The sleepy village of Xiabanliao, located just southwest of Tianluokeng village and Shuyang Town, has been the home of the Liu clan for twenty-five generations. And, when you take in the lush greenery of the surrounding mountains and listen to the soft bubbling of nearby brooks, you’ll understand why they’ve stayed for so long! Yet Xiabanliao isn’t just your ordinary Chinese village; it houses one of the most magnificent architectural wonders the country has to offer.
The Tulou of Fujian are huge earthen fortresses that were designed to protect inhabitants from bandits. They have enjoyed great fame in recent years due to their unique appearance and unmatched fortitude. Xiabanliao’s Yuchang Lou, which was built by the Liu clan in 1308 during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is one of the oldest and most resilient of them all. At the grand old age of 700, this tulou is still home to 23 families and about 120 people from the Liu clan. It may not have all the modern conveniences of a new home, but at least the Liu family never have to worry about a mortgage! It towers in at five-storeys in height and 36 metres in diameter, making it is the tallest tulou in China.
In spite of its age, the 25 kitchens on its ground floor are all equipped with their own private well, making it the only tulou in existence with such a convenient water supply. With 250 rooms, 25 kitchens, and a spacious courtyard in the centre, Yuchang Lou is so roomy that it could almost be called a village itself!
In recent years, it has earned the alternate name “the zigzag building” because the wooden post structure within the tulou, which is meant to be vertical, appears to zigzag left and right on the 3rd and 4th floors. This bizarre phenomenon was not intentional but was in fact due to an error made in measuring the building materials. Don’t let the unsteady appearance fool you; this tulou has survived more natural disasters, wars, and sieges than you can count!
The ancient Hakka village of Taxia, tucked away in the lush green mountains of Fujian, is one of the oldest and most spectacular villages China has to offer. It is located in a valley just west of Shuyang Town and is split by a river, which flows through the heart of the village and is lined by over 20 traditional Tulou. These gigantic, fortress-like buildings are made of packed earth and resemble fortified villages. They come in a number of styles, from those of a square or rectangular shape to round and oval ones. They were initially built to protect inhabitants from bandits and wild animals but have seemingly failed to shield them from the curiosity of tourists!
That being said, Taxia is a sleepy village that sees very little traffic and the locals, who have long become accustomed to rural life, while away the hours fishing, farming, and drinking tea. Sometimes it really is the simple things that make life worth living! The village was established in 1426 by the Zhang family but most of the remaining buildings were constructed during the 18th century, with the oldest, Fuxing Lou, having been built in 1631. Diaojiaolou or stilted wooden houses are also littered along the riverbanks of Taxia and only add to the idyllic pastoral scenery. The large tulou made of rich earth and the rustic wooden Diaojiaolou appear to be at one with both the manmade and natural surroundings.
The village’s main attraction is the Zhang Family’s Ancestral Hall, which is located near a pond and flanked by 20 stone flagpoles that rise up like a petrified forest. This shrine to the Zhang’s ancestors was built over 400 years ago and is one of the most well-preserved of its kind in the country. The gateway is engraved with a vivid image of two dragons playing with a pearl, inlaid beautifully with coloured ceramic chips, and the whole compound is embossed with lively decorations of Chinese deities, legendary figures, mythical creatures, wild animals, and charming flowers. At the back of the hall, a dense forest creeps its way up the mountains.
Bizarrely, an almost exact replica of this ancestral hall can be found in Taiwan’s Tainan County and was built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) by members of the Zhang family who had moved there. Evidently the Zhangs were a wealthy bunch, but not very creative!
On hot summer nights, the village comes to life as countless fireflies wind their way through the streets and create a sort of fairy tale atmosphere. Imagine spending a balmy evening watching these ethereal lights dance their way through the long grass or skitter above the surface of the river. I can’t think of anything more romantic!
Tianluokeng is perhaps one of the most famous villages in Fujian but, with a name that literally means “River Snail Pit”, you’re probably wondering why. Is it full of river snails? Do they “pit” the snails against each other? Of course not! Tianluokeng achieved its fame because it is one of the many stunning villages in rural Fujian that boast magnificent earthen buildings known as Tulou.
The village’s name may originate from a Fujian folktale known as “The Snail Girl”, in which a poor young farmer named Xie Duan is helped by and eventually falls in love with a snail fairy called a tianluo. Some local legends even suggest that the founder of Tianluokeng, Wong Baisanlang, was helped by a fairy named Miss Tianluo. This may explain why the local farmers move at a snail’s pace!
The village rests just outside of Shuyang Town and is home to a cluster of five tulou. These gigantic, fortress-like buildings are made of packed earth and resemble fortified villages. If you look closely at their upper levels, you can still see the small gun holes that were used to shoot at bandits. Snails may hide in their shells in times of danger, but the locals of Tianluokeng preferred a more aggressive approach!
The cluster is made up of one square-shaped tulou in the centre with three round tulou and one oval-shaped tulou surrounding it. Its unusual appearance has earned it the name “four dishes and one soup”, as it resembles the layout for an average family dinner in China. Just don’t try to eat out of these dishes, or you’ll end up the size of a building yourself!
The square tulou in the centre is known as “Buyun Lou” or “Reaching for the Clouds Building” and is the oldest of the set, having been built in 1796. Unfortunately its three-storey high exterior was not enough to discourage ne’er-do-wells, as it was burnt down by bandits in 1936 and had to be rebuilt in 1953. Its four sets of stairs were designed to express the founder’s wish that his descendants achieve greatness “step-by-step”. At least he provided them with plenty of fire exits!
Hechang Lou was built not long thereafter and, in 1930, the circular Zhenyang Lou followed. In 1936 Ruiyun Lou was constructed and the last of the bunch, Wenchang Lou, was completed in 1966. The sheer size of these tulou is a miracle in itself, as each one may have taken upwards of two years to build. This means the entire complex would have taken at least ten years to finish!
According to the Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui, the placement of the five tulou is particularly auspicious. It is believed that bad luck is more likely to hit the corners of buildings, so many of the tulou are circular in the hopes that misfortune will slide off of their round roofs. Since the square-shaped Buyun Lou is the only one that has corners and is coincidentally the only one to have been burnt down, there may be something to this theory! Nowadays the corners of Buyun Lou are bedecked with lucky symbols in the hopes of warding off evil. Let’s just hope they fireproofed it too!
 Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain places or objects will bring good luck.
In the sleepy countryside of Yongding County, surrounded by lush green forests and misty mountains, the village of Hongkeng may not be the liveliest place in Fujian, but its certainly one of the most unique. This village is home to over 100 tulou of various shapes, styles, and sizes; of which 13 were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and 33 were established during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
These tulou are gigantic, fortress-like buildings made of packed earth that were initially designed to protect inhabitants from bandits and wild animals. They resemble fortified villages and come in a variety of styles, from those of a square or rectangular shape to round and oval ones. With all of these unusually shaped buildings, Hongkeng must surely feel like a square peg in a round hole!
The first of these tulou were constructed by the Lin family during the 13th century but tragically several of the originals, including Chongyu Lou and Nanchang Lou, have since collapsed. Yet it seems the Lins were trendsetters, because it wasn’t long before other branches of the Lin clan started building their own tulou in the village. Of the many earthen structures that rise up out of the village grounds, Zhengcheng Lou, Fuyu Lou, Kuiju Lou, and Rusheng Lou have garnered the most fame.
Zhengcheng Lou was built in 1912 according to the Eight Diagrams of Bagua theory. The two wells within this tulou represent Yin and Yang, while its three gates symbolise heaven, earth and human beings respectively. The external ring of the compound is a four-storey building that has been divided into eight units or “gua”. The branch of the Lin family that established Zhengcheng Lou had also studied abroad in Europe and thus incorporated many Western features into their tulou to make it stand out. It seems T. S. Eliot’s famed proverb “good poets borrow, great poets steal” can also be applied to architects!
Fuyu Lou, on the other hand, is a completely different style of tulou known as a “Wufeng” or “Five Pheonix” tulou. Built in 1882 by three brothers, it was designed to look like a phoenix spreading its wings and its appearance was heavily influenced by Han-style architecture. The exterior supposedly looks like three mountains rising towards the sky, as the brothers wanted to imply that they were as magnificent as mountains. Modesty evidently wasn’t a family trait!
From mountains to mansions, Kuiju Lou is a large, square-shaped tulou that was built to resemble a palace, earning it the alternate name “Potala Palace”. Unlike many of the other earthen buildings, the interior is bedecked with sculptures, colourful murals, and complex architectural features. After all, a man’s house is his castle, and a family’s tulou is their palace!
Size may have mattered to the owners of these first three tulou, but Rusheng Lou is famous precisely because it is the smallest tulou in existence. It was built sometime between 1875 and 1908, and is just 17 metres in diameter, with only three-storeys and 16 rooms to house its inhabitants. The name “rusheng” means “as if to rise”; perhaps because the optimistic owner hoped it would grow over time!
Encompassed by towering mountains, dense forests, and bubbling brooks, the village of Gaobei in Yongding County may seem like the most unlikely place to meet royalty. Yet here, hidden like a gem within the countryside, lies Chengqi Lou; the “King of Tulou”. Around the streams that wind through Gaobei, a cluster of these fortress-like earthen dwellings rises up and adds new magnificence to the landscape. They resemble fortified villages and were initially designed to protect the inhabitants from bandits and wild animals, although nowadays the only thing threatening them is the occasional door-to-door salesman!
The grandest and largest in Gaobei is Chengqi Lou, which is four-storeys high and over 62 metres in diameter. Construction of this tulou began in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but it wasn’t completed until 1709, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). It took three generations of the local Jiang family to build this spectacular tulou. In three generations, my family have barely managed to pay off a house, let alone build a fortress! Chengqi Lou is a circular tulou and is renowned for its four concentric rings; one that surrounds the complex and three within it.
The first or outer ring is four-storeys high, with the ground floor made up of kitchens, the second floor acting as grain storage rooms, and the third and fourth floors being used as living quarters and bedrooms. In its heyday, this complex could support over 800 people, and nowadays it still houses an impressive 57 families and 300 people. The second ring is two-storeys high and is comprised of 80 rooms for general use. The third is only one-storey high and its 32 rooms make up a community library. After all, when you’re being besieged by bandits and the tulou is locked down, how else would you entertain yourself? Nothing like a good book to get you through a potentially hostile takeover!
The final ring is just a covered corridor that surrounds the ancestral hall, where inhabitants still worship their venerated ancestors. In total, Chengqi Lou contains a staggering 370 rooms. This means that, if you spent one night in each room, it would take you over a year to get through the whole complex!
Other famous tulou in the area include Wuyun Lou, which was built during the Ming Dynasty and is currently uninhabited, and Qiaofu Lou, which was constructed during the 1960s and acts as a hotel for tourists. So if you fancy a real tulou experience, don’t forget to book a room at Qiaofu Lou. Or perhaps just squat for free in the empty Wuyun Lou!
The Fujian Tulou or Fujian Earthen Structure is a type of dwelling built by the Hakka and Hoklo people in the mountainous regions of southern Fujian. A Tulou is a large, enclosed structure that is usually circular or rectangular in shape and is used to house multiple families. They are usually between 2 to 5 storeys high and the largest Tulou can hold up to a hundred families. Every family in the Tulou community enjoys perfect equality because every room in a Tulou is the same size and has exactly the same design.
There is a famous story about a group of Fujian Tulou: In 1986, during the Cold War period, the US satellites found many strange circular and square shaped structures, resembling a group of nuclear bases, hidden in the valleys of southern China, near Taiwan. Fearing an impending nuclear attack from Communist China, the US sent a unit of CIA spies to China to investigate, and eventually they were embarrassed to find that the “nuclear bases” were just simple Tulou:
The Fortified Walls of the Tulou:
These large clay buildings are usually two to five storeys high and have a specific, defensive function. There are no windows on the external walls of the ground and first floors, while there are small windows on the walls of the second floor and above. The base of the wall is about 3 meters thick. The wall of the first floor is 1.5 meters thick, so the wall reduces in thickness slightly as it ascends.
A Brief history of the Tulou:
From the beginning of the Western Jin Dynasty (307-12 BCE) onwards, there were several significant immigrations from central China to Fujian. Among these immigrations, there was a particularly large scale one that took place during the late Tang Dynasty (7th-8th centuries). It was those immigrants that settled down in the southeast of Fujian Province and subsequently became the Hoklo people. During the Song Dynasty, due to the conquest of northern China by the Jin ethnic group, many people fled from central China yet again, bringing with them their culture and language. These people finally settled down in Fujian, Guangdong and Jiangxi and formed the Hakka ethnic group.
In the beginning, the newcomers built houses following the traditional Han-style of architecture. However, during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, society was unstable because of frequent fighting between ethnic groups, and all the while robbers and thieves were running rampant. The Hakka and Hoklo people improved their homes gradually so that they eventually became a perfect defense against attackers and trespassers. These fortress-like dwellings were called Tulou.
The first Tulou appeared at some point between the 11th century and the13th century. The design for the Tulou was developed from the 14th century right through to the 16th century, and reached its peak between the late Ming Dynasty and the late Qing Dynasty (17th – 18th centuries).
Different types of Tulou:
1. Round or Circular Tulou
According to national records, there are more than 1,100 circular Tulou in Fujian. Among these circular Tulou, nearly 800 of them adopt the “connected rooms” design, where each room on the same floor is connected by a corridor, and more than 300 of them are composed of separated rooms, in which each family has their own “apartment”. Generally speaking, the Tulou inhabited by the Hakka people mostly follow the “connected rooms” design, while the Hoklo people prefer Tulou that have separated apartments.
Each floor in the Tulou has a specific function and follows the same general design rules, regardless of whether the Tulou has “connected” or “separated” rooms. The kitchens and living rooms are always on the ground floor, the first floor is for food storage, and the second and third floor rooms are used as bedrooms. In some Tulou the food is stored on the top floor to keep cereals dry, but this can be somewhat inconvenient when cooking as the kitchens will still be on the ground floor.
Most Tulou have an Ancestral Hall in the middle of the yard for inhabitants to worship their ancestors. Around the Ancestral Hall there are usually rooms that used for studying.
The most famous circular Tulou:
Huiyuan Lou was built in 1909 and is a typical example of a Tulou that follows the “connected rooms” design. Because of its short history, the whole building is well preserved and thus serves as a good example of what a circular Tulou should look like.
Huaiyuan Lou is four storeys high and has a diameter of 38 meters. Each of its floors has 34 rooms. Nowadays there are still 60 people living inside this Tulou.
Longjian Lou is a typical example of a Tulou that follows the “separated rooms” design. It has more than 300 years of history behind it. The diameter of the whole site is 82 meters. It is the biggest of all the existing and well-preserved circular Tulou. Longjian Lou is made up of three rings. The external ring makes up the main structure and has three floors, with 50 rooms on each floor. By comparison, the two internal rings are only one-storey high and their rooms are used as kitchens and living rooms.
2. Rectangular Tulou
There are more than 2,100 Tulou that have a rectangular shape. Among these rectangular Tulou, more than 1,900 of them follow the “connected rooms” design and about 200 of them follow the “separated rooms” design.
Some rectangular Tulou have a large yard in which small courtyards can be constructed. Most of these small courtyards were built to house Ancestral Halls. Some rectangular Tulou have more than one yard, and these extra yards have been made by adding annexes onto the periphery of the individual apartments.
The most famous rectangular Tulou:
Hegui Lou is a very typical rectangular Tulou. It was built in 1732 and follows the “connected rooms” design. Hegui lou was originally four-storeys high. In 1864 it was destroyed by robbers during an attack, and it was subsequently rebuilt as a five-storey Tulou. The main structure of the new compound follows that of a rectangular Tulou and it has 24 rooms on each of its five floors. A hall in the yard is connected to the Ancestral Hall in the main building. There is also now a front yard to provide more space for residents.
Nowadays there are only 30 people living in this Tulou.
Xishuang Lou is a huge Tulou compound. It covers 94m*86m filed. The main Tulou in this group is a three-storey rectangular Tulou that follows the “separated rooms” design and is divided into 65 “apartments”. In the large inner yard there are six small courtyard houses that make up the Ancestral Hall.
This monumental compound was constructed in 1679. There are still more than 500 residents currently living there.
3. Wufeng Tulou (Five Phoenix Tulou)
Please look at the following photograph to get an idea of its size and appearance:
In Chinese, Wufeng refers to five mythical birds, each of a different colour, and it also stands for the four points of the compass – north, south, east, and west, and the centre (making five points altogether). The name Wufeng Tulou signifies that the compound has buildings that have been specially placed in all five of these positions. A Wufeng Tulou is multi-layered and thus, from an exterior perspective, it resembles a grand palace and also a phoenix that is about to take off into the sky.
A typical Wufeng Tulou consists of three main buildings that sit along its central axis. The shortest building, the one at the base of the axis, forms the entrance. Further along there is the central building. The central building is taller than the entrance building and usually serves as the Ancestral Hall, which is at the centre of the entire compound and is used for holding clan ceremonies and receiving guests. Finally, at the top of the axis, there is the rear building. The rear building is between three to five storeys high and is the tallest of all the buildings. It forms the main structure of the Tulou and its rooms function as bedrooms for elder members of the family. These three buildings are connected by corridors that form two yards. Rooms on each side of the yards are used as kitchens, studying rooms and toilets.
Wufeng Tulou are the earliest form of earthen houses. This is why their style most closely resembles that of traditional Han-style architecture from the central plains of China. Their appearance and design gradually evolved into that of the rectangular Tulou and the circular Tulou over time. The only feature that still connects the more modern Tulou to Han-style architecture is the position of the Ancestral hall within the inner yard, which follows the traditional Confucian principles in Han culture.
There are about 250 Wufeng lou in Fujian Province.
The most famous Wufeng lou:
Since they were the earliest dwellings built by immigrants from Central China, Wufeng Tulou were built according to traditional Han ethnic principles and the layout followed Fengshui theory1, which they believed would bless the family with scholarly honour and high ranking official positions. In Chinese, the meaning of “Dafudi” is “the residence of a government official”.
Dafudi was built in 1828 and is the best example of a Wufeng Tulou.
Fuyu Lou is a large Wufeng Tulou with six inner yards. Built in 1882 by three brothers, it follows the Han-style of architecture intricately and beautifully. The ground and walls have been paved or built with cobblestones, to make the compound look more luxurious than others. The exterior shape of the building makes it look like three mountains, which suggests that the three brothers who built it were like three magnificent mountains.