Fujian most formidable clan home of defense - The Tulou

Updated: 16 Mar 2010
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Read more on Fujian Tulou   clan home   circular tulou  

The floor plan of Chengqilou in Yongding county built in 1709,

which used to house 80 families, totaling more than 600 people


The thick outer wall of a tulou separates two distinct worlds:


On the outside, the village's relatively bare pathways and buildings are of the same material, clay, giving the village and its surroundings a very homogeneous appearance. One meets very few people and the tulou with their forbidding appearance show little interest in the world outside.


Behind the main gate there is normally only a single portal. The tulou is dense and compact, with up to 250 small uniform rooms, constructed in two- or three-story wooden structures. These are placed around the buildings periphery and ordered symmetrically around the tulou's central axis. Through identical galleries all of the rooms look out onto the open courtyard, as is normally the case in most Chinese homes.


The courtyard is used for drying clothes and rice, for communal activities, and for children's play. It may be empty or filled with one- or two-story buildings. These buildings may be stables, guest rooms, toilets or, for use in the summer, an outdoor kitchen. It is also in the courtyard that the ancestral altar is situated.


The larger the courtyard the less influence these lower buildings have on light and air. This may explain why the circular tulou often have many additional low buildings while the smaller, rectangular tulou often have empty courtyards. 


Ancestral altars


A rectangular tulou has the ancestral altar set into the building's peripheral range of rooms facing the courtyard while in the case of the circular tulou it is a detached one-story building in the courtyard.

The ancestral altar is where the founding members of the clan are honoured and guests are received. On the wall hangs a picture of the founding father of the clan - perhaps next to it a crane symbolising a desire for long life. By the wall is a long narrow table on which is placed an incense burner or a vase with flowers. It is in this chamber that the boys of the clan were taught reading and writing etc. On less formal occasions the old men sit here and smoke or the old women gossip while they watch over the youngest children and grandchildren.

In South China success in life is guided by supernatural forces, and this has consequences for the building's orientation. Like water from the mountain, the supernatural forces are to be channeled into the the ancestral altar, which therefore lies on the central axis opposite the entrance.


The living quarters


In China, as elsewhere, a family home is divided into zones, from the open and accessible entrance and courtyard to the total privacy of the bedroom.

In the tulou guests have access to the ancestral altar and the family’s living quarters, while access to the rooms along the gallery is restricted to the inhabitants.


The rooms of a tulou are shared among its inhabitants in such a way that a single family unit uses two or three rooms on each floor, in a vertical segment of the building.


One room on the ground floor is the kitchen and another is used for eating and daily living. The stove in the kitchen is vented to the outside through small openings in the outer wall. Steep stairs lead to the verandas that ring the upper three levels. The sleeping quarters are on the first and second floor and food, clothes and valuables are stored on the top floor, although in other yuanlou such as Zhenchenglou bedrooms are found on the upper floors.

The preparation of meat and vegetables is done in the courtyard immediately in front of the kitchen where the oven and firewood is to be found.


The tulou as a fortification


In past there has been a tradition for the extended families of South East China to live together and there are good grounds for this tradition. Clan cohesion was a important factor in the controlling of all activities - political, religious and economical. This cohesion meant greater stability for the clan and the individual 

The Hakka are a ethnic group from the North belonging to the Han Chinese. They are today spread over the whole of Southern China, concentrated mostly in the mountainous regions and have migrated further into many other countries.

During the last two thousand years mass migration has been evident in China, as the Han Chinese influence spread towards the South, especially towards the then thinly populated and "wild" South / Southwest China.


In the fourteenth and fifteenth century there were many migrants from north China, including many Hakka. As relatively late arrivals they were forced to inhabit mountainous and less fertile land such as the Wuyi mountains.  
Through the centuries there were many family feuds and conflicts between ethnic groups. The Hakkas were often involved in these conflicts.
The ruling power was centred far away, in distant Peking, so that disputes had to be solved locally. Consensus was not always reached. This resulted in far more feuding than is found elsewhere in China, and that is the reason why the tulou was also a fortification, with outer walls of stamped clay up to 1.5 metres thick and 18 metres high, an iron-clad portal, weapon slits under the eaves of the large overhanging roof, and a connecting gallery that enabled rapid movement of people and weaponry.

The portal is the most vulnerable point of attack and is therefore protected by an ingenious fire-dowsing system with an internal gutter above which is connected to a water tank situated on the second floor.

The animal pens, a water well and food stockpiles in the courtyard provided for a lengthy conflict. The tulou is probably the largest, and defensively most advanced, village residences known.

Clan and village feuds where part of normal social life in Fujian and Guangdong well into the late 19th century. In 1859 a missionary, R. Krone, wrote, "Not only are robbers and pirates to be feared, but internecine wars are almost always raging between some or other of the villages and these wars, though often arising from trivial causes, are not mere temporary quarrels, but are often long-continued and sanguinary."..."in these quarrels, many a bloody battle is fought, hundreds of men are perish, and whole villages are destroyed. Men of neutral villages or clans are generally well distinguished."..."Missionaries also are considered neutrals."..."The only way in which the government endeavours to put a stop to these disturbances, is by not allowing the fighting clans to send up their graduates for examination - a severe punishment which deprives the graduates of titles and honours..."

Maurice Freedman observed the correlation between a well developed clan structure and the increased number of inter-clan conflicts. Apart from the fighting over agricultural land due the large migration, conflicts also occurred over increases in political or economic influence or the situating of burial grounds or buildings.


The Circular tulou


The circular tulou are something of a riddle, for apart from a few temples there are no other examples of circular buildings to be found in China. Some maintain that the shape was known in Fujian in watch towers and fortified villages, and that these have simply developed into residences. Others suggest that, they were the last stage of a long development, starting with more complex forms and consolidating into the simpler rectangle and finally evolving into the circular form.


The circular form has several advantages:


1. Technically a circular form is easier to build because of the identical cross-section throughout and without the need for complex roof and wall corner construction. See also the section "Construction"


2. The circular form allows more economic use of material. Wood is more expensive to obtain, transport and work than clay. For each jian (building module) the outer rim of clay is longer than that of wood, which faces the courtyard.

Further, a given amount of material gives a 41 % larger courtyard and approximately a 13 % larger building area in the circular than in the rectangular tulou.


3. A circular building has greater static stability. Analysis of the outer wall alone indicates that a cylindrical shell is more stable (ring and restraining moments).The cylindrical shell is further strengthened considerably by the rigid, horizontal and circular decks of each floor (membrane forces). If additional vertical elements are built, such as fire walls (as illustrated in the case of the Zhenchenglou) the rigidity and strength is further improved, as the cylinder surfaces are fixed in all four directions.


4.The circular tulou has a more uniform room division - As the main source of light is from the courtyard, a corner room would be poorly lit and without adequate ventilation. 
5. Local superstition holds that evil spirits are everywhere, especially along roads and in brooks, streams and mountain passes. Every corner in a rectangular building is an opportunity for evil spirits to enter the building as the circular tulou have no corners, spirits are more likely to pass by

No contemporary sources explain why circular tulou were built. Most counties in China have ‘local gazetteers’ spanning hundreds of years but very few contain information regarding local building costums.


The local history for this part of the country does not contain any interesting information regarding the locality’s architecture and house form 


SOURCE: Jens Aaberg-Jørgensen


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