Shunde is located in the central part of the Pearl River Delta Plain. Apart from mountains in the north, southeast and south, most of its terrain is flat and the river network occupies more than one third of the whole area. This geographical condition has created a favourable environment for the development of maritime traffic and commercial trade. After the ban on sea trade during the Ming and Qing Dynasties was lifted, Shunde became China’s gateway to the outside world and was also one of the important hinterlands of the Pearl River Delta in Guangzhou. Shunde’s interaction with foreign countries is way ahead of other coastal areas.
Lingnan is the name of the region south of the Five Ridges in southern China. The Five Ridges are Yuechengling, Dupangling, Mengzhuling, Qitianling and Dayuling and are located in the eastern part of Guangxi to the eastern part of Guangdong and between the Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Since the Han Dynasty, Lingnan has been occupied by three major dialect groups: Guangfu, Kejia and Minnan. The Lingnan area, far from the Chinese mainland, surrounded by the Five Ridges and facing the sea, has formed a unique Lingnan culture.
Long-term trade and contact with foreign countries have made the Lingnan area a melting pot of cultures from China and foreign countries. In turn, the Lingnan culture has a tremendous impact on modern China. Since the reform and opening up, the Lingnan culture has played a positive role in promoting China’s economic and social development with its unique characteristics of pluralism, pragmatism, openness, compatibility and innovation. It is one of the most distinctive and dynamic regional cultures in China.
The region has rich agricultural resources and its foreign trade started earlier than others. In order to achieve a thriving market economy, Shunde refuses to engage in empty talk and instead focuses on a pragmatic approach.
This article focuses on three key features of Shunde’s culture: dragon boat racing, cuisine and ancestral halls, and analyzes how they provide cultural and spiritual support for Shunde’s success in reform and opening up.
Dragon boat racing is a valuable culture of Shunde
Shunde has an expansive river network, where the river is at everyone’s doorstep and getting around by water transport is very convenient. In the integrated mulberry tree and fish pond agronomy model, people travelled by boat to most places. When they came across each other’s boats, they would compete to see who could row their boat faster. This is one of the origins of dragon boat racing in Shunde.
Dragon boat racing has a history of two thousand years in Shunde. According to research, the dragon boat race was a traditional custom of the ancient Yue people. The Dragon Boat Festival was a festival in which the Yue people worshipped to totems for peaceful lives. According to literatures, Shunde has always had a custom of dragon boat racing throughout the different eras. In the past, while having an agricultural respite in the summers and autumns, the townships would hold dragon boat races of various proportions. Today, dragon boat racing in the Pearl River Delta is a popular sport, and Shunde has the most popular races in the Pearl River Delta. There are dragon boat teams in almost every village in Shunde.
Shunde’s Dragon Boat Festival has many rituals. Before the game, the “Painting the Dragon’s Eyes” ceremony will be held. Every year on the third day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the Longyan Village in Leliu, Shunde will hold a “Painting the Dragon’s Eyes” ceremony. More than 120 dragon boats in the Pearl River Delta region will gather in the village’s Taiwei Temple to have their “eyes” painted so as to awaken the “sleeping dragon”. This ceremony in Longyan Village has a history of more than 600 years and has been included in the provincial intangible cultural heritage. It has become the symbol of the dragon boat racing culture in Shunde.
Shunde’s annual dragon boat racing activities are held from May 1st Labor Day to November, with May 4th to 6th of the lunar calendar being the busiest. Every year, there are more than a million people attending the festival. Dragon boat racing is the oldest sports program in Shunde and has won Shunde the reputation of “the hometown of dragon boat” in 2005.
In Shunde, the magical and ever-lasting dragon boat racing culture is deeply ingrained and widely promulgated. It has become a ubiquitous cultural legacy and a regional soft power. It also exemplifies the most outstanding qualities of the Shunde people:
(1) Unity and teamwork. Since the reform and opening up, Shunde people have focused wholly on economic development and have taken the lead in establishing industrial counties and developing township and village enterprises. They are concentrating on developing itself and leading the country. Today, more than 2.7 million Shunde people, half of which are registered population and half of which are resident population, are united with the same goal, that is, to build Shunde into a beautiful home.
(2) Pioneering and fearless. Whatever it is enterprise development, science and technology education, medical care, social security, urban construction or cultural development, Shunde is advancing in all directions and striving to be the best. It has successfully transformed from a traditional agricultural county to a modern industrial city; it has been leading the way, and its comprehensive strength has been at the forefront of China’s counties for many years. Midea and Country Garden grew from small enterprises to large corporations, and entered the ranks of the Global Fortune 500. Entrepreneurs such as He Xiangjian, Yang Guoqiang and Liang Qingde have become famous businessmen through their continuing efforts and struggles.
(3) Humble and unrelenting. In the process of reform and opening up and innovation and development, the Shunde people are not sitting on their laurels, and they are not afraid of uncertainty. In industry, they keep making innovations; in system reform, they keep persevering; in urban construction, they keep renewing and altering; in cultural development, they keep preserving and updating. Shunde people always maintain a strong fighting spirit, have the confidence to win, and always persist during difficult times. Shunde has been bravely leading the way, constantly developing and tapping potential.
(4) Hardworking and improving. Shunde people are low-key and pragmatic; they do not dream or fantasize and do not like empty talk. They believe that actions speak louder than words, and with actual efforts, the fruits of labor can be harvested. Today, Shunde is once again calling its people not to seek comforts and believe that victory comes from real struggle.
(5) Fair and respectful. Regardless of the competition or the market, Shunde people always respect the rules, fully recognize the achievements and strengths of others, and learn with humility. They strive to win competitions on the strengths of their own products and services, so as to raise their social and economic status. Shunde people adopt an open-minded attitude to learn from the strengths of others, in order to stand out from the competition.
Many people attribute Shunde’s industrial success to the above-mentioned dragon boat racing spirit: unity in goal, striving forward, challenging oneself, never gives up and upholding fair competition. Many regions in China have attempted to follow Shunde’s experience in industrial development, but there are only a handful of successes. The influence of regional culture on economic development can be seen through the experience of Shunde.
Shunde’s cuisine reflects its precious craftsmanship
The most famous facet of Shunde’s culture is undoubtedly its culinary art. In 2014, Shunde officially became a member of the UNESCO Creative City Network — City of Gastronomy, the second Chinese city to receive this award after Chengdu. (If you wish to know more about Shunde’s cuisine, please refer to the article “Shunde’s Culinary Culture and its Industrial Development”)
The style of Shunde cuisine originated from the Qin and Han Dynasties. After thousands of years of inheritance and improvement, it has become the foundation of Shunde’s culture with its long history and diverse cooking materials and methods. In general, Shunde’s families start to teach their children, no matter boy or girl, simple cooking from a young age. The whole family cooking together is a part of family life and many families have their own special recipes. The most popular family recipes are stir-fries.
Every year, the ten towns and streets of Shunde will hold a family recipes cooking competition, attracting thousands of people every time. Shunde’s rich food culture comes from countless ordinary people, from the seniors of ages 70 to 80 to the teenage children. During the festival, the whole village or whole clan will gather around to eat. All of Shunde’s people are chefs in their own right. From the top professional chefs to the lowest level of ordinary citizens, they are all culinary masters, forming a multi-level food community with a solid foundation and endless creativity.
The most important aspect behind Shunde’s food culture is the pursuit of the ultimate “artisan spirit”. Culinary expertise needs to be accumulated over a long time, which is a reflection of how Shunde people cultivate their “artisan spirit”.
In the late 1980s, Shunde imported low-end electric fans, air conditioners and other products from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, and gradually improve to producing and exporting its own electric fans and air conditioners. From low-end to high-end, the process from imitation to independent research and development is also Shunde’s embodiment of the “artisan spirit”.
Many entrepreneurs in Shunde are willing to go in-depth in one professional field, which is also the embodiment of this spirit. In the home appliances manufacturing industry, which is the pride of Shunde, many companies produce a single product with an output value of 500 million to a billion yuan, except for big corporations such as Midea. This level of professionalism is rare in other places in China. (For details, see the article “Shunde’s Innovation”.)
Ancestral halls represent the cohesiveness and localness of Shunde’s culture
Shunde is famous for its many large and impressive ancestral halls. In the vast rural areas of Shunde, villages are formed by clans of relatives living together, and almost all villages have their own ancestral halls. The ancestral hall is a means of managing the clan, strengthening clan power, improving one’s social status and enhancing business reputations.
Shunde’s ancestral halls were first built in the Song and Yuan Dynasties and flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In the middle and late Qing Dynasty, ancestral halls of all sizes were found all over the urban and rural areas, and the total number could have exceeded ten thousand. Today, there are about 500 preserved ancestral halls in Shunde, including more than 200 protected cultural relics at the provincial, municipal and district levels. In recent years, with the support of local governments and villages, Shunde’s ancestral halls are restored and protected. Besides preserving the traditional culture, ancestral halls have also become new cultural spaces, with the organic combination of cultural relics protection, regional culture collection and display, tourism, education and entertainment.
It is worth mentioning that historically, Shunde produced the greatest number of top scholars in the imperial examinations from Guangdong province. In just over 500 years, there had been three top scholars, more than 300 ‘jinshi’ and more than 2,000 ‘juren’ from Shunde (both ‘jinshi’ and ‘juren’ refer to successful candidates in the highest imperial examinations). Shunde not only had a strong economic foundation, but also placed a great importance on education. Many ancestral halls ran private schools either directly or indirectly. The rental from the ancestral halls’ fields, after deducting for sacrificial ceremonies, was used for the studies expenses of the males in the family, fees for students attending the examinations, and the expenses for the trip to the capital Beijing for the examinations. This had played a positive role in enhancing the overall cultural standards of the Shunde people and producing top scholars in the imperial examinations.
In the 21st century, after making remarkable achievements in economic development, Shunde, is turning its attention to cultural undertakings. The government and the people realize that the ancestral hall carries historical and cultural connotations, which are the crystallization of the traditional folk culture of Shunde and the symbol of the cohesiveness and affinity of the clans. Therefore, it has begun to invest in the repair of Shunde’s ancestral halls.
Today, some of the ancestral halls are also playing other roles, such as the village history exhibition hall, the farmer’s book house, the art club, the special exhibition room, the elderly activity centre and the fitness and entertainment area. They have become a place where the villagers go to for entertainment, fitness, learning and chatting. The ancestral hall has become a central point for rolling out cultural services in the rural areas.
Clan cohesion, affinity and localness, as represented by the ancestral hall culture, are also the characteristics of Shunde’s private entrepreneurs. In the early days of reform and opening up, successful entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Macau returned to Shunde to build schools and hospitals. Today, successful entrepreneurs from Shunde build charities and actively train corporate talents. All of these reflect the ancestral hall culture of Shunde.
Other intangible cultural heritages
Shunde is an important area of Lingnan culture and there are many intangible cultural heritages here. An intangible cultural heritage at the national level, the handcrafted gambier Canton silk gets its name — Xiangyunsha — from its lightweight fabric making “shasha” sounds when worn by a person. The unique silk production process of repeatedly dyeing the silk with gambier juice and then covering it with iron-rich native soil adds a unique bactericidal property to the silk, imbibing it with the function of preventing skin allergies. The Shunde district government presents Xiangyunsha as a gift to important foreign guests.
Readers who are interested in other intangible cultural heritages can access online information about the following items to gain a deeper understanding of Shunde’s culture:
There are 4 national intangible cultural heritages, including Xiangyunsha, dragon boat folksongs, dragon dance, and 8-sounds drums.
There are 7 provincial intangible cultural heritages, including Chencun Flower Show, Guangdong embroidery, Guanyin worship, Zhenbutang astronomical calendar, Cantonese opera, Guandi Houwang parade, and painting the dragon’s eyes custom.
There are 17 intangible cultural heritages at the city and district level, including dragon boat racing, water village farming customs, spring festival customs, Wing Chun martial arts, Cantonese opera, dragon mother’s birthday, water village folksong, Shunde cooking skills, porridge water making skills, Daliang fish lamp making skills, double-layer milk custard making skills, Lunjiao rice cake making skills, Chencun noodle making skills, Hung Ga martial arts, dragon boat carving skills, Nansha wedding customs, wedding cake making skills.
Shunde’s Lingnan-flavoured culture provides an conducive environment for Shunde in the reform and opening up era and promotes the take-off of the economy. Today, the Shunde economy needs further transformation and upgrading. The Shunde spirit, exemplified by the features of dragon boat racing, culinary art and ancestral halls, will provide ample assistance.