A trip to the coastal city of Xiamen, in Fujian province, called for a visit to the region’s famous tulou earthen roundhouses, which lie some way out of the city, into the countryside. We travelled there on an organised tour, along with a coach-load of Chinese tourists, which was, shall we say, an experience in itself! Being the only foreigners, and having limited Chinese language skills, meant we were never entirely sure what was happening or when we’d be arriving at our destination.
After a couple of unexpected stops – firstly at a ‘service station’, essentially a roadside shack, where I had my first communal toilet experience, then at a bamboo products showroom, we eventually arrived at the roundhouses about three-and-a-half hours after we left Xiamen. It was a long journey and there are quicker ways to get there, I’m sure, but we weren’t able to organise it this time!
Anyway, these colossal buildings are the traditional rural dwellings of the Hakka people, a subgroup of the Han Chinese that originated in northern China. The Hakka people have subsequently spread all over the world, exporting with them Chinese culture to places like Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Europe.
Constructed from very thick walls of tramped earth, mixed with stone, bamboo and wood, the tulou, which literally means ‘earth building’, were mostly built between the 12th and 20th centuries as homes for up to 80 families. They were designed as impenetrable to protect the people living there from attack.
Inside, individual dwellings line the inner walls of the structure, with wooden balcony walkways looking out onto the central corridor.
Inside some of the tulou, the dwellings are made out of brick and extend into the centre, forming little streets. It’s really lovely wandering around and imagining what it’s like living in these ancient buildings.
While there are thought to be hundreds of tulou in the southeastern mountains of Fujian, 46 ‘clusters’ are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
We visited the Gaobei cluster, which has three round tulous, as well as a pentagonal and a square example.
The biggest, the Chengqilou or ‘king of tulou’, is a massive round tulou, four floors tall, with 288 rooms. Around 300 people still live in it, although many of its residents have moved to the city as part of the huge urban migration of rural people in China.
While many of the sites have inevitably become tourist attractions rather than living communities, they do offer a glimpse into the lives of China’s rural inhabitants and a break from the unflinching urban modernity of the country’s cities. You can even stay in a still functioning tulou at the Fuyulou tulou. We didn’t manage to get there on this trip, but it looks wonderful and is certainly on the ever-expanding list of places to visit!