Yongding Tulou, precious architectural treasures of Hakka people in Fujian

Updated: 2013-08-15
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A bird’s eye view of tulou in Yongding county, Fujian province. PHOTO BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY
Complexes are architectural wonders that attract tourists, He Na and Hu Meidong report from Yongding county in Fujian.

An old story still raises a chuckle among tulou residents in Longyan, Fujian province.

It goes like this: Satellite images of tulou clusters once made some countries nervous because they thought the giant mushroomlike structures resembled nuclear shelters and they feared the complex was a Chinese missile base.

Those doubts were quickly dispelled when visitors arrived at the site soon after China began its reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s.

Literally "earthen structures", a tulou typically comprises an earthen outer wall and an internal wooden framework. The circular design usually surrounds a central shrine, and several hundred people live in a single complex.

Tulou are dwellings in the mountainous areas of southeastern Fujian that date back to the 12th century. They are designed to house large communities and to serve as a defense against invasion. The large structures have survived wars and natural disasters.

There are about 23,000 tulou in Yongding county and about 15,000 in Nanjing county.

Lin Rigeng, 63, one of the owners of Zhencheng Lou in Hongkeng village, recalled that until the early 1990s there was no road linking the village to the outside world and few villagers had even seen a bicycle.

According to Lin, who is also known as the Prince of the Hakka Tulou, what is now a 10-minute drive to Hukeng town used to be a half-day walk along the zigzagging mountain roads.

"Even so, back then there were some backpackers from both China and abroad who came a long way just to take a close look at, and live in our tulou for a couple of nights," he said.

"We Hakka people are hospitable. In the olden days, when visitors came we welcomed them warmly with free tea, food and accommodation."
Lin Rigeng, a tulou owner in Yongding county, Fujian province, introduces visitors to the ancient dwelling complex. PHOTO BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY
To the local people who grew up in the tulou, the structures are just normal houses. But through his conversations with visitors, Lin grew to realize that each tulou is an extraordinary piece of architecture.

"What surprised me most is that people were really interested in our group lifestyle," he said. "They thought it incredible that so many people could live together in harmony."

As tourist numbers soared, Lin couldn't afford to provide his services gratis, so he started charging a fee to cover his costs. Spotting a business opportunity, he gave up farming and entered the tourism industry in the late 1990s.

Lin is happy to relate stories about the tulou. He explains about the buildings in a passionate way that impresses visitors and many have subsequently become his friends.

Lin has a habit of making notes about visitors' comments so he can improve his skills as a tour guide. After years of collating these notes, he has developed a series of tour commentaries that are used by all the guides in Yongding.

Fujian tulou clusters consist of different-sized circular and rectangular buildings with faded yellow clay walls. Surrounded by enchanting mountains and streams, the dark brown wooden roofs look magnificent at sunset.

The buildings are arranged in a way that enables them to blend in with the environment, providing first-time visitors with breathtaking views and peace and quiet.

The best-known examples are: Zhencheng Lou, where Lin lives; Jiqing Lou, the area's oldest earth building which has a history of 580 years; and Chengqi Lou, the largest tulou on the site.

According to tulou expert Xu Songsheng, the Hakka people have a strong sense of ancestry. The people living in the tulou are all descended from a common ancestor. The buildings' circular or rectangular shapes comprise an axis line, a gate, a central section, a courtyard and the main building.
Residents are proud to live in the tulou.
Su Haoyu (left), 74 and 58-year-old Jiang Dailian grew up in the old building and have lived in it all their lives.
"The buildings are mainly four or five stories high. The first floor serves as the kitchen, the second is used for grain storage and the upper floors act as living areas," Xu said. "Because of their defensive function, only rooms on the third floor and higher have windows - and they are very small. With enough food, the residents could survive a long time under attack."
World Heritage List
With their unique appearance, architectural techniques and group lifestyles, the tulou have gradually attracted global attention. In 2008, UNESCO put 46 on its World Heritage List.

The sudden fame changed Yongding county and the lives of the residents.

Roads and other infrastructure were built to make the tulou more accessible, leading to an influx of visitors.

"Tourism changed our village, and most of the residents now work in tourism-related businesses, such as running home inns, restaurants, selling local products or souvenirs, or working as tour guides. There are more than 100 cars in our village," Lin said. "One in four families owns one."

In 2008, Lin Bingxiang, 32, the fourth-generation owner of Yucheng Lou, quit his job at a large logistics company in Xiamen and returned home. He poured all the money he had earned during the previous few years into opening a restaurant and turning his tulou into a small home inn.

The 153-year-old Yucheng Lou was once home to 600 people, but now two large families comprising around 20 people live there.

"If I hadn't quit, I might be a manager in the company now," said Lin Bingxiang. "But I don't regret it at all because I have a very good business here and, more important, I can live with my parents. It's my ideal life."

Jiang Jaolin, 29, a resident of Hongkeng village who once worked as an accountant in Xiamen, also returned and now works as a tour guide.

"I can make a living from home and take care of my little son during work breaks," Jiang said. "We can sell all the things we grow, even the pickles my mother makes. Life is much easier than before, and I enjoy a better environment."

Most tourists arrive in the morning and leave before 3 pm. Those seeking a little peace and quiet stay overnight, and are usually polite and thoughtful.

"To tell you the truth, our life isn't disturbed too much," Jiang said.

Former president Hu Jintao visited Zhencheng Lou during the 2010 Spring Festival and commented that the Fujian tulou are not only a World Heritage Site, but also a treasure of traditional Chinese culture.

Hu's visit triggered a tourism boom in Yongding and tourist numbers have increased sharply since.

Lucy Ullrich, an urban designer for Tauranga City Council in New Zealand, is one of them.

Ullrich saw photographs of the tulou in a magazine several years ago and never forgot the fascinating images, so when she was invited to join a conference in Shanghai, she saw a chance to visit.

Instead of staying in hotels, she chose tulou accommodation, which cost about 100 yuan ($16) a night, and spent most of the time observing the lives of the local people and chatting with the people in broken Chinese.

"Although the sun was scorching outside, I didn't need to turn on the fans to keep cool in the room," she said. "The design is perfect for saving energy and making people comfortable. I may incorporate some tulou factors in my future designs. The nights here are so quiet and the local people are very friendly. I'll bring my family next time."

More than 4 million tourists from China and overseas visited the county in 2012, a year-on-year increase of 17 percent, and the revenue from tourism soared to 2.85 billion yuan, according to Yongding County Tourism Bureau.
Inside the centuries-old Zhencheng Lou, one of the oldest buildings in the area.
Residents of Dongcheng Lou sit at the entrance of the building.
Protecting the past
To keep his tulou in prime condition, Lin Qinsheng, the owner of Fuyu Lou, has rented out rooms for the past eight years, charging 500 yuan a month for each room.

"The tulou can survive hundreds of years if people live in them," he said. "Otherwise, they are quickly ruined by insects and lack of maintenance."

Protection is always on the top of the agenda for local governments trying to develop the potential of these astonishing structures.

"To protect the tulou properly we founded the first county-level cultural relics bureau in Fujian to improve the protection work and draw up a five-year maintenance plan," said Mao Gaoliang, Party secretary of Yongding county.

No buildings can be constructed on a site once it has gained world heritage status, so the county has bought a series of facilities outside the village and offers lower rents to encourage local people to move their businesses out of the heritage site.

Lin Rigeng is the best-known guide in Yongding and has seen great benefits from tulou-based tourism. The increasing importance of Zhencheng Lou has given him plenty of chances to act as a guide for government officials, foreign dignitaries, and famous actors and singers, as evidenced by the photos that cover almost half a wall of one of his rooms.

"Without tourism, my family wouldn't have such a good life and the young people wouldn't return. Even my son quit his job as a teacher and brought his family back to help me manage the business," he said. "I am a third-generation tulou owner and I'm protecting our heritage so that more people will have the chance to see the architectural treasures of the Hakka people."
SOURCE: China Daily

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