealthy, to be healthy, to have cultivated morality and to die a natural death”. Therefore, the picture is an implicit illustration of people's aspiration for a successful and happy life.

(4) Young Folks Grow Up Fast but a Great Mind Matures Late

This is a bamboo stem that's grown into the shape of a Chinese character meaning "happiness" or "good fortune". The bamboo shoots up very fast at the earlier stage of its growth, but it takes years for it to become mature enough for practical use. The picture suggests that a young man is quick to learn but a man of great learning needs years to shape or illustrates the meaning of an English proverb "Rome was not built in a day". This is to encourage people to study with perennial efforts.

In addition, a character for happiness that is composed of a bamboo stem also implies a greeting of "wishing somebody happiness", because the Chinese word for "bamboo" is homonymous with the word for "wish". So, "bamboo happiness" implies "wishing somebody happiness".

(5) The Advent of Good Fortune

The Advent of Good Fortune is an inverted Chinese character for "happiness" or "good fortune". It is on the reverse side of the wood-carving and so is placed the other way round. The Chinese word for "inversion" and the word for "advent" are homophones of each other, so an inverted character for "good fortune" implies "the advent of good fortune" or "the coming of happiness".

Guangzhou Chen Clan Academy

The Sage Meeting Hall

The Sage Meeting Hall and was the place where the elders of the Chen family got together to discuss their clannish affairs.

On the ridge of the hall and on the balustrade around the platform in front of the hall, there are many works of art: lime-sculptures, pottery-sculptures, stone-carvings and artistic articles of metal-casting. They are all implications of one thing or another. For example:

1. Sacrificial Offerings to Ancestors

At the top of the balusters are carved several kinds of fruit that abound in South China: peach, star-fruit, papaya and so on. They are symbolic offerings to the Chen family’s ancestors.

2. The Three "yangs" Usher in Prosperity

Embedded in the balustrade around the platform are metal-castings of different designs. Among them the one of three goats with the sun overhead is called "The Three 'Yangs’ Usher in Prosperity".

The Chinese word for goat is pronounced as "yang", the same as the word for the sun, so the goat is an implication of the sun. In the Chinese classical philosophy, the "yang" (the sun) is the antithesis of the "yin" (the moon). The "yin" and the "yang" are the negative and positive antitheses in the Chinese philosophic conception, whose growing and declining account for the rising and falling of the relative strength of the two principles in nature.

The primary meanings of the "yin" and the "yang" refer to the two sides that are shaded from or exposed to the sun: the sunny side is the "yang" and the shady side is the "yin". Therefore, the changing of the relative strength of the "yin" and the "yang" is often extended to mean the transit of seasons, from cold to warm or from warm to cold. When November comes, the "yin" begins to fall and the first "yang" rises. The second "yang" grows up in December and, when the third "yang" appears in January, spring comes round to the earth and everything takes on a new look – a scene that heralds a period of prosperity.

In the old days, this motto – "The Three 'Yang’ Usher in Prosperity" – was a complimentary remark for the New Year's Day.

3. Coming out First in the Highest Imperial Examination

The two creatures sticking up from the ridge are heads of legendary turtles. During China’s Tang and Song dynasties, a huge portrait of such a turtle-head was carved in front of the steps that led up to the emperor’s throne in the imperial palace. When members of the imperial academy were presented at court they usually stood in the middle of the turtle-head, so "to be enrolled in the imperial academy" was often referred to as "going up to the turtle-head" and "coming out first in the imperial examination" was known as "monopolizing the turtle-head". Therefore, the turtle-heads mounted (1.7-meter-high) on the ridge indicate the Chen family's desire that its members would be honored with imperial scholarship and appointed official positions.

Spectacular Chen Clan Academy

The Rear Hall and the Wing Rooms

The Rear Hall and the Wing Rooms were the place where the Chen people worshiped their ancestors. On the shrine there used to be tablets of their ancestors, which were arranged in the order of seniority in the family. The one at the top was "Emperor Shun", who was believed to be the remote ancestor of the Chen family. (Shun was the head of a tribal alliance dating back to the 21st century BC, when China's social structure was in the period of transition from clan commune to feudalism.) In the old days in every spring and autumn, grand sacrificial ceremonies were held here by the Chen clansmen to worship their common ancestors. This wooden shrine was made in 1890 during the reign of Emperor Guangxu of the Qing Dynasty and is the largest and the most exquisitely made ancestral shrine still in existence in Guangdong Province. The wing-rooms on the east and the west sides were classrooms where the Chen family children studied.

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