Monday, 1 September 2014

Late Imperial Guangzhou 广州 or "Canton", its gardens and temples. Part 2, the "Old city"

Guangzhou in 1900. 广州历史地图精粹 p.81, kept in the Guangdong archives.

What did Guangzhou 广州 (or Canton) look like in late imperial China, and more specifically during the 19th century? That is the question I try to answer succinctly here, by describing its most important landmarks.
"That part of [Guangzhou], which is surrounded by a wall, is built nearly in the form of a square, and is divided by a wall running from east to west, into two parts. The northern, which is much the largest part, is called the old city; the southern part is called the new city. [...] These divisions ceased long ago to exist. The new city was built at a much later period than the old." The Chinese Directory, vol II, 1834, p.155

This post will describe the general aspect of the Old City, what one could have seen while walking its 19th century streets. We will keep in mind that depending on the years, Westerners (or common Chinese people for that matter) would not have been allowed everywhere, a state of things which would change with the Opium Wars, and is not our focus for this post. 

Guangzhou in 1888. 广州历史地图精粹 p.52. Kept in Zhongshan library.

The inside of the Old City was made of many smaller walled units: the many “yamen” 衙门. Civil government officials worked in offices at the front and lived in halls at the back [1]. Walking down these streets, the main available view was that of many inner walls. Two main avenues were cutting through this Old City, one from north to south and the other from east to west, linking different gates. To the south was the Gate of Virtue, quite easy to spot because of its  four "massive ornamental stone arches" [2].  There were sixteen gates around the Old City by the mid-nineteenth century [3]. The walls were bi-coloured: a red sandstone served as base and the rest was made of grey bricks. The overall height ranged from 8 to 14 metres, and the thickness could attain 6 metres.

Outside the walls, except in the south where the New City laid, ditches circled the walls.  According to Ida Pfeiffer, who visited Guangzhou in August 1847 disguised as a man (it was then supposedly forbidden for foreigners, and above all women, to visit the city), the outside wall was then almost 20 metres high (this can be doubted) but more interesting was the fact that it was fully invaded by vegetation, disappearing under wild plants to the point of resembling a splendid hedge [4]. This sight must have been magnificent, as these green walls rose from a maze of smaller houses. However the best drawing I could find of these walls represent them as white. 
Guangzhou seen from the eastern suburbs in 1857. Reproduced in Garrett, Plate 8

The western part of the Old City was home to the Manchu, the military class. According to the fengshui, the north is considered the better direction to live in a city and a house. In the northern part, the west side is considered better; and the Manchu had to symbolically mark their superiority. Especially because, as a major port, Canton was occupied by some 5000 bannermen with their families, their quarters situated in what was called the Tartar Quarter. Their dwellings were different from the Chinese houses, the latter being mostly made of clay bricks and wood.

The Manchu streets offered a strange sight of adobe buildings, of which the walls were whitewashed, while every border was underlined by black paint. On this white canvas were drawn red suns for lower ranks soldiers, and diverse symbolic animals for the higher officials. According to the Westerners who visited the area, it was a quiet quarter, most contrasting with the New City full of Chinese life. The pictures show only ground level houses for lower ranks, it probably was not higher than one storey in the higher rank streets.

  The Tartar Quarter and the Flowery Pagoda, 1860. Picture taken by Felice Beato. Reproduced in Garrett, p.17

The Tartar General, head of the banner garrison, lived in a special yamen. It was a two-storey building, considered one of the biggest of China at the time[5] and one of the most important official residences of Guangzhou. Its outstanding appearance rendered the building more noticeable from a far distance than when walking near its walls. After the bombardment of the city in 1856 by British and French allies, part of the yamen was walled-off and occupied by the British consul, while the rest remained to the Tartar General.

Thomson, 1873: Plate XVII The British consular yamun Canton

The east side of the Old City was home to some of the Chinese officials, in reality more powerful than their proud neighbours. The Mandarins also had yamen, however their appearance was more evidently Chinese, made of wood and brick. This quarter of official buildings was organised in a regular way, however its pattern was disturbed in the South-east by a long rectangular area : the Examination Hall. According to the Scotsman John Thomson in the 1870s:
"[The Examination Hall] covered an area of 1300 feet by 583 feet, hedged round by a high wall pierced by gateways on the East and west, and by a main entrance. [...] Entering the great gateway, one is admitted to the central avenue [...] flanked on each side by rows of cells, each row marked by a colossal character taken from "The Thousand Characters Classic". [...] A narrow passage divides the rows and admits access.[6]"
This contrast between Manchu and Chinese quarters was probably fully appreciated by foreign eyes : the exotic and marvellous creatures painted on the white walls of the Tartar Quarter were answered by the elegance of the giant characters adorning the rows of the Examination Hall. 

Canton Examination Hall, picture taken in 1873 by John Thomson

The spacious Old City was marked by a number of landmarks. These could be seen from afar, and were often represented in paintings or pictures. One of them is the Zhenhai Tower 镇海楼 or Five Storey Pagoda 五层楼 first built in 1380. Its location, on the upper part of the hill that is now the Yuexiu Park 越秀公园, made it easy to spot (see more pictures on the Historical Photographs of China website, an initiative of the University of Bristol).

 Vömel, Heinrich Johann (Mr), “Pagoda, tea-house and look-out tower, Canton.,”, taken between 1901-13. BM Archives.

Another eye-catching building was the Flowery Pagoda 花塔, an octagonal tower of more than fifty metres, with many levels and matching roofs. It was situated in the middle of the Tartar Quarter.

 Ziegler, Heinrich (Mr) , “Flower pagoda, Canton.,”  taken between 1877-1915. BM archives.

Its counterpart was the minaret, located in the Huaisheng Mosque 怀圣寺, or Tower of Light 光塔. It was first built in 850 and reconstructed in 1468, and is still standing today. Its height is about 50 metres, its shape is circular with two levels, and as it is not adorned by any decorations it was sometimes given the nickname of "Smooth Pagoda". This minaret stood as proof of the Arab presence since the Tang dynasty in Guangzhou. 

Guangzhou Mosque and Minaret. Date unknown, reproduced in Garrett, p.7

There were probably some gardens inside the yamen of the Old City, but unfortunately the only pictorial evidence I found so far are all pictures of the "English" yamen previously mentioned. Some characteristics of Guangzhou gardens, such as the penjing holders, are visible:
Canton n244. Yamoon. Residence of the English Consul - on the left are the gardens. George Ernest Morrison, around 1870s. Image found on a Chinese website, but many copies exist, notably in the British Museum & another at the Royal Collection

Let's conclude on a citation from S. Wells Williams (1848)[7] :

"There are two pagodas near the west gate of the old city, and one hundred and twenty-four temples, pavilions, halls, and other religious edifices within the circuit of the city.
One of the pagodas, called the Kwang tah or Plain pagoda, was erected by the Mohammedans, who still reside near it, about ten centuries ago, and is rather a minaret than a pagoda, though quite unlike those structures in Turkey in its style of architecture : it shoots up in an angular, tapering tower, to the height of one hundred and sixty feet. 
The other is an octagonal pagoda, of nine stories, one hundred and seventy feet high, and was first erected more than thirteen hundred years ago.

The geomancers say that thewhole city is like a junk, these two pagodas are her masts, and the five storied tower on the northern wall, her stern sheets."

Next post will focus on the New City!

Links to see, learn more:
Old Shameen, Chronicling the history of Shamian Island in text and pictures
Historical Photographs of China website, an initiative of the University of Bristol

[1] Garrett, V. M. (2002). Heaven is high, the emperor far away: merchants and mandarins in old Canton. New York: Oxford University Press. p 14 
[2] Garrett (2002), p 13
[3] Garrett (2002), p 15

[4] Pfeiffer, I. (1858). Voyage d’une femme autour du monde. Paris: Hachette, p 1095 
[5] Garrett (2002) p 18
[6] Mentioned in Garrett
(2002) p. 23-24. THOMSON, J. (1982). China and its people in early photographs: an unabridged reprint of the classic 1873/4 work. New York, Dover Publications. 

[7]Williams, S. W. (1848). The Middle Kingdom, a survey of the ... Chinese empire and its inhabitants...  p.132

Disclaimer: the old pictures used in this post should be free of copyright, as far as I am aware. If you own the copyright of ones of these pictures, comment below and I will be happy to delete them.

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