Underneath The Urban: Exploring Dongguan’s Ancient Villages

Have you ever wondered about Dongguan’s ancient communities? What lies beneath the recent industrial development? Between the blanket of interspersed commercial spaces, you can find subtle traces of historical homes.

Aspecific area’s demographic change is often complex and variable. Unsurprisingly, the ancestors inhabited in Dongguan were not at all the aboriginal of this area called “baiyue,” but a mixture of immigrants from the north since the city was established in 757. Many early inhabitants came to settle down in Dongguan’s rural areas around 800 years ago during the turbulent period. Until 1400, more latecomers rooted here to escape wars and famine.

Typically, refugees followed the official post route and arrived at the first stop of Guangdong, Zhujixiang in Shaoguan. After the long journey, they would rest for a while before continuing south, until they found a suitable place to grow crops and reproduce. Many of them ended up in the Pearl River Delta. This is the reason why Zhujixiang was referred to as the “birthplace” of PRD residents.

The number of immigrants grew larger and larger and eventually formed a village sharing the same surname. Throughout the years, they adjusted to local conditions and created their own lifestyle, architecture and culture called “Lingnan style.” Lingnan means the south of Nanling Mountains, covering Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan.

With ancient and bushy banyan trees and a water lily-saturated pond in front, high and thick walls and gates enclose the village and decorative clan temples lead rows of houses with green bricks and gray tiled roofing. Narrow and stone-paved lanes stretch to the end; this is the classic image of a Lingnan village.

Fengshui denotes an important element in any Lingnan ancient village. Water represents wealth, so ponds are always in front of a settlement. The shielding banyan tree provides a decent public space for the old and young in four seasons. Here, official law reinforcement meant very little; instead, Confucian patriarchal clan decisions were the substitute laws. You see many ancestral temples but very few religious temples. They were the places for worship, ceremony, weddings, meetings and celebrations.

As the heartland of Lingnan culture, Dongguan was once flourishing with villages. However, recent industrial development has destroyed most structures, and a decline in population becomes an even more pressing issue. What is left of these villages and how to obtain sustainable development? With curious and eager minds, the HERE! team explored the city to discover the very answer to that question.

The Most Well-Preserved: Nanshe, Chashan Town
The number and complexity of ancestral halls reveal the prosperity of a village. Nanshe is by far the village with the most and fanciest family temples left today. There are 30 of them sharing the same surname “Xie,” as the clan lineage has gone on for 29 generations. When a descendant achieved academic or imperial success, they would come back to their hometown and build a hall to worship their direct ancestors. Glittering with sophisticated porcelains of mythical animals and figures on the ridge, it was the highest honor a villager could obtain.

Most of the characteristics of a Lingnan ancient village have been kept: the pond, bridges, temples, traditional houses, the wall, gate tower and the lanes of the village. Established around 800 years ago, Nanshe is the most well-preserved ancient village and has turned into a primary tourist attraction in Dongguan. While the tangible heritage remains, the intangible local culture and way of life were driven out of the village, for most villagers have moved and resettled in a new part of the village. Although the government tries to vitalize it with traditional festivals and ceremonies, you hardly see a real dweller most of the time, let alone their way of life.

Public transit: Bus Line L6 (pass by Dynatown), all the way to terminal
DiDi destination:
“Nán shè míng qīng gǔ cūnluò”
Tickets: 30 RMB
Hours: 9:00-5:30 pm


The Most Well-Known: Xiaba Fang, Wanjiang District
Few people could have guessed what the ancient village Xiaba Fang (also known as Batou) would become today. Since the opening of the first business—a book bar and studio which was renovated from the village’s only Soviet-style headquarters in the 60s—it has changed drastically in just eight years.

Located beside the branch of Dongjiang River, it is said that its first settlers were drifting along the river from Jiangxi Province about 700 years ago. Many a time in history, floods devastated the village, yet they still rebuilt their home. The most recent disaster came in the 1950s when only a few hundred-year-old houses were able to escape. However, none of them could escape the latest man-made disruption.

While the village has enjoyed considerable compliments, comparing to Beijing’s 798 or Xiamen’s Gulangyu, many more criticize. They think the barbarian-style, profit-driven and disorganized development apparently overwhelms the otherwise serene village, and most construction totally remodeled the old houses, leaving only the shell. The village committee hoped more art-related institutes and less commercial bars and restaurants were to come, but unfortunately, they couldn’t interfere as they wished. However, they did improve the environment, building new pavements, enlarging parking areas and fixing the sewage system. It is only during the daytime when eye-blinding neon lights and ear-splitting music do not affect the quietness beside the river.

Public transit: Bus Line 11, 25, 29, get off at 坝头村委
DiDi destination: “Xià bà fang” 下坝坊


The Closest Neighbor: Wushigang, Dongcheng District
Just across the street from Dongguan’s most foreigner-friendly area, Dynatown and New World Garden, lies a less-developed world where unorganized houses and buildings cram in a block filled with low-end fast food shops. This is Wushigang Village, a Li clan settlement with over 600 years of history. “Back to around 2000, Dynatown was only a piece of grassland where my parents grew vegetables,” said Zola Li, a native of the village. When talking about the changes of the place she grew up in, she had a lot to say. First, the City Official Garden, then the Thirteen Bowls food street and Dynatown; now 33 Town, they all once belonged to Wushigang. The areas have shrunk dramatically over the last 20 years.

Now the old part of the village, closer to Donghua Hospital, appears vacant and overgrown with weeds. The only thing left to prove the existence of the long history is the renovated Li Clan Ancestral Hall. The few local villagers who stay are residing in the 200 neat villas, which were built as a form of compensation for requisition of their land. The industrial zone, which attracted over 30 factories in printing, toys, hardware and glass during the 1990s, was taken over by 33 Town. Naturally, the industrial prosperity brought along the house rental business, which secured concrete income to villagers.

Public transit: Bus Line 16, 21, 43, 55, 59, 872, 873, C1, K1, L5A, L6, X11, X22, to Dynatown 星河传说
DiDi destination: “Wū shí gǎng cūn lánqiú chǎng” 乌石岗村篮球场

The Most Monetary: Tangwei, Shipai Town
As one of the only two “National Historic and Cultural Villages” in Dongguan, Tangwei is overshadowed by Nanshe’s fame, perhaps because it didn’t produce as many imperial officials as Nanshe. Located beside the Dongjiang River with blessed convenience in water transport, Tangwei villagers were way ahead in doing business than studying or governing. Tangwei merchants could be found all over the region and Southeast Asia. In ancient society, working in the government was much more respectful than trading. The only way for the working class to squeeze in upper class was by taking the imperial exam. Though there are still 19 studies left within the village, it didn’t achieve remarkable academic success throughout the years.

For this reason, you also won’t see as many “wok yi uk” (“house with wok ears”) as in Nanshe. The distinct characteristic in Lingnan architecture refers to a pair of curled walls protruding vertically at both ends of a house’s roof. It was a tradition to build such walls for people who have been granted honors through the empire’s examination system. In Tangwei, only two “wok yi uk” are seen, these being in the Ancestral hall of the Li Clan and the East Gate of the village. However, this kind of style also serves practical functions, such as reducing the sunlight to lower temperatures and preventing fire spreading from a neighboring house by wind.

DiDi destination: “Táng wěicūn gǔ jiànzhú qún” 塘尾村古建筑群

The Most Picturesque: Zhouwu, Dongcheng District
Zhouwu Village earns quite a decent reputation, especially within the photography circle, because it contains the biggest experimental rice paddy field in the whole city. Therefore, as you can imagine, it attracts enthusiasts along with their cameras throughout all four seasons. It feels tranquil to walk between the fields, watch farmers busy attending their crops and absentmindedly stare at the high-rise apartments in the distance.

However, agriculture isn’t the only thing Zhouwu villagers are proud of. They also boast over 600 years of history. The well-restored Ancestral Hall of Zhou Clan worships the very first ancestor of Zhou. His black-and-white portrait is hung above an altar, with an elaborate floor-to-ceiling carved wooden frame. A few dozens of staggering traditional houses still stand behind, though lacking trace of daily life.

Public transit: Bus Line 13, 33, 821, Shilong 10, get off at 周屋村口
DiDi destination: “Míng qīng zhōu shì zōngcí” 明清周氏宗祠


The Most Primitive: Jiangbian, Qishi Town
Jiangbian Village is perhaps the least disturbed, and still preserves its authentic look from 100 years ago quite well. Walking through the winding and brick-paved alleys, a strong smell of moss and damp fills your nostrils. Traces of the Cultural Revolution are still visible, for slogans from that period cover both sides of a door. Except for a few ancestral halls in the front row of the village having been converted into public service centers, 100-or-so old dwellings lay untouched in the back. Some villagers remain in the relatively newer and better-conditioned houses surrounding the old and torn ones. Despite this, the whole settlement seems pretty still during a sun-lit afternoon.

One unmissable building of Jiangbian is the Ancestral Hall of Huang Clan, which nestles on the edge from most establishments. With just one glance of the house you can tell it’s so different from all the other clan shrines. Green glazed tile roof, strictly symmetrical structure, colorful sculptures of figures from myths and layers upon layers of brackets underneath the eaves; all are rarely seen in non-government constructions. It is said that this archway style of houses required permission from the imperial government before being built. Legend said that the initiator of this hall, Huang Xueyi, had a good relationship with a higher-rank official, Hai Rui, meaning that the local village’s ancestral hall turned out to be more majestic than it could have been.

DiDi destination: “Jiāng biān cūn”


The Most Ambitious: Xixi, Liaobu Town
Xixi Village may not be the oldest or the most beautiful ancient village, but it certainly spent quite some money to restore the surrounding environment, adding another attraction on top of the Liaobu Zoo, the Ancient Incense Market and the Movie City in town.

Since 2015, the pond as big as the village has been cleaned up, the temples have been renovated and the south square has been paved with upscale granite. Yet like all the other ancient villages, once it was declared as a cultural heritage site, the few remaining inhabitants would be sacrificed for the promising touristic future. To truly preserve an old village and its culture, the government still has a long way to go.

But until then, we can still grasp moments of the spirit or segments of history from the buildings. For example, the red stone frequently used in Xixi and other villages, as a foundation of walls or frames of doors, were mostly mined from Shipai’s Yanling Quarry, which reached its peak time from the 17th to 19th century.

Public transit: Liaobu bus Line A11, all the way to terminal 西溪古村
Didi destination: “Xīxī gǔcūn-gōngjiāo zhàn” 西溪古村-公交站

The Most Protected: Shuiwei Fang, Humen Town
Shuiwei Fang is probably the most protected village in the city, surrounded by an 18-meter-wide moat and half-a-meter-thick, 6-meter-high wall. Because of its shape, it was granted another name translated as “turtle fortress village against the current.” The hung wooden bridge has since become concrete, and the only connection with the outside world, as well as the tail of the turtle. Four watch towers on each corner represent turtle’s legs and a fortress protruding from the northern wall is the turtle head.

According to legend, Humen native and imperial official Zheng Yu built the village at the end of Ming Dynasty (1640), to guard six ships of gold and silver that he was supposed to send to the emperor. The tragic news about the emperor’s death reached Zheng before he made it to Beijing. He turned around and took all the gold back to his hometown Humen, where he built the water fortress to protect his wealth and waited for the expected attack, which never came.

No one ever actually saw the gold. However, 15 generations of Zheng thrived in the squared village, though none of them stay anymore due to the fact that since last year, the government has been renovating all of the damaged traditional houses. It’s still unclear what they are going to do with the brand “new” ancient village.

DiDi destination: “Hǔmén báishā cūn” 虎门白沙村