In southern China, in Yongding county, there are massive houses unlike anything in China (or the rest of the world really). Dedicated as a UNESCO world heritage site, the tulou houses of Fujian are a totally unique experience.
Translated, tulou literally means “earth house” and the name is an apt description. The houses are literally made of earth with some bamboo, wood and stones mixed in. Â They were built for defense, from both wild animals and bandits, and European kings could have learned a thing or two from their design. Tulou’s are perfect sealed communities. The only way in is one big easily defensible door, which was heavily fortified and had a self dousing water system built into. The first floor has no windows, so no way to gain access that way, and the top level had weapon slits. And oh yeah, those earth walls? Usually 5 thick feet of hard packed earth. So burning or breaking then down was pretty much impossible. And in the middle of just about every tulou is a self contained well. If you were well stocked with food and livestock, you wouldn’t have to leave for anything.
The coolest looking tulou’s are circular, but there are many rectangular tulou’s as well (I stayed in a rectangular tulou and it was a really cool experience). Nowadays, Tulou’s look a lot like they did in the past and haven’t been modernized very much. Of course they are less populated then decades ago when usually hundreds would live in one tulou (depending on the size of course–some housed 800 people, others just dozens). Most young people have moved out for more modern houses, with indoor plumbing, and moved to bigger cities to find work. I noticed a lot of older people and kids filling them now.
These places were built for communities. There is no social hierarchy reflected in the building. Every room is identical shape and size, and every family would own one vertical column, from the first floor to the top. Some richer, or bigger, families might own two columns, but even so, the rooms were all the same size. There is a shared well, shared toilets and a shared temple in every single one. People just hang out and chat. Since the kitchens are on the bottom floor, stoves, fires and sinks are all on the outside making talking and gathering a very easy thing to do. I kind of liked that.
The second floor was dedicated to storage and the top floor, either the 3rd, 4th, or 5th story is where the family would live and sleep. I got to peek into a few rooms and I have to say, they were pretty small. Just big enough for a bed, chair and dresser. The rooms were also very dark. Every room had a window, but for privacy everyone covered it up with a thick cloth. Also, all the rooms had a padlock on them. The ones I got to peek into were because I passed by as someone was entering or exiting.
I went on the tour of the tulou’s with Mr. Lin, the owner of the tulou I was staying at, and another teacher from Shanxi province. The tulou’s are spread out over a big area, so you will need some form of transportation to see them, and each village has a pretty pricey entrance ticket. I was lucky because the other teacher I toured with was an outgoing guy who talked easily with the locals and didn’t feel uneasy or shy about tramping all over someone’s house. (Which I did.) I’ll admit I had some trouble understanding his Mandarin, so communication was hard, but by the end of the day we were fast friends and have chatted several times since then.
While I did say that tulou’s are mostly filled with old and young people, that isn’t entirely true. Some are more active. And by active, I mean, dependent on the tourist trade. I’m so happy we started in the one we did, because it felt like a real community, with real people living normal lives. As we continued, and joined the tour bus route, tulou’s became more and more frantic with people trying to sell you art, tchotchke’s and tea. After looking around one, we stopped and sat with one of the many tea sellers. She let us try several of her teas, and she was very friendly, but even I resisted (for once) and left empty handed. I don’t begrudge these people their work, I know it is how they make their living, it’s just they really ruined the tulou’s. They change from being a cool, unique piece of Chinese history to being frantic marketplaces. I wish they could just set up shop outside the Tulou.
There was one tulou with a filled courtyard, but not with a marketplace. Instead it had an entire building inside the tulou! In the past the building was used for meetings, a school for kids and other community purposes. It’s kinda funny though, a building inside a building, and I would imagine it really cuts out the available light. But now it is a huge tourist draw, and the industrialÂ residents charge you 5 rmb to climb the stairs (the only tulou to charge an extra fee outside of the entrance ticket), but they know it is worth it.
The tulou’s are not far away from Xiamen, a popular seaside town, and can easily be done as a day trip from there. (Though it will be a full day with lots of time in the car.) If you have more time I would recommend at least a night or two in an actual tulou because it really is a unique experience. Travel books usually list different locations and there is a travel company in Xiamen, called Apple, that can help book a tulou and arrange transportation for you in English. (I’ve heard they are good, but I didn’t actually use them myself.)
No matter how you get here, you should make the extra effort, they are worth it.