nets to riches

In our rush to celebrate Shenzhen’s transformation from a fishing village into China’s fourth city, we emphasize a nets-to-riches fantasy. However, this origin story ignores the inequalities that structured coastal society before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. In this episode of the Shenzhen Book of Changes, we visit Nan’ao and speak with the local fishing people, who before 1962 were not allowed to come on land. They floated from port to port in Dapeng Bay, relying on the fish that they could catch and the protection of the goddess Mazu to warn them when storms were rising.

new traditions: nan’ao mazu

Yesterday, I visited the newly renovated Mazu Temple of Nanyu (南渔), which is located in Nan’ao, Dapeng (大鹏新区南澳). The temple is interesting for (at least) three reasons and the questions they beg.


  1. The temple is a local renovation of a previous existing temple. The icons from the previous temple have been moved into a nearby exhibition of the history of the village;
  2. Although the temple and the exhibition were built on land that Nanyu has claim to, the project was promoted and funded by donations from a successful Chaozhou businessman, and therefore;
  3. He contacted artisans in Chaozhou to design and build the temple according to “proper” requirements.

Questions that the temple raises include:

  1. How is “tradition” being remade at the popular level, now that long-term residents are contributing to the reconstruction?
  2. What has been the role of Chaozhou people in this reconstruction?

Chaozhou people have been involved in the reconstruction of Shenzhen tradition at two levels. First, Shenzhen is known for the shift from the planned to a market economy, but many of the people who built the literal markets (the Hubei fish market, wet markets in many villages, and the dried fish market at Nan’ao, for example) have been from Chaozhou. Secondly, many of the traditional crafts that appear in Shenzhen ancestral halls and temples have been contracted from Chaozhou, which is considered more “traditional” and therefore “authentic.”

The next post will talk about the relationship between the temple and the village. Impressions of the newly constructed Mazu Temple and the exhibition.

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chiwan 2009


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

today was the 15th of the 10 month of the lunar calendar, so i did what all good girls do – went temple hopping. chiwan is one of the natural harbors that constitute the port of shenzhen. before reform, chiwan could only be reached by way of a boat launched from shekou, heading north up the pearl river. today, chiwan is easily accessible by the 226 or 355, but still retains something of a backwater feel. indeed, chiwan has the scruffy feel of a potentially hip artist colony, except for the lack of artists and the vanishing coastline.

that said, chiwan is fun because it also boasts some of the oldest sites in shenzhen – the tianhou temple (technically the oldest in the area. zheng he reputedly stopped here, and emperors from the ming and qing gifted stele to commemorate upgrades and rennovations (!) to the temple). chiwan is also site of the grave of the last song emperor – a child who was drown with and by a loyal follower so he would not be dishonored by the yuan. the little emperor’s tomb is maintained by the zhao family.

hop, hop.

后海新村: more houhai, again

houhai tianhou

saturday morning, houhai new village, where the houhai tianhou once gazed out on houhai harbor and now sits back from houhai road, among shade trees and handshake buildings, her view blocked by cars and housing developments. those pictures, here.

also, at some point when i wasn’t paying attention, nanyou and chuangye roads became nanshan road. on my 2004 map, the road has the old names, which mark the border between nanyou and shekou neighborhoods. my 2006 map has the new names. i’m looking for a 2005 map to see when the change happened. interesting because it points to the continuing subordination of shekou to nanshan district. once, long ago, shekou was directly under the central government, and was only brought under district control in the early 1990s. but then again, the district system only came into play in the mid-1990s, but that’s not the story i’m telling here. nevertheless, i did wander past the old nanyou building and take a picture of it. again, interesting for its mid-1980s state of the art, both architecturally and in terms of landscape. (nanshan road runs parrallel to houhai road, and before the completion of the binhai expressway was the main road connecting the nantou peninsula to shenzhen by way of shennan road.)

nanyou building, shenzhen state-of-the-art, mid 1980s

second random thought of the houhai village walk. shenzhen is full of buildings from the late 1980s and early 1990s that have never used air-conditioner casings. the casings, attached to the buildings and located next to windows, were designed for small air-conditioners. presumably, once shenzheners could afford air-conditioners, they went for the bigger, better, colder variety. so empty casings and air-conditioners variously attached to the sides of buildings. as part of the beautify nanshan campaign, these randomly placed air-conditioners are now being caged.

never-used air-conditioner casings

赤湾天后宫:vexed tradition

tianhou brigade

In 2004, the Tianhou Museum and the Nanshan Mazu Culture Research Association edited a volume of couplets and poetry that had been written in honor of the Tianhou. There were two first place couplets:

(In the beginning, Chiwan opened its gates, sent out Zheng He’s ships to the four oceans, establishing the maritime Silk Road;
In the end, Tianhou lead Minister Zheng, greeted Lord Deng, a southern port of 1,000 miles, earning a brilliant spring. by: Zhong Xianze)

(Chiwan dawns, looks toward humanity,
Tianhou’s benevolent clouds cover the seas. by: Wu Rubei)

These two poems illustrate the contradiction between official culture and local belief that enables the Chiwan Tianhou Temple to operate. Legally, the Temple grounds constitute the Tianhou Museum, where the Nanshan Mazu Culture Research Association is based. Specifically, in Shenzhen, the largest and most public temples are officially museums and research centers. However, the contributions and activities of believers sustain the spaces as temples, especially on important holidays. Thus, in the first poem (and it was actually the gold first prize, the second poem was the silver first prize) emphasizes the Temple’s political importance, linking the voyages of the Ming eunich Zheng He to the open policies of Deng Xiaoping. In contrast, the second poem celebrates Tianhou’s divine benevolence.

Helen Hsu and others have written about the post-Mao resurgence of tradition throughout Guangdong. In Shenzhen, this resurgence has taken an interesting twist precisely because even though there are locals working to promote Tianhou, the museum and research association have been headed by immigrants from northern cities. Consequently, the two poems don’t only manifest a contradiction between “official” and “unofficial” culture—although many westerners like to paint Chinese public life in terms of an opposition between the Party and everybody else—but also between urban and rural belief systems, as well as northern and southern traditions. For most of the museum and research staff (and there are fewer then there were when I first went to the museum in 1997), allowing people to burn incense is a concession to local superstition. And yes, northern urban attitudes about Guangdong traditions can be as condescending as it sounds. Publicly, however, they take the route of the first poem, understanding Cantonese history and traditions within the scope of imperial China. At the same time, the few believers I’ve talked to, follow the route of the second poem, focusing on belief, and remaining quiet on the issue of national politics.

That said, there’s enough history at Chiwan’s Tianhou Temple to satisfy everyone, unless of course you don’t care about either imperial history or Tianhou’s benevolence. The temple was built at the end of the Song Dynasty, but achieved national prominence during the Ming Dynasty, when the Minister Zheng He led his famous maritime voyages to establish a maritime trade routes. During the second expedition, he and his crew ran into inclement weather of the coast of the Nantou Peninsula. Zheng He promised to restore the temple in return for Tianhou’s help in surviving the storm. She did help him and in the 8th year of the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1410), the Chiwan Tianhou Temple was restored.

The fame of the Chiwan Tianhou’s benevolence spread throughout the country and throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties, believers—both official and unofficial, northern and southern, but all predominantly sailors or fishermen—continued to restore and add to the temple. At the beginning of the Nationalist era, Chiwan was the largest Tianhou temple in Guangdong with over one hundred and twenty buildings in the complex. Once the communists liberated Bao’an County (Shenzhen’s territorial precursor), the PLA moved into the facilities. In 1959-1960, many of the wood, tiles, and bricks from the temple were used to construct the Shenzhen Reservoir. It was only in 1992, that the recently established Nanshan District government began to restore the temple. The museum was officially opened in 1997 as part of efforts to prepare for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. It was, as many said at the time, recognition of the common cultural origins of Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

This weekend was the first time I had been back in a while. Not a believer, I chafe at paying the 15 rmb museum entrance fee, when the museum isn’t all that great. However, the changes suggest that elegant political poetry notwithstanding, the believers have slowly taken over and there may be times when visiting Tianhou is worth the price of admission. There are now monks on duty, telling fortunes and instructing people how to pray. There are rooms filled with multiple castings of the same god, where believers light incense. And one of the museum exhibition rooms has been turned over to photographs of important religious events at the temple, the largest being Tianhou’s birth on the 23 day of the third lunar month (this year, may 9). Indeed, the photography seems much in the spirit of the poetry competition: the museum staff’s attempt to get control of the space back, this time through public cultural events.

According to the Xin’an County Gazetteer, the Chiwan Tianhou Temple once held pride of place in the eight scenic areas of Xin’an (Bao’an County’s name during the Ming and Qing Dynasties). The other seven were: 梧岭天池,杯渡禅宗,参山乔木,卢山桃李,龙穴楼台,螯洋甘瀑,玉律汤湖. I don’t know what or where most of those sites are (although wuling must mean the wutong mountains in the east) and look forward to mapping them. However, what’s interesting here is the way historic records follow names rather than places. History as documentation and re-inscription with a vengence. In 1983, when the SEZ was established as administratively separate from New Bao’an County, all of the history from Bao’an county moved into Bao’an, even though most of that history had taken place in (what is now) Nanshan District. Chiwan, Shekou, and the County Seat at Nantou were the important historical sites. However, to find out pre-reform information on them, one must cross the second line into (what is now) Bao’an District and head to the Bao’an District Library. I remember talking with the editor of the last ever Bao’an Gazetteer. He did his research and oral history throughout the SEZ, but his office was in Bao’an County. At the time, I needed to carry my passport with me so that I could cross back into the SEZ after a visit. Of course, this is simply another variation on history in the Pearl River Delta, where scholars of Hong Kong history continue to refer to the SAR’s territorial precursor as Xin’an, without noting that the name changed in 1913. (Sometimes I suspect that Shenzheners’ attempts to annex Hong Kong by way of historical documentation is only matched by Hong Kong people’s efforts to write themselves as historically distinct from Shenzhen. Everyone sidesteps the issue by writing these historic trajectories from the Opium War on, where Hong Kong grows out of Xin’an, and then Shenzhen emerges out of Bao’an.)

This time, I kept noticing industrial parallels between the containers stacked up just outside the Temple Gate or loaded just beyond the Temple Walls and the brigades of god images. Little statues of Tianhou, Guanyin, and the God of Wealth were everywhere and never just one, instead in any room, there were shelves of the same statue, almost like a religious market, except they were all receiving incense. Brigades on view here. Questions about the vexed relationship between political-economy and faith, merely posed.


the 226: lumbering between chiwan and nine streets

in the 1990s, nanshan district tried to jumpstart the district economy through culture. in a sense, the effort was premature, as the city has only just started seriously investing in culture. nevertheless, it seemed a good idea at the time. there were two cultural pushes in nanshan. one was commercial, the other historical. commercial culture took the form of theme parks; window of the world (世界之窗), splendid china (锦绣中华), and happy valley (快乐谷) are all located in overseas chinese town (oct or 华侨城, itself both a street administration area and a major international conglomorate), which is located at the border between futian and nanshan districts. in addition, the oct corporation built the he xiangnian (何香凝美术馆) museum and a cultural center (华侨城文化广场), both state of the art cultural centers.

historical cultural development took place in western nanshan, along the eastern banks of the pearl river. nantou, the county yamen during the ming and qing dynasties is located there as are the ruins of a cannon fortress, a rebuilt tianhou temple, and the imperial grave of zhao bing, half-brother to zhao xian (赵显), the last emperor of the southern song before the establishment of the yuan dynasty. (at the grave site the bing character is written with a sun on top. however, i can’t find this character in my computor software. i searched online and came up with two alternatives, which may be an indication that most software programs don’t have this character. anyway, online the sun is either removed and the child emperor’s name is written 赵丙 or the sun and bing are separated as in: 赵日丙.)

the theme parks have thrived, but the historical sites have not fared as well. in fact, shenzhen’s purple tour bus (line 3) regularly travels between the luohu train station and windows of the world (世界之窗), the line ending even before the historical sites begin. consequently my favorite tour bus is the 226, a bus line serviced by double-decker buses so old they have wooden seats and often don’t have air-conditioning. fun stops along the 226 route include: nantou (site of the old yamen, which combines historic remnants, abandoned reconstructions, and new village life), nanshan courthouse (near canku new village, site of a small temple to the god of cantonese opera), shenzhen university, shekou (including shuiwan new village, which was one of the first villages to be rebuilt and so examplifies mid 1980s new village architecture and building scale), seaworld, and chiwan port.

this past weekend, i took the 226 to two stops: end of the line and the left cannon. the end of the line is near chiwan port, part of the large network of ports that together form “shenzhen port”. at chiwan port, a security guard asked me to refrain from taking pictures, but didn’t actually ask me to erase already taken pictures. when asked, he said there were no reasons why i couldn’t take pictures, it simply wasn’t permited. so when i turned a corner, i started snapping again.

this stop is also walking distance to the imperial grave, which is marked by a statue of zhao bing and loyal imperial minister, lu xiufu (陆秀夫). after the yuan had defeated the southern song, the last two southern song emperors fled to guangzhou, where the government was re-established. however, zhao rixia (赵日正) was executed in 1278, when zhao bing assumed the non-existent thrown. however, the following year, the yuan armies defeated the last southern song loyalists, following which liu xiufu carried the eight-year old emperor into the ocean to commit suicide. the imperial grave was restored in 1911 and marked with eight characters: 大宋祥兴少帝陵. the zhao family geneaology tells how the grave site was identified: at foot of the mountain, an old monk went to inspect the coast, suddenly seeing a floating corpse, a flock of birds hovering above. when he brought the body in, its face was as if alive, and the clothing uncommon. he knew it was the imperial corpse and ceremoniously buried it on the sunny side of the mountain (山下古寺老僧偶往海边巡视,忽见海中遗骸漂荡,上有群鸟遮居,设法拯上,面色如生,服式不似常人,知是帝骸,乃礼葬于本山麓之阳). this whole story gets retold as the origin of “kitten congee (猫仔粥)”, a speciality of fujian province.

after visiting the imperial grave, i took the 226 back toward the left cannon stop. the left cannon in question is one of eight cannons that the qing placed above the mouth of the pearl river to defend against pirates. the remnants of a small fortress remain and a statue of lin zexu (林则徐) has pride of place in the plaza. li zexu used the left cannon in his efforts to rid the area of opium, efforts which eventually led to the opium war. this is one of the few remaining mountains in nanshan, and the peak has been left for walking and admiring the chiwan port.

what i love most about this site are the fengshui trees that have grown up the side of the fortress. and although the left cannon is a designated patriotic education site (爱国主义教育基地) not many people visit, making it one of the few relatively uncrowded green spaces inside the city. photos of my chiwan tour here.