Tulou – earth castles of the Hakkas
Posted on May 27, 2012, Sunday
Earthen structures are visible from space
Unique Earth buildings
Nestled amidst sprawling hills and winding mountain streams, these huge earth buildings are breathtaking to behold.
They were built by the Hakka people (literally, hakkas mean guests or visitors) who had migrated from central China to escape what seemed like endless war among warring states and had, over a span of five to six hundred years, settled in the far-flung states of Fujian and Guandong provinces.
Built to protect its inhabitants from bandits and thugs, these earth buildings house families of up to 70 or more, each having its own walled unit while sharing a common veranda, common central courtyard, common ancestor worshipping place and a common water well.
All the families living in the same building are close relatives from a common ancestor. The kind of communal living is not unlike our Dayak longhouses but these earth houses are either round or rectangular or square, and in some cases, hexagonal or octagonal in shape, with the round ones standing out as an archeological wonder.
Structurally, Tulou’s uniqueness lies in its earthen wall which is mud slammed together to form a hard, impregnable shell, known to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Its interior structure is built of interlocking wooden beams. Not a single nail is used. All Tulou have only one entrance, leading to the central courtyard, the worshipping place and the water well. Stone or wooden benches are placed around the groundfloor where people can sit and relax while some farm equipment such as the padi thrasher is also located here. Livestock is housed here too.
The first floor houses the kitchen, dining and living rooms where guests are entertained. The second floor is used as store rooms while the bedrooms are on the third and fourth floors.
Only from the third floor upwards are there little window-like openings, used as look-outs as well as a source of ventilation. Separate wooden staircases lead to private quarters of each family unit.
A common corridor links all these units together. In the round earth buildings, the interior structure has the appearance of the Collosseum in Rome.
Cultural heritage site
Tulou have been designated world cultural heritage sites by Unesco. They are not only unique in physical structure but are also the core of the Hakka culture.
The communal ties of the Hakka people are reflected in the closeness of the people living in an enclosed building, worshipping the same ancestor and deities, sharing the same social and cultural values.
These earth buildings, also referred to as earth castles or earth fortresses, are an expression of wealth of the people who built them.
Traditionally, Hakkas are farmers. Over the years many of these Hakka farmers had prospered. One outstanding example was tobacco farming which had produced many wealthy farmers. Some of the best tobacco brands were from this region.
For these successful farmers, the best and the most honourable thing to do was to build a huge earth building for the family.
One classic example was the Fu Yu Lou and Chen Chern Lou in Yongding built by the three Lim brothers. These three brothers had a flourishing tobacco business which had trade ties with Japan and Southeast Asia and were immensely wealthy.
In 1880, they started the building of the first of several earth buildings for the brothers and their families. That was the square-shaped Fu Yu Lou which cost a whopping 200,000 yuan at that time.
This was followed by the round-shaped Chen Chern Lou, which was only completed by a descendent after the passing of the three brothers, costing 80,000 yuan at that time.
Some of these Tulou took three generations to complete. This goes to show the toughness and tenacity of the Hakka people, and these qualities are portrayed by the solid and lasting Tulou they have built.
Another unique characteristic of the Tulou is that each one has a name penned in beautiful calligraphic style over the top of the entrance. The name usually reflects some Confucius or Taoist values, which have been deeply rooted in the Hakka people.
Tulou also symbolise unity, harmony and unshakeable cultural traditions. Worshipping, marriage and funeral rituals have been faithfully upheld and practised. Annual parades of the deities have been staged, year in, year out, and the whole village, young and old, would be involved.
When anyone who is over 60 dies, the whole community stops work to mourn the passing of that person. Or when any one child in the village has made it to college, the whole village would set off firecrackers, slaughter chickens and ducks to celebrate the achievement.
While cultures and traditions may have diminished over the years in other places, the Hakka cultural heritage in the Tulou lives on. It is a beautiful, simple, rustic life which is refreshing to outsiders.
Visit to oldest Tulou
I visited one of the oldest of these earth buildings in the Yongding region, the Ji Ching Lou. Built in the year 1419, during the reign of Emperor Yungle of the Ming Dynasty, this building is almost 600 years old.
It was built by the Hsu family and is the signature piece of this particular cluster of over 30 earth buildings collectively called the Chuxi Tulou.
Ji Ching Lou is structurally similar to all the 20,000 Tulou in Yongding. Inside this earth castle live 72 family units with 72 separate staircases leading to 72 separate living quarters.
Standing at the basement and looking skyward, one has the feeling it is really a huge UFO with a big circular hollow centre. And as I stood inside this huge earthen structure, I felt it was cool and comfortable but it also is known to keep the residents warm during winter.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the builders of these architectural wonders.
The journey to these earth castles was an experience hard to forget.
The bus ride from Meizhou, known as the world’s Hakka capital, took us through scenic hills and rivers.
It was true Hakka country as Hakka farmhouses were scattered along both sides of the road, set amidst green hills, farmlands, mountain streams. It was Hakka country, and, being a Hakka, it was a heart-warming experience. It was sheer joy.
And along the way, we saw independent Tulou as well as smaller farm houses springing up on all sides until we reached a concentrated cluster of 34 Tulou whose appearance was nothing short of breathtaking.
This was the Chuxi Tulou, a world cultural heritage site, and the reason for us to be there, seeing, feeling, touching at first hand a world from the past, a world akin yet strange, and a world that evokes warmth, wonder and admiration .
The Americans have finally learnt that wonders are not only found in space but also back on Mother Earth, in our own backyard.