During the Cold War US Spy Satellites trained their electronic eyes on China – as they did just about everywhere else. In the mountains of Fujian they snapped images of massive round structures deep in hidden valleys. Alarmed these could be some sort of nuclear missile installations – and opposite Taiwan to boot – the US sent spies to determine the nature of these round facilities. A major international incident was avoided when the structures were revealed to be not ultra-modern defense installations but rather communal defensive villages built by the Hakka people over the last 700 years. Far from high-tech, these structures have survived the centuries being made simply out of rammed earth.
Known as “Tulou” (Lit: Earth/Soil/Dirt Buildings), the construction method is decidedly simple yet very effective. Rammed earth construction involves building a wooden frame in the shape of the desired wall(s) and filling it with a mixture of dirt, gravel and plant matter. The mixture is then rammed down by a heavy log lifted and dropped repeatedly to compact the soil. Once compacted, more soil is added and the process continues. Although one would anticipate this method of construction would be susceptible to erosion or simply flaking apart once the frame is removed, the tulou with their walls made of rammed earth have stood since the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (although most were built in the Qing Dynasty). The oldest building is the five-story Yuchanglou, built in 1308. It is still occupied after 702 years.
Rammed earth construction has many advantages over modern ferro-concrete construction or even the wooden structures popular at the time the Tulou were built. First, it is highly energy efficient. As an excellent insulator, it is warmer in winter and slightly cooler in summer. Second, it is virtually indestructible. The oldest Tulou have only given out as water erosion has finally begun to eat away at the walls. In most cases it appears the wooden beams supporting the roof, platforms and rooms give out long before the rammed earth walls.
Why go through the trouble of constructing these indestructible walled villages? Throughout the Ming Dynasty – especially in its latter centuries – Japanese pirates (called the Wokou) tormented and raided the Chinese coast. Villages far inland were susceptible to these raiding parties so it only made sense to build homes which could be easily defended. The Tulou could house an entire clan village for an extended siege (which raiding parties obviously would have difficulty mounting).
How could they survive a siege in these dirt fortresses? Each had internal wells to provide fresh water. Grain and other foodstuffs were stored in the ring of kitchens on the first floor. Livestock lived in the central commons and concentric corrals in the courtyard. The thick walls included slits ideal for firing crossbows and muskets with impunity down on attackers who would have to approach the walls of the Tulou in the open.
The people who built the Tulou are known as the Hakka. The name means “Guests” and is a reference to the Hakka peoples’ migrations across China throughout history. Starting in the north, invasions and internal strife led the Hakka to gradually move south, settling into lands already populated by other groups of Han Chinese. As newcomers, the Hakka came to be known as “Guests” – hence the name. Today, they are concentrated in southern Fujian, eastern Jiangsu and northern Guangdong. As will be discussed in a later entry, the Hakka people have had a greatly disproportionate impact on modern Chinese history given their small numbers (some 30 to 45 million worldwide).
Anyone interested in visiting the Tulou should plan a visit to Xiamen in Fujian Province. Xiamen makes an excellent jumping off point for exploring the Tulou region. The majority of the Tulou are clustered in Yongding County in a series of tea-growing mountain villages. Buses to Yongding can be found at Xiamen’s long distance bus station. For those interested in a formal tour, these can be organized in Xiamen as well. Check with the China Youth Travel Service or the China International Travel Service. The China International Travel Service has an English Website (old) available at: http://www.chinavista.com/travel/agent/tmhome.html. I would not necessarily trust the contact information, though.
It is easy to arrange tours to the Yongding County Tulou cluster from any hostel in Xiamen (of which there are 8 listed with Hostelling International). This will save the difficulty of trying to arrange one’s own transportation (and lodging) in the Yongding area which might be somewhat of a challenge without an English speaking guide.
Best of luck in your travels. Be sure to email if you have specific questions.