Tulou 土樓 Communities, “Closed Outside, Open Inside” – a Variety of Chinese Courtyard Architecture

Tulou communityThese reviews in which we get entangled do not result in more reviews of Yang Shen, but often they engulf the reviewer in unexpected subjects which themselves are engrossing. My review of Tom Carter’s China, Portrait of a People, which is finally nearly completed, is such an entanglement – the Fujian tulou Tom photographed are fascinating and deserving of more than a squib in a book review. How are they built, and how do folks live in the hivelike strongholds? Tom’s photo in Portrait of the interior of a 700-year-old tulou in Yuchanglou, Fujian, looks much more intimate than any apartment building – with the rooms of the several stories all in a circle so that your neighbors, lots of them, are staring in through your doors and windows! And the acoustics must make the inside very noisy. The epitome in communal living.

Chinese Courtyard House 2 layoutThat sounds familiar, of course, having just written the about crowding in Chinese Courtyard Houses  and More on Chinese Courtyard Houses  – “The rooms all looked into the courtyard and so faced each other and offered little privacy. Large windows and connecting doorways between adjacent rooms made it easy to see everything going on. This design was convenient for the grandfather, who wanted to know everything happening in his courtyard. In addition, it implied a warning to the family members: Watch your behavior! The lack of personal privacy made some family members feel extremely constrained and frustrated. A traditional proverb said that ‘there was a tragic drama in every courtyard. The deeper the courtyard, the sadder the stories’.

Tian Lou KangAnother mind-chime rings as well, where the tulou walls are described as being built of rammed earth! The walls surrounding Chinese towns and cities also were built using rammed earth (see Reconstructing Lost Places in Towns of Old China). Could tulou be described as miniature Chinese towns 城 surrounded by thick, crenellated fortress walls (without the moats and water gates for crisscrossing waterways)? Pity none of Yang Shen’s stage business takes place in Fujian so we could include tulou; may have to enlist some Hakka in the EVA to tell Fletcher about tulou (if that’s possible, considering the early Taiping were Hakka).

Tulou are large, predominantly circular earthen structures of four and five stories (but sometimes having rectangular or other shapes depending on terrain), containing as many as hundreds of rooms in the largest examples, housing as many as eighty families of a clan – essentially a complete village in one building. Six feet thick at their base, the load-bearing walls sit on a base of stone blocks and taper upward like city walls to a thickness of three feet, and easily repulsed arrows, musket balls, and cannon balls. Within, besides Fujian-Tulou-Jens-Aaberg-Jogensen1living quarters above, there were ancestral altars, storage rooms, meetings halls, kitchens and public water wells below. “The earth wall section was built with rammed earth together with lime-sand-clay mixture and reinforced with horizontal bamboo strips for lateral binding. It was solid as a castle, immune even to cannon fire.” An architectural review of tulou showing a cutaway of their internal plan can be viewed at the Architecture in Development website.

Chuxi Tulou cluster, Fujian province - Wikimedia CommonsRooftops are covered with tiles of fired clay arranged radially above eaves that extend out several feet to protect the walls from runoff. Inside the structure, each level has wooden walkways (“boardwalks”) supported by beams projecting from the wall, and there are several wood staircases that climb to the highest story (like a 5th-floor walkup in New York city). Only the upper levels have windows – a defence measure. Smoke from lower level cooking  fires is vented through the walls. There is only one entrance – a frame of solid rock with thick armored double doors protected from fire by a sprinkler system connecting a gutter above the door to a water tank on the floor above. The circular design was popular because without corners it was easier to build, used less material, was more stable, rooms were lit equally from the courtyard, and there were no corners for nasty evil spirits to hide behind. Tulou are well represented in YouTube videos. One video tour of a tulou, conducted by “Shiela,” takes the viewer inside a “too-loo.”

The Fujian tulou is one of several varieties, others being the Guangdong tulou in northern and northeastern Guangdong, and the Jiangxi tulou of southern Jiangxi. Fujian has tens of thousands of tulou but only several thousand of the Hakka tulou of southern Fujian. The tulou  community of Yongding, Fujian, is regarded as representative of “Hakka Earth Towers” and esteemed as a World Cultural Site China Folk House. Tulou even appear on Chinese postage stamps. Tom Carter wrote in a post From the Earth: Tulou earth villages of the Fujian Hakka on his Red Room blog that in the mid-1980s American satellites detected what appeared to be numerous missile silos in the Fujian mountains. “…the U.S. Secretary of Defense immediately deployed a crack unit of C.I.A. spies into the P.R.C. to investigate. They returned to the Pentagon in hysterics reporting: ‘ Those aren’t missiles, dumbass; those are mud!’ ”

Communal lifestyle in China predated the Communist regime by centuries, in Hakka tulou communities. When families of a clan were installed in a tulou, beginning with the elders and followed by the families of sons eldest to youngest, each family was allotted a vertical segment, from ground to top floor, like a slice of a pie. Larger families might receive two or more vertical segments. They slept in rooms on the upper floors, cooked and ate on the lower floors, and socialized with other families of the clan in the open Tulou interior, Annie Chen, captionedcourtyard. Facilities were shared and responsibilities for organizing activities, security, and upkeep rotated between families. They worked together in the same fields, harvested together, and shared bounty and famine. Their lives centered on a clan hall in the center of the courtyard where they worshiped their ancestors, celebrated festivals, and prepared banquets. Typical Chinese houses expanded laterally around courtyards as each son started a family of his own, but in tulou housing assignments progressed in circular fashion, with the oldest sons occupying rooms closest to the rooms of the father and grandfather. Expansion continued until all the rooms were occupied, then another tulou was built next door for new generations.

This way of communal life has persisted for centuries, suggesting that the Hakka clans worked out ways to live together in harmony, something quite amazing in a world of conflict and, perhaps, easiest when only related families are involved. In some places, the insular Hakka secure in their earthen castles did not always get along all that well with outsiders. Hakka and bendi (local Cantonese) probably first rubbed elbows at local markets, where the different Hakka language and customs, and standoffish ways, rubbed bendi the wrong way and led to conflict that escalated into the bloody battles of the Clan Wars. Such, we are told, is what gave rise to the Taiping Rebellion, which itself was sparked by the Bendi (Punti)-Hakka Clan Wars in the mid 1850s.


FuJian Tulou (A Treasure of Chinese Traditional Civilian Residence), Huang Hanmin, 2010 http://www.mandarinbooks.cn/zencart/index.php?main_page=product_book_info&products_id=2514

福建土楼 (Fujian Tulou) http://baike.baidu.com/view/1329839.htm

Wikipedia: Fujian Tulou http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fujian_Tulou

From the Earth: Tulou earth villages of the Fujian Hakka http://redroom.com/member/tom-carter/writing/from-the-earth-tulou-earth-villages-of-the-fujian-hakka

World Cultural Heritage: Fujian Tulou by Annie Chen http://www.chinatravelpage.com/world-cultural-heritage-fujian-tulou

Architecture in Development: Fujian Tulou http://architectureindevelopment.org/project.php?id=19

Fujian Tulou (UNESCO/NHK)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ_Z58r3mIs

The Leaning Tulou of Yuchanglou http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCssdmtFJHI

Hakka Earth Towers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FqNk5EVNSs

Fujian most formidable clan home of defense – The Tulou http://www.whatsonxiamen.com/xiamen-info-675.html

Monuments to Clan Life Are Losing Their Appeal http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/world/asia/23yongding.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The last moment in history to see the tulou http://seanrocha.com/2011/11/07/the-last-moment-in-history-to-see-the-tulou/

Fujian Tulou – the Hakka earthen Houses of Fujian Province http://www.stardustinasia.com/2013/03/fujian-tulou-hakka-earthen-houses-of.html

THE GENES OF TULOU: A STUDY ON PRESERVATION AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT OF TULOU by  Shaosen Wang, Suyu Li, and Shijie Liao, School of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Xiamen University http://www2.cemr.wvu.edu/~rliang/ihta/papers/20%20FINAL%20shaosen%20Wang_paper_workshop.pdf

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3 Responses to Tulou 土樓 Communities, “Closed Outside, Open Inside” – a Variety of Chinese Courtyard Architecture

  1. Administrator says:

    More information about this unique form of Chinese architecture can be found in a post “Hakka Tulou” at the blog of Bernard Perroud

  2. Delores says:

    Very much so. I love reading about Societal differences, old and new. I wish everyone would learn about the back ground of ‘other’ cultures. If they did perhaps there would be more understanding and less war.

  3. Administrator says:

    A member from the China History Forum comments that “These tulou are not uniquely Hakka. Apparently, in the past some Minnan people also lived in such tulou. But the most famous tulous are lived by the Hakkas.”

    This point also is made at the 福建省华安县一中学 Fujian Hua’an Middle School website where we are told that Fujian tulou embrace both Hakka and Minnan tulou, that Hua’an is the birthplace of Minnan tulou, and that of the 3000 or more Fujian tulou, half are lived in by Minnan folks. “In Nanjing and Yongding County, Minnan people have a close relationship with the Hakka, while Hua’an is so far away from the Hakka that its architectural style differs greatly….”

    Lonely Planet China notes that while tulou around Yongding County are Hakka, “there are far more tulou in other counties like Nanjing and Hua’an populated by the indigenous Minnan (Fujianese) people.” The Minnan tulou are built somewhat differently, each unit having its own stairwell and patio for more privacy, rather than the open corridors, stairwells, and courtyard of the Hakka tulou. The Lonely Planet guide goes on to list a number of tulou locations for tourists to visit.

    Another interesting tidbit comes from Ethnic ChinaLit in a comment on the New York Times article cited in our post: “Chinese officials tried smashing the clan system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Collectives built more and more tulou and randomly assigned people to live in the buildings, so each clan would have members spread among different collectives. When the Cultural Revolution ended, people drifted back to their clans.”

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