I have always been fascinated by the once mysterious earthen buildings in China’s Fujian Province since the launch of the Davao-Jinjiang direct flight via Xiamen Air late last year.
Tulou, which literary means “mud abode,” is a large, enclosed, and fortified earth building unique to the Hakka people of southeastern China. They are
made mostly from earth, mixed with stone, bamboo, wood and straws.
“The Chinese characters for Hakka means ‘guest families’ and their ancestral homes are located in the Hakka-speaking provinces, including Fujian and Guangdong,” said our very-well informed Xiamen guide, Sunny Law.
On the third day of our familiarization trip to Jinjiang and Xiamen in China, we drove to Hua’an, around three hours away from Xiamen via a winding highway and series of bridges and tunnels that showcased the province’s farms and rural villages – to see for ourselves the now-popular tourist destination in Fujian.
The Tolou started to become popular when American satellites allegedly caught images of the structures during the Cold War in the 60s and 70s.
“America panicked at the suspicious looking buildings in China that resembled ‘nuclear reactors’ that would often emit smoke. So, the CIA investigated the suspected ‘silos’ but were surprised at what they found,” narrated Sunny.
The Americans, who were always distrustful of the Chinese, thought that they were up to something. “What they found were actually our ancient Tolou,” he added.
The tubular/circular structures, numbering around 68 in Hua’an alone, boast of innovative design features that allowed them to defy climate change, as well as man-made and natural catastrophes. These architectural wonders were built sometime between the Yuan and Ming dynasties.
“The Tolou kept families living inside safe from wild animals as well as from bandits. It is fortified like a castle,” Sunny said. He mentioned that at least 700 to 800 persons can inhabit the Tolou at any given time.
The most livable Tulou is located in Hua’an, the multi-storey Eryi Building, which we visited first. It is known for its twin wells (Yin and Yang fountains) located in its courtyard. We also visited a smaller Tolou called Nanyang, and the much older, rectangular Tolou called Dongyang.
In 2008, UNESCO designated these ancient habitats (others are located in Yongding and Nanjing – around 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours away from Xiamen) as World Heritage Site stating that Tulou are “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment”.
It is just sad to know though that the skill needed to build a Tolou is long gone as the younger members of the community now prefer to work in the big cities.
Observing its quiet corridors and decrepit windows, I imagined traveling back to time, seeing what the former residents of this ancient houses underwent over the centuries. If only these walls could talk, it would tell exciting tales of how the Hakka people lived in the past.
To visit the Tolou of Fujian, Xiamen Air flies twice weekly from Davao to Jinjiang, China. Jinjiang is just an hour away from Xiamen.
Special thanks to Hajji Alejandro of Uni-Orient Travel, Alex Divinagracia of Global Wings Travel and Tours, Xiamen Air, and Consul Lin Li of the Chinese Consulate Davao.