Ancient China has made a great mark in history in terms of huge engineering and mega structures. One of the most famous and popular of these is the Great Wall of China built between 220 BC and 200 BC. Under the command of the emperor, it was built by the state as a defense against the invading nomadic Huns. Another historical land mark is the Forbidden City or what is known today as the Palace Museum. It is the world's largest palace complex and covers 74 hectares.
Up until today, there are numerous ancient engineering marvels that are still standing in China and continuously attract tourists from all over the world. Most of these, like the Great Wall, were built by the state for one reason or another. However, the Hakka rammed earth buildings called Tulou are engineering marvels of individual community and in many cases, individual families. In Fujian, the Tulou can be found in three different counties: Yongding, Nanjing and Hua’an.
Among the three, Yongding county (mostly in Hukeng) has the most Tulou - around 8,000. Most of the houses though are square and only 360 are round or doughnut-shaped. The reason for this is that the latter are more difficult to build than the former.
The Tulou would not have come about if not for the Hakka. Their culture, need for protection and their strong will to adapt to their environment created these ancient mega structures or dwellings. These factors go a long way in explaining why these massive buildings are still standing tall today. In order to understand the story behind this unique architecture, one should look at the origin of the Hakka in Western Fujian.
Who are the Hakkas?
A better understanding of the unique culture and origin of the Hakka people helps explain the constructions of these Hakka buildings. One theory has it that many of the early Hakkas were affiliated with the "royal bloods". They are thought to be one of the earliest "Han" settlers in China. But while Hakka may be a stronghold of Han culture, Hakka people have also married into other ethnic groups, adopting their cultures during the long migration history of 2000 years, thus creating their own uniquely diverse culture.
The Hakkas are a unique ethnic group of "Han" Chinese originally active around the Yellow River area. They migrated from ancient Central China between the 5th and 13th centuries to the south and settled in Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong. Their migration was mainly due to the infusion of other ethnic groups from the northwest, north and northeast. They were known to feel strongly about defending their cultural heritage, so they fled from the northern influence. The Hakkas arriving in Southern China brought with them their traditions from the North. They retained their own language, culture, rites and customs. Isolated by the high mountains that insulated them from contacts with local inhabitants, they stuck to their own ways, keeping their customs and traditions unaltered and unique for a while. However, these customs and traditions did of course change to a little when they came in touch with other groups.
They were called Hakka or ‘guest’ people by the locals when they first settled in. From that day this name was used by both non-Hakka and Hakka people. The word "Hakka" is derived from the pronunciation in the Hakka dialect (pronounced as "haagga" in Hakka and "kejia" in Mandarin).
Folk language and culture
Among all the Chinese people, the Hakkas are among the most conservative in maintaining their traditions. A hard-working and enduring people, though considered conservative, many were willing to take risks and seek new opportunities elsewhere to establish themselves. As poor migrants they had to work extremely hard to survive and build new homes for themselves. Life was hard for them because the good and fertile plains had already been occupied by the locals who of course resented their intrusion. Being unwelcome, they had no alternative but to move into the mountains. To survive, they banded together and devised ways to defend and protect themselves. The earth buildings were therefore designed not for aesthetic reasons, but for protection from the elements, and for defense against wild animals, thieves, bandits, as well as locals, who did not always welcome waves of immigrants first showing up some 1,000 years ago from the Central Plains. There are numerous legends describing how Hakka communities defended themselves against attacking enemies. It was said that one family had to defend itself for more than a year against a peasant army in the late Qing Dynasty.
For the Hakkas their language plays an extremely important role. Without their language the Hakka people do not exist. And without the Hakka people to speak it, Hakkanese would not exist. Hakkanese gives them an identity as a group that they would not have otherwise, as they do not form the majority within a province or an autonomous region. Originating in the North, meandering through the Central plains and flowing down to the South, the Hakka migrants and wanderers never owned a province or any autonomous regions. As a result, their language, Hakkanese, is not confined to any one province but is spoken in many parts of China alongside other dialects. Today, there more than a thousand Hakka dialects are spoken in China.
The Hakka families
The immense enclosures allowed up to a hundred families or more to live together and ensured collective defence and security. Apart from providing protection from bandits and marauders, these structures favoured communal life, ensured togetherness and solidarity of the dwellers and made them more united and clannish.
In traditional male-dominated Hakka society, however, education was primarily reserved for men who were expected to find work outside the village. Women took care of everything else, ranging from tending the fields to raising the children. This evidently shows the hierarchy within the Hakka families. Because of the huge amount of work women have to do, non-Hakkas in the area discourage their daughters from marrying Hakka men.
Minnan and Hakka families in Fujian
Influenced by the Hakka people, the Minnan people, who mainly live in Xiamen, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou in the southern coastal parts of Fujian, began to construct castle-like stone wall buildings several hundred years ago. The more solid buildings required advanced techniques and tools, and Minnan people often hired Hakkas as designers or engineers.
The Minnan, another branch of the ancient Han ethnic group migrated to their current residence in the late Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and absorbed local communities and even Arab merchants. They are famous for migrating to other countries and most people in Taiwan as well as in Singapore can trace their origins to the Minnan.
Strong evidence has been discovered by historians that Hakkas tried to move to coastal Minnan areas several times due to their poor living conditions in the mountainous areas, but all of these attempts failed because of the strong resistance. Many wars were fought between the Minnan people and the Hakka people over an extended period of time. Many of these wars have been documented by various historians today.
The Tulou or Hakka earth houses
These earthen houses are made of earth, stone, bamboo and wood, all readily available materials. After constructing the walls with rammed earth, branches, strips of wood and bamboo chips were laid in the wall as "bones" to reinforce it. Of these two different types of buildings, the Round Earthen Buildings are a special kind of Hakka traditional architecture with remarkable features.
Composed of two or three circular walls located one within another, the Round Earthen Buildings are deceptively large and multifunctional. The very outer circular wall of these buildings reaches ten meters into the air and has four different floors. Inside the outer circular walls more than 100 rooms can be found, including a kitchen and dining room on the first floor, a storage warehouse on the second floor, and bedrooms on the third and fourth floors.
Inside the inner circular walls of the Round Earthen Building a dazzling 350 rooms can be found complete with bathrooms, water wells, and other necessary equipment for everyday living. Among these many rooms, multiple guest rooms, ancestor halls, and communal areas for special events such as funerals, marriages, and other celebrations are scattered from the far reaches to the very center of the building.
Each wall is more than 1 meter thick and about 18 meters tall. There is only one door and the windows are small and found only on the higher floors. The big ones are as large as a football field and can accommodate more than 600 people. The bedrooms are at the 3rd and 4th levels while the second level is a granary. The first level is for communal activities such as cooking, dining, washing, meetings, ancestor worship, games, and rearing fowls, goats and pigs.
In order to make the soil walls strong enough against floods and rain, the Hakkas built them on stone groundwork above the highest flood line. Soil was mingled with glutinous rice and sugar soup before it was made into adobes used to build walls. Large eaves were installed to protect the wall from rain drops as much as possible. There is no window in the thick circular wall for the first two floors, and windows for rooms in the upper two floors are small - no bigger than a slit from which to fire a weapon.
The Hakka houses on display
Though first constructed over 1,200 years ago, many of the buildings are still standing today. They are scattered throughout the region, and many are still inhabited by the Hakka people. Among all the tulou, Zhencheng Lou is the most popular among the tourists from within China and abroad. The oldest tulou is called Yuxinlou (馥馨楼), and is situated in Hulei. According to the clan record of its inhabitants, the Kongs, it was built in the Dali 4th year or in 769AD of the Daizong period of the Tang Dynasty.
There are many other famous round houses regularly visited by tourists, in Nanjing, Hukeng and Chuxi. Built in different years (ranging over a thousand years) in these three areas, these tulou are essentially quite similar, though they vary in smaller details. Here follows a short description of a few of them.
Zhencheng Lou 振成楼
Zhencheng Lou, popularly called Bagua Lou, is a circular tulou built in the year 1912, the first year of the Republic of China. The building, consisting of two concentric circles of buildings, faces the south and covers an area of 5000 square meters. The outer circle, 4 stories in height with 2 halls and 44 rooms on each floor, is made of rammed raw earth and divided into 8 units by brick partition walls. However, as an inner through corridor layout, all neighboring units are connected via archway doors in the partition walls. On the ground floor of each unit, a yard is formed. Each unit has its own stairway. The floors are paved with blue bricks, while on the 3rd and 4th floors, exquisite wooden handrails, attached to a bench, are set along the corridors. The inner circle is made of bricks and two stories in height. It links up with the high ancestral hall to form the central courtyard. There are two halls and eight rooms on the ground floor. The corridor on the second floor, with the center part a little higher than those on both sides, is decorated with cast-iron railing of delicate patterns. The spacious ancestral hall may serve as a performance stage in the front of the hall. On both sides of the building, there is a two-storied half-moon-shaped side building respectively serving as a tobacco cutter workshop and private school. Each has 12 rooms. There are all together 222 rooms (including halls) in the entire building. The inner space is magnificently designed, presenting a wonderful example of an earthen civilian residence that combines the Chinese style with the Western style of building. In May 2000, Zhencheng Lou was listed among the key cultural relics protected at national level.
Tianluokeng Tulou Group 田螺坑土楼群
The Tianluokeng Tulou Group is located in Tianluokeng Natural Village of Shangban Administrative Village of Shuyang Town in Nanjing Country, Fujian province, 60 kilometers from Nanjing. It sits on the mid-level slope of the Hudong Mountain, which stands nearly 800 meters above sea level. The cluster consists of one square tulou, three circular tulou buildings and one oval tulou, BuyuLou, Zhenchang Lou, Ruiyun Lou, Hechang Lou and Wenchang Lou. The five buildings stand in a straight row along the mountain, forming a wonderful picture, combining artificiality and natural beauty. The construction of the building cluster began at the end of the Yuan Dynasty and finished in the 1960’s, covering more than 600 years. In May 2001, this tulou cluster was announced to be among the fifth batch of “major historic sites under national protection”. In November 2003, the village was listed among the first batch of national famous historical and cultural villages.
Chengqi Lou 承启楼
Chengqi Lou, also known as Tianzhu Lou, is located in Gaobei Village of Gaotou Town. The construction began in the years under the reign of Emperor Chongzhen (1628-1644) in the Ming Dynasty, and was completed in the year of 1709, the 48th year under the reign of Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty. The building faces the south and covers an area of 5376 square meters. It’s an earth and wooden structure with an inner through corridor. The building is composed of four concentric circular buildings, with the ancestral hall in the center. The outer circle has a perimeter of 229 meters. The whole building has 402 rooms. In 1981, this tulou was included into the Dictionary of Scenic Sites of China. In 1986, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications of the PRC depicted Chengqi Lou in a series of stamps of Chinese civilian residential buildings it published. That stamp won the year’s best stamp award. In April 1986, Chengqi Lou was listed among the key cultural relics protected at national level.
Yuchang Lou 裕昌楼
As the oldest round earth building in Nanjing Country, Yuchang Earth Building is a provincially preserved cultural relic located in Xiaban Village of Shuyang Township, Nanjing Country. It is a double-ring five-line structure built in the middle of the Yuan Dynasty (1308-1338) by five clans, the Liu, Luo, Zhang, Tang and Fan. With 5 floors, 5 stairs and an observation tower on top of it, the building was designed into 5 units each for one clan, a big unit with 12 rooms for a big clan, and a small unit with 9 rooms for a small clan. There are 270 rooms in this 18 meter high building, 54 rooms on each floor, but only one gate for the whole building. The ground floor is used as a kitchen complex. There is a one-meter-deep well with a diameter of 0.6-0.8 meters in each kitchen. The water in the well is pure, sweet and highly drinkable. Rated as unique, not long after the building was built, the posts on the winding corridor inside the building tilted to the left or the right,some even at a 15 degrees angle. But 25 generations of Lin’s Clan have multiplied and lived peacefully inside the building, which is obviously not dangerous. Today, there are still 21 families consisting of a total of 123 people living in this structure the building.
Although nearly all tulous are still inhabited by people in Yongding County, most of the rooms are empty. Lin Xiaohong, a tulou resident, tells us that many young people have left for the city to find work as migrant workers. Next to some tulous are modern houses, which have been built there recently. Lin Xiaohong admits that many families living within one tulou often make life too noisy. More importantly, without the hierarchal elders, no one is able to coordinate the conflicts between different families within a clan, points out Chang Ding, a restaurant owner nearby Zhencheng Building. "In the past, we had a 'Shaikh' and several senior men acting as judges within a clan, but now there is no Shaikh or chief anymore."
The road to international fame
An April 2004 article in the People’s Daily Online describes an incident in 1985 in which a Western intelligence report purportedly claimed a surveillance satellite had detected a nuclear base in the southern part of China’s Fujian province. The base was ostensibly housed in clusters of large, mushroom-shaped structures that the satellite could not identify or penetrate.
According to the article, a couple from a photography institute in New York went to investigate the site. In a hilarious twist to the tale, they discovered that the structures did not contain the presumed sophisticated nuclear arsenal but instead, communities of rustic Hakka farmers living in mud-walled communal dwellings called tulou.
Some American satellite photos picked up the pictures of these Hakka tulous and thought that they were China's nuclear reactors hidden in the mountainous regions of Fujian. Greatly alarmed, some US military liaison officers stationed at the American Embassy in Beijing were sent down to Yongding to investigate. They found to their relief and embarrassment that what they thought were nuclear reactors or missile silos were in fact harmless earth buildings where the Hakkas had been living for centuries!
Since the discovery of the earth buildings by the American satellite, word of these unique buildings began to spread far and wide, resulting in thousands of tourists from all over the world coming to Fujian to take a look at the buildings. Particularly Japanese tourists are interested in these structures.
Lacking daily maintenance, many tulous have become dilapidated over the past 30 years. There has also been a strong trend for Hakkas to migrate worldwide together. In 1971, the first World Conference of Hakkas was held in Hong Kong, and now 19 sessions of the event have been held, each attracting thousands of attendants.
"The tulou might be withering, but not the Hakka culture, never," says Jian Xiaojun, a Hakka and president of Yongding Association of Science and Technology.
Yongding County tulou visits
Visiting tulou or earth buildings has become a lot easier due to recent improvements to the road and highway system. Some roads are newly built, others have been fixed up and now the highway system is directly linked with Xiamen.
Along the routes, tourists or visitors from Xiamen can visit the main tolou areas in a day or two, depending on how comprehensively you want to explore the area. The four popular areas are:
1) Tianluokeng Tulou Group
The Tianluokeng Tulou Group is closest to Xiamen. It is located in Tianluokeng Natural Village of Shangban Administrative Village of Shuyang Town in Nanjing Country, Fujian province, 60 kilometers from Nanjing County or 200km from Xiamen City.
The Tianluokeng Tulou Group is closest to Xiamen. It is located in Tianluokeng Natural Village of Shangban Administrative Village of Shuyang Town in Nanjing Country, Fujian province, 60 kilometers from Nanjing County or 200km from Xiamen City.
The new highway to Tianluokeng from Xiamen has recently opened for traffic, and therefore getting there no longer requires passing through Longyang City. The journey which once took 4 to 5 hours has been cut short to less than 3 hours.
2) Hukeng - the tulou center
Surrounded by luxuriant hills and undulating rice fields, Yongding is scenic and idyllic. A clear stream runs through the settlement, where grain and the main cash crop, tobacco, are laid out to dry on open ground. Villagers preserve much of their vegetables, from the sweet-salty meicai that is eaten steamed with pork, to dried soup vegetables and herbs. Qing Dynasty Empress Cizi was apparently a fan of the local dried sweet potato strips.
In today’s China, the old is all too easily discarded for the new in the name of progress. Happily, the sturdy tulou fortresses of south Fujian still retain much of their bucolic ambience and flavour. I am told Yongding is soon to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site so we can rest easy knowing that this unique legacy of the resilient Hakka people will be preserved for future generations.
3) Chuxi Tulou
Chuxi earth building (初溪土楼): Located in Xiayang Town of Yongding Country in Longyan City, Fujian Province (福建省龙岩市永定县下洋镇), it consists of 5 round earth buildings and 31 square earth buildings. Chuxi tulou is one of the most important structures of the group of Fujian earth buildings that have applied to be added to the World Culture Heritage List.
4) The oldest tulou in Hulei
Yuxinlou (馥馨楼) in Hulei was built in the Dali 4th year or in 769 AD of the Daizong period of the Tang Dynasty, according to the clan record of its inhabitants, the Kongs. It is, therefore, the oldest remaining earth building in the Southwest of Min (Fujian).The building has no stone base. The wall is tamped with earth, and is 1.3m wide and 3 stories high. It has an upper and a lower hall.
When planning to stay overnight, one should not expect a five-star hotel accommodation. The Tulou Hotel is but a modest hotel providing tourists with less than basic furnishings in its small room: a wooden bed with a very thin mattress, a blanket, a pillow and a stool. There are no tables, mirror or wardrobe, and water is only available on the ground floor. The toilets are located a few meters away from the room. One must queue up and wait for one’s turn to shower. And don’t expect hot water for that matter.
How to get there
It used to be that travelling to the nearest tulou would take approximately eight hours from Xiamen. If travelling alone, one would have no choice but to listen to music on an mp3 player, munch on some snacks or sleep to make the time go faster. There’s not much one can do on an eight-hour trip after having extensively checked out the same brown and green stretch of farmland and mountain sides. But with the opening of the new road last January of this year, driving to Tulou now is more convenient and faster as it only takes two and a half hours from Xiamen. This new road has also attracted more tourists.
The nearest roundhouses to Xiamen are situated in Nanjing. This county is located southeast of Yongding County, in the jurisdiction of Zhangzhou City. This is where you can find the so-called “four dishes and a soup” tulou. Apparently they are called like this because the square house is surrounded by round ones in each corner. The Tianluokeng Tulou and Hekeng Tulou have the most classical designs.
The highway from Xiamen to Yongding takes you through Zhangzhou. Yongding is two hours from Longyan along a winding mountain road. From Zhangzhou you can travel over 100km through layered hills lush with banana trees and feathery bamboo, on an extraordinary highway with some 80 mountain bridges elevated 80 meters above the ground and more than two dozen tunnels, some nearly 3km long. The round tulou, with their yellow mud walls topped with deep grey roofs do indeed look like giant mushrooms. They are doughnut-shaped, with a large open courtyard in the middle, and constructed in four tiers. Hakka people can be found mainly in the Yongding area of China. More than 4,360 buildings built in both round (360) and square (4,000) architectural forms can be found in this area.
Apple Travel has been organizing tours to tulous for years. They have 1 day to 3 day tours to the Nanjing, Hukeng, Chuxi and Hulei areas. They are the only travel agency in Xiamen specializing in Fujian tours that cater for the English-speaking market. Every week for the past few years, AppleTravel has been taking local tourists, Xiamen expats and Xiamen locals to the Fujian tulou areas. The easiest and most comprehensive way to learn how to tour tulou areas is to consult Apple Travel. You can reach them by dialling (+86) 0592-5053122 or visit the website at www.appletravel.cn. Apple Travel can also provide self guided tours, car rental and vehicle with driver.
Apple Travel and Wyndham Hotel Xiamen are working hand in hand to make your Fujian tulou tours as comfortable as they can be when you are either in transit or opt for a few days stay in Xiamen. For all international and China domestic tourists, Xiamen is a must stop hub for your tulou trips, in which you make your way to the various tour destinations. The Wyndham Hotel Xiamen together with Apple Travel present the best combination to make your tulou trips as comfortable and hassle free as possible. Wyndham locates in the centre of Xiamen CBD. The Hotel offers 588 luxurious rooms and suites, most of which are embraced by spectacular sea views of popular Gulangyu Island.