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Fujian's Hakka Tulou ('Earth Buildings' 土楼 Tǔlóu /too-loh/) are unique, usually round, fort-like buildings, built with a mixture of clay and sandy soil. These rare buildings were designed by the circumspect Hakka minority as large fortresses and apartment buildings in one, and were inscribed by UNESCO as a cluster of World Cultural Heritage Sites in 2008.
In the first trailer for Disney's lively action film Mulan (release date: March 27, 2020), Mulan's home is a Fujian tulou.
Because of their large, round shapes in clusters, tulou satellite images produced great speculation during the Cold War. They were even believed by Western countries to be China's nuclear missile silos!
Walled villages were built from the Song Dynasty (960–1279), when the Hakka Han moved from their original homeland in northern central China to the mountains of southeast China.
From then construction remained much the same, until conflicts with neighbors led to the development of fort-like housing from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) to the Republic of China era (1912–1949).
Today, the earth buildings are one of Fujian Province's top tourist attractions, and most of the residents are involved in tourism, instead of farming.
The Hakka origins are obscure. Like other Han people of China, their ancestors originated from someplace in the Yellow River basin in north China, but unlike other people of China, they tended to remain migratory for the last 1,000 years. They are a people who, either out of necessity or because they wanted to, migrated a lot, going from Central China to southern China and then overseas in the last several hundred years.
Distinct language, customs, and architecture: They have a distinct Hakka language that is somewhat related to Mandarin, and though they are Han Chinese, their customs are different. As the tulou in Fujian, Jiangxi, and northern Guangdong show, they had their own preferred style of construction too. In northeast Guangzhou, the Hakka built in the weilongwu and the sijiaolou styles as explained in the Architecture Features section.
Hakka cuisine: Hakka have their own cuisine style. They are good at making a salted pickled mustard cabbage, and one special Hakka dish combines steamed pork or fish with the salted mustard cabbage to make meicai kourou.
Overseas migrations: Also, many Hakka went overseas to settle when massacres against them started in the 19th century.
Many famous people in China's history have been Hakka. They often had leadership roles in governments and armies of the past. Sun Yat Sen, called the "Father of Modern China," was a Hakka for example.
Fujian Province is in southeast China, north of Guangdong Province, where the majority of the Hakka live, and across the sea from Taiwan, which also has Hakka in the mountains. The Hakka only built tulou in Fujian.
The Yongding Tulou are mainly distributed in Nanjing County (南靖县), Yongding County (永定县), and Hua'an County (华安县), a region about 150 km across on the Fujian-Guangdong border, 2½–3½ hours by bus west from Xiamen.
It cannot be denied that tulou are totally different to traditional architectural styles both in China and abroad. The closest things to them are the siheyuan (four-sided courtyards) in Beijing's hutongs, or medieval castles in Europe.
Hakka earth castles' main building materials are clay, sandy soil and gray tiles, with bamboo strips playing the role of rebar in modern construction. Tulou were built with local raw soil without reinforced concrete and steel.
The foundation walls are three meters (10 feet) wide, able to withstand an earthquake, fire, or any attack at that time. The outer walls are mostly thicker than 1 meter (3'4").
The earthen buildings have two different shapes . The buildings are usually constructed round, but there are some square ones. All are about 10–20 meters tall, 30–80 meters in diameter; with dark, overhanging, shallow-pitch, apex roofs, and a hollow core (with lower buildings inside) 15–50 meters across.
When you look at them from afar, they (the round ones) are like thick tires or reels lying on their sides, with light walls, dark roofs, and large hollow centers. Their symmetry and simplicity are beautiful.
The round building style is the most famous tulou architecture. They usually have 2–4 floors, and with 2–3 inner rings of buildings. The most famous is Chengqi Building (承启楼 in Yongding Tulou Area), with 4 floors and 400 rooms.
Square buildings are mainly in Yongding Tulou Area. They can be rectangular or square. The locals call them sijiaolou (四角楼 sìjiǎolóu /srr-jyaoww-loh/ 'four-corner building(s)' ). Kuiju Building (奎聚楼 in Yongding Tulou Area) is one of the most famous square earthen buildings, with a height of 15 meters.
This kind of tulou is not as famous as the round and square ones. It has a stepped construction and the main building is at the highest floor, at the back. This kind of building has a beautiful layout and a strong symmetry. Fuyu Building (福裕楼 in Yongding Tulou Area) is the most famous five-phoenix-style earthen building.
Tulou had two main functions : communal living and defense. Each earth building usually holds the extended family of a single Hakka clan. These structures espoused equality and unity as family areas were the same size and shape, and everyone lived under the same roof, sharing communal areas.
Most earthen buildings have three or four floors with comprehensive living functions : the first floor is used for kitchens and dining rooms; the second floor is for grain stores; and the third and fourth floors are used for bedrooms.
Then comes the question, do they have no communal rooms or bathrooms? In fact, most have at least three concentric rings of buildings : the out ring is the main part of the building which has been described above; the second ring is set with bathrooms, and the center is the sitting room, as well as the ancestral hall of the family.
These buildings have a good ventilation and lighting and are warm in winter and cool in summer.
100–400 years ago, tulou played a significant role in protecting the Hakka from the attacks of land-hungry neighbors. Residents could easily mount an all-round defense, and the vulnerable entrances were strongly reinforced.
There are three main tulou areas in Fuijan: Nanjing, Yongding, and Hua'an. The earthen buildings in each area may seem the same, so you may be confused which area to visit.
If you still can't decide which one to visit, please see our detail introduction about Which Tulou Area to Visit.
We recommend you combine your tulou tour with Xiamen sights like Gulangyu Island. Take at least two days to see the amazing earthen buildings and China's garden-by-the-sea city. See our recommended tours below for inspiration:
Our tours can be customized according to your interests and requirements. If you're not interested in the above tours, just let us create your own tulou tour!