Exploring the Hakka tulou

The Fujian tulou, meaning “earthen structure” in Mandarin, are nestled in the forested hills of southeastern Fujian province. They were built by the Hakka people between the 14th and 20th centuries. The tulous are made from “rammed earth” – a mixture of clay, sand and limestone. At one point, U.S. officials reportedly mistook the tulous for missile silos from satellite images, due to their circular shape.

A view of the ‘King of Tulou’ and others tulous in Gaobei Village. We would recommend doing this short hike, which starts near the entrance to the village.

The Hakka people migrated from northern China to the southeastern part of Fujian around the 14th and 15th centuries. Their reception was not necessarily peaceful with longer-settled groups. First and foremost, the tulous were built as a defensive structures against warring groups and bandits, with only a few rows of windows near the top of the building, and one entrance.

Zhen Cheng tulou

Their modest facade does not reveal the magnificence of inside the tulous, which remind me of the Globe Theater, but even larger. The tulous range from three to five stories, with families owning vertical sections. The interior is made from dark wood, with each floor fringed by an open walkway facing the courtyard. In the middle of the tulou is an open-air cobblestone courtyard, where people eat and hang out. Every tulou that we saw has a small room opening from the courtyard with an ancestral altar inside, with incense burning and various offerings including mandarins, tea, rice wine and even a chicken (or possibly goose).

Communal and sustainable living?
The tulous also provide communal living for multiple families within an extended family clan. They are egalitarian in nature, with every room designed to be identical in size and decor. Whether you were the clan leader or a farmer, you had the same room in a tulou.

The tulou can also be seen as a sustainable building, as they are built from local materials, and their design means they require very little energy to maintain a comfortable temperature year-round. Shared facilities also minimise energy and water usage. Could this become a model for collective ‘green’ living in the future? Urbanis, a Chinese architecture firm, thinks so. Urbanis designed a modern version of the tulou for 220 low-income families in the southern city of Guangzhou. The courtyard has a number of communal facilities including a library, fitness areas, bike parking, a shop and restaurant, and outdoor courtyard.

Touring the tulous
In 2008, UNESCO designated 46 tulou as World Heritage sites. This has led to a tourism bonanza, mostly of local Chinese tourists. Many tour groups occupy the more famous tulous, jostling with one another for photos, sampling tea and buying trinkets. They are often led by a tour guide with a megaphone. In famous tulous such as Chengqi tulou or the ‘King of Tulou’, this leads to a deafening cacophony of amplified voices and bargaining.

In 2008, UNESCO designated 46 tulou as World Heritage sites. This has led to a tourism bonanza, mostly of local Chinese tourists. Many tour groups occupy the more famous tulous, jostling with one another for photos, sampling tea and buying trinkets. They are often led by a tour guide with a megaphone. In famous tulous such as Chengqi tulou or the ‘King of Tulou’, this leads to a deafening cacophony of amplified voices and bargaining.

Mass tourism near the ‘King of Tulou’

However you don’t have to venture far to find a beautiful tulou all to yourself. Many of these were walking distance from our residence – Changdi Inn, in Hong Keng Village. We particularly liked Zhen Cheng tulou:

A view of Zhen Cheng tulou from the top floor

In Gaobei Village, where the ‘King of Tulou’ is located, we found a large circular tulou that appeared to be empty. While admiring the courtyard, I noticed an elderly man peering out at us from his room on the ground floor. I waved and said ni hao. After a few minutes, he hobbled out to us with a grin and gestured for us to go upstairs. He showed us around the second and third floors, pointing and speaking to us in Hakka, despite our inability to understand. He then showed us a water well in the middle of the courtyard. He dipped a bucket down and brought up water for us to drink, which looked clean and was surprisingly refreshing.

The last of the tulou residents still use this well in the middle of the courtyard for their drinking water

He then gestured for us to follow him to his room, where he prepared oolong tea for us with his wife. The preparation and serving of tea is quite elaborate. It is brewed in a small pot, strained into another, and then discarded the first time. This is repeated with the tea then served in small cups. The host continuously refills your cup, and brews tea using the same leaves several times. Before we left, he pulled out a glittery snowglobe with tulou inside, which we felt obliged to purchase for 15 yuan. Well worth it for the private tour and hospitality!

Our impromptu tour guide

Despite their World Heritage status, many tulous are in disrepair. Some have been damaged due to wars such as the Taiping Rebellion, others due to fire or the wear and tear of time. Many tulous are fairly devoid of residents, with the bottom floors occupied but the upper floors abandoned and locked shut. A few elderly people continue to occupy the tulous, some of whom take care of grandchildren. The parents may be working nearby as farmers or tour guides, or may be working in cities further afield. In addition, many Hakka people have migrated to Taiwan, Singapore, Borneo and elsewhere over the past century or so. However some, such as Changdi Inn, are full of life, with young working people staying to work in tourism.

One of the few remaining elderly residence of the less visited tulous

Our trip to the tulous was personally significant for me, as my great-grandfather is Hakka, and migrated to Malaysian Borneo from somewhere in southern China. Unfortunately, the information has been lost between generations about where in China he is from, although one day I hope to find out.


Visiting and staying in the tulous (on a budget)
We stayed inside a tulou – Fuyulou Changdi Inn, in Hong Keng Village, Hukeng.  The Inn is run by Stephen, who fortunately for us can speak English. This tulou is 139 years old, and Stephen is a 6th generation owner.

A view from our room in Fuyulou Changdi Inn

Changdi Inn is a sprawling square tulou with multiple courtyards and about 50 people still living inside. In its heyday, the tulou housed around 200 family members. It was loud, with all rooms facing the communal courtyard. You can hear the children playing, people cooking and washing, and going about their daily lives. This tulou is no exception to the tour groups passing through. The bathrooms are basic, and were three floors away from our room. There is a good restaurant downstairs at the Inn where they serve home-cooked Hakka food and local beer. We really enjoyed our time at Changdi Inn, and would recommend it for an authentic experience of the tulous.

The sprawling Changdi Inn from across the river

Changdi Inn is in the middle of the historic Hong Keng Village, and there are plenty of tulous next door and a short walk away to explore by foot or bike. We rented a bike from Changdi Inn and cycled to Gaobei Village. It looked like there were plenty of tulous offering simple accommodation in the area.

As we explored by foot and bike and did not hire a driver, we missed some of the more famous tulou such as Tianloukeng. However we were able to see around 20 tulou, large and small, square and round, around Hong Keng and Gaobei villages.

A mini tulou near Changdi Inn in Hong Keng village

Logistics

We began our trip in Guangzhou, from which we took a high-speed train to Xiamen and stayed the night. We then took a bus from Fanghu long-distance bus station in Xiamen, which took about 3.5 hours and cost 62 yuan. There are many bus stations in Xiamen so make sure you are going to the right one. Ask for the bus that goes to Hukeng, and get off at the “Earth Building Cultural Building” (we had this written in Chinese on our phones), which is one stop before Hukeng. The bus stop is about 1.5km from the Inn. Before you enter, you will need to get entrance tickets from the administrative centre nearby (90 yuan), which also covers you for the “King of Tulous”. This ticket technically lasts two days, however we stayed for four and only got questioned once when we tried to pass through the ticketing office gates on our third day.

For our return, we took an overnight train from Yongding station to Guangzhou. Although direct, the journey takes about 11.5 hours. As the soft sleeper tickets were sold out, we ended up with hard sleeper tickets. This involved sharing a small space with six people, with the beds in vertical rows of three. They are so cramped that if you are in the middle or top bunks, you cannot sit up without knocking your head. The beds were comfortable enough, and they gave us plush blankets – not bad for a hard sleeper. Unfortunately, people still smoke near the toilets, which wafts through the carriages. We arrived in Guangzhou at 6.15am, hungry and exhausted.

References

O’Neill, T. 2015. “China’s remote fortresses lose residents, gain tourists”. National Geographic.https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/special-features/2015/01/150102-hakka-china-tulou-fujian-world-heritage/ 

Tory-Henderson, N. 2017. “Tulou Collective Housing”. Arcspace.
https://arcspace.com/feature/tulou-collective-housing/

Wong, E. 2011. “Monuments to clan life are losing their appeal”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/world/asia/23yongding.html

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