The Fujian Tulous, mostly built between the 12th and 20th centuries in the mountainous areas of South Eastern Fujian, China, are a type of Chinese rural home of the Hakka and Minnan people. In 2008, a total of 46 Fujian Tulou sites were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
by Ashley Greenwood
Clans and Bandits
The Tulous (earth buildings) in Fujian province have stood for centuries in their mountain setting, a fortified safe haven for their occupants, the Hakka clans people. The Hakka (a word meaning “guest people”) are not, as often thought, an ethnic minority and are in fact of Han descent. There were several waves of migration, the most notable during the Manchu rule of Northern China during the Qing dynasty, when many Han refugees fled south to coastal Fujian, only to be pushed back inland by the local Cantonese “Punti” (meaning “original land”) during the 17th century Punti-Hakka clan wars. In their mountain stronghold, they built the Tulous as self-contained villages, protected from the natives, bandits, and wild elements. Isolated, their language developed separately into one of the eight major Han dialects.
“Tulou” is actually a broad term, which refers to the type of building rather than the way it has been constructed (some are even made of granite or brick). Built between the 12th and 20th centuries, there are some 20,000 or more Tulous in the southern Fujian province, of which about 3,000 belong to the sub-classification of “Fujian Tulou”, and it is these that were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008. A total of 46 Fujian Tulou sites were inscribed as “exceptional examples of building tradition,” most of them in Yongding County, including perhaps the most recognisable Chuxi Tulou cluster and Tianluokeng Tulou cluster.
The Fujian Tulous are distinctive not only for their functional and defensive design, which resembles a small fortified city, but also due to their sheer scale – the 700-year-old Yuchang Tulou (confusingly also known as Dongdaoxiwai Tulou), stands a looming five storeys high. Some measure up to a huge 80 metres in diameter. In the 1980s, the tulou were apparently seen even from space – the U.S. was alarmed when their satellites spotted what they first thought were missile silos.
For defence the tulou typically have one large entrance with a thick door reinforced with iron, and narrow slit windows on the second floor doubling as a suitable place to poke a gun out at aggressors. The load-bearing walls are made from rammed-earth, which are reinforced with clay, stone, strips of bamboo, wood and other materials. As thick as two metres in places, they are slightly wider and thicker at the bottom, which provides some resistance to earthquakes. In 1918 when a 6.22 magnitude quake shook Yongding County, a massive crack appeared in the Huanji building. But as the tapering walls compressed back together, the wall seemed to repair itself and now the crack is barely visible.
The circular design however is actually a relatively recent development in the tulou history, which whilst improving their hardy resistance, also comes with other benefits. The square version has somewhat bad fengshui – most people did not want to live in the corners where the stored food and air would turn bad. The round structure allows for better air circulation and sunlight, resulting in a well-lit, well-ventilated and earthquake-proof building that remained warm in winter and cool in summer.
Life in the Tulou
The first floor of the tulou is usually used as the kitchen, the second floor for food storage, and then the third floor is the bedroom, assumably away from the damp and cold ground. This functional design thus creates something that is exceptionally unique about the Fujian Tulou, and that is the social organisation within them. There is no “upstairs, downstairs” style arrangement or designs like a Penthouse suite. Each family within the clan owns its own slice of the building, like a terraced house. The quality of the materials and decorations is consistent throughout the buildings, so each tulou is really a community of equals.
The”tulou” were fully occupied until the 1980s when China’s economic boom transformed life across the country and people from the rural areas began migrating to the cities en masse, and the tulou population was no exception. It wasn’t only the lure of employment opportunities, but more newly constructed, modern houses that came with the improving economy.
When I went to see the tulou, I met Liu Weiqing who was born and raised in the previously mentioned five-storey Dongdaoxiwai Tulou. Like many of his generation, he left the tulou to find work in Xiamen, just a few hours from Yongding county. After the success of the UNESCO bid, he returned to the area to start working in tourism, opening a small hotel and tour company.
Tiled roofs and mud walls require a great deal of upkeep, so as residents left, the structures began to deteriorate. Liu tells me that many tulous have not been maintained for decades. Some of the residents who could afford to move, shifted to modern housing nearby; and as more roofs leaked, tulou residents moved to the lower floors. Today, with the tulous are only partially occupied, and are falling further in to disrepair. Liu states says that some of the residents are content, unwilling to change their living conditions, and that modernising the old wooden structures is too difficult. Previously, maintenance was carried out in two ways. Liu explains that either the residents collectively raised funds (the repair of a tulou roof requires more than 100,000RMB) or each person would repair their own bit of roof separately. However, with the success of the UNESCO classification came a tulou development company, and some tulou have now been restored.
Tourism as a Lifeline
When UNESCO declared the tulou a World Heritage site in 2008, it should have helped to preserve them, but actually seems to have mostly encouraged their huge transformation to promote tourism. The tulou are set amongst rice, tea and tobacco fields, fields that are quickly making way for vast car parks and gift shops. The growth in tourism has been remarkable. Local people tell me that only ten years ago one would see just two or three groups of people travelling to the tulou each year, but now the number of hotels has risen to three or four hundred. With an increasing number of young people leaving to find work in the city, the remaining residents are developing new ways to exploit the opportunities that come with increased tourism: selling local produce like tea and tobacco, and the usual tourist trinkets. In Zhengcheng Tulou, residents even levied their own fee for tourists to go upstairs and walk around on their balconies. Other tulous are something more akin to artist colonies, churning out paintings of the surrounding countryside and the tulous themselves.
This was to be expected though, and these tourism pushes can be seen across China. The tulous were already suffering when China shifted away from being an agrarian society, and sites like these have become a typical casualty. However, you can still see some remnants of the old way of life, especially in some of the small, less visited tulous – farmers still toil in the fields nearby and children still run around playing while older residents pick through tea buds. When witnessing these day-to-day moments, one is clearly reminded that this tourist destination is still their home.
With about 80 percent of people in the area now involved in tourism or related businesses, the days for those remaining are certainly numbered. Some tulous themselves have been converted into hotels to “allow visitors to experience Tulou life,” but surely, it is a bit too late for the real authentic experience. Many former residents like Liu work in the tulou during the day and return to their new homes at night, and he would agree that in the future, the Tulou would cease to be “living”, remaining and preserved entirely as tourist attraction and as a fragile link to the past.