Hakka Tulou in Fujian Province, China
The Hakka Tulou villages peppering the landscape in southern Fujian province offer an interesting insight into a particular subculture in China. The Hakka (Kejia) people are Han Chinese, though some mistake them for a minority group, due to the notion that they have kept themselves separate from the cultures surrounding them.
The tulou structures spread across the lush hills of southern Fujian are remarkable for the unique architecture. The countryside is often breathtakingly beautiful, and driving over a hill to be greeted by a cluster of these round buildings is really an amazing experience.
A Brief History of the Hakka in China
The Hakka are a group that migrated from central China to the south toward the end of the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316). They left their home in central China in three main movements, due to natural disaster and famine, political upheaval, and invasion from northern enemies. As they settled into their new homes to the south, they maintained much of their own culture, and continued to speak their own language, eventually causing them to become known as the "guests" (客家人, Kejia ren — Hakka in their own dialect). There are pockets of Hakkas spread all over southern China (and Southeast Asia as well), with nearly 60% of China's Hakka population said to be located in Guangdong Province. Even so, the Changting region in Fujian province has come to be known as the center of Hakka culture, largely due to the tulou settlements there.
While the Hakka people were known to maintain a distinctive culture and language even many centuries after settling into their new homes, it is interesting to note that there are several groups of Hakka. Each has a slightly different version of the language, and there are variations within cultural practices of the Hakka from region to region in China (and even from town to town in some parts of China and Southeast Asia). So, while they have remained separate, there is still some evidence of the influence of the region within the various groups.
Whatever influences may have crept in from the cultures of the places into which the Hakka people settled, they still hold an intense loyalty to the Hakka clan itself. When meeting a fellow Hakka, it is typical to greet them as "of my own people," even if they come from a different thread of the Hakka tribe. This loyalty within the clan played a significant part in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), in which large numbers of Hakka followed the dynamic (and at least somewhat deranged) leader Hong Xiuquan, a fellow Hakka.
Fujian's Earth Buildings
The Hakka who settled in Fujian province in southeastern China built an amazing series of "earth buildings" (土楼，tulou). These tulou are round structures, usually standing in clusters of five buildings, with one standing in the middle, and the other four surrounding it. This layout is often referred to as "4 dishes and a soup," because when seen from above, it looks like dishes laid on a table.
The round structure of the tulou is designed for defense. With thick earthen walls upheld by wooden braces, the tulou stands from 3 to 5 stories high. Each building only has one entrance, a wooden door reinforced by iron. The larger structures can house up to 80 families.
Hakka tulou villages can be found in various parts of Southern Fujian, mainly clustered in Nanjing County, spread in villages along the Jiulong River, including Shuyang, Meiling, Chuangchang, Nankeng, Kuiyang, and Hexi. The group of tulous at Yongding is one of the biggest and best preserved.
There are more than 20,000 tulous in Southern Fujian, with the oldest being more than 700 years old. No one knows exactly when the first tulou was built, but those that remain today bear testament to the intriguing tale of a group who has refused to let go of its own cultural identity, choosing to remain forever known as guests.
© 2010 Shelly Bryant
photos courtesy of Samuel Chong