Tuesday, April 12, 2011



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Source: Global Heritage Fund

One of the most intriguing forms of vernacular building I discovered when researching and writing my book -  ‘Handmade Houses: The World of Vernacular Architecture’ [Thames & Hudson UK]; ‘Buildings Without Architects: A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture’ [Rizzoli US] – were the tulou of China – large defensive structures built of rammed earth, designed to accommodate and protect a whole village of one family clan -  which are located in the mountainous areas of western Fujian province.

The trigger for this post was a recent New York Times  article by Edward Wong - ‘Monuments to Clan Life Are Losing Their Appeal’

Tulou (the name means literally ‘earthen building’) were built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people from the 13th to the 20th C . In recent times, the clan traditions have lost their cohesion and many of the tulou inhabitants are moving out to modern apartments.

There is international concern to try and preserve the existing tulou. The Chinese authorities are encouraging tourism in the area but, according to Wong, ‘they have done little to systematically preserve the buildings or modernize them so people will continue living in them.’


In 2008 UNESCO declared a group of 46 tulou, spread over 120km of south-west Fujian province, a World Heritage site. They defined their ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ as follows:

‘The Fujian Tulou are the most representative and best preserved examples of the tulou of the mountainous regions of south-eastern China. The large, technically sophisticated and dramatic earthen defensive buildings, built between the 13th and 20th centuries, in their highly sensitive setting in fertile mountain valleys, are an extraordinary reflection of a communal response to settlement which has persisted over time. The tulou, and their extensive associated documentary archives, reflect the emergence, innovation, and development of an outstanding art of earthen building over seven centuries. The elaborate compartmentalised interiors, some with highly decorated surfaces, met both their communities’ physical and spiritual needs and reflect in an extraordinary way the development of a sophisticated society in a remote and potentially hostile environment. The relationship of the massive buildings to their landscape embodies both Feng Shui principles and ideas of landscape beauty and harmony.’

I feel duty bound to correct my own book, in which it states ‘UNESCO has estimated that 20,000 tulou survive on 46 main sites’. The 46 figure should refer to individual structures (as above, also see below).

According to the New York Times piece, a UNESCO museum in one of the tulou says there are 30,000 surviving tulou in Fujian Province of which 20,000 are in Yongding County.

These figures are questioned by Huang Hanmin, a Chinese tulou scholar, who says there are only 3,000, of which 1,100 are round and the rest square or rectangular.

This figure is also the one used by the Global Heritage Fund, a Californian-based preservation organisation. They say:

‘The Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) has identified many of the Fujian tulous as a National Cultural Heritage Protection Unit. Out of these, six tulou clusters and four tulou structures, consisting of a total of 46 tulou structures, were inscribed in 2008 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

‘It is worth noting that given the large number of Fujian tulou, there are many tulou of great significance and in need of critical care that were excluded from the WHS nomination.

‘One such tulou is Shengwu lou. Shengwu lou is located in Pinghe County, which also houses Zhuangshang Dalou, the largest known Fujian tulou, and Juening lou, the largest known circular Fujian Tulou. ‘

They are concentrating their efforts on Shweng lou which Hanmin says is “the most exquisite tulou for its decorative arts.”

‘Polychrome paintings, clay sculptures, and woodcarvings can be seen inside the building, door and window panels, and walls and roof tiles. The building contains more than 600 pieces of carved wood elements, each featuring a unique design, and more than 100 pieces of clay sculpture and wall paintings. ‘

[Their site uses Google Earth: see location map here]


A Living Heritage: The Earthen Homes of Yongding County’, a travel piece also published by the New York Times in 2008

Rushenglou, Hongkeng village

‘Clan Homes in Fujian’ is an excellent detailed report by Jens Aaberg-Jørgensen. He says: ‘The circular tulou are something of a riddle, for apart from a few temples there are no other examples of circular buildings to be found in China.’

image AmoyMagic – Guide to Xiamen & Fujian’ by Sue Brown and Dr Bill

This site provides extra information on the fact that the Chinese tulou were mistaken by the US for missile silos.

According to this account a KH22 spy satellite had spotted 1,500 ‘unidentified huge mushroom-like buildings in Fujian province…which are extremely similar to nuclear equipment’ This report from the Department of National Defense reached the desk of President Ronald Reagan in 1985. A couple from the US New York Institute of Photography were dispatched to China later that year to pay an on-the-ground visit. They reported back to the CIA the true nature of the buildings. [The original story, they claim, was published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  Will try and locate the title of the original piece]

Another short account on the same subject appears in ‘From The Earth’ and article about the tulou in City Weekend, a Shanghai Listings magazine, in 2007.

‘In 1986, at the height of nuclear tensions between Cold War superpowers, American satellites mandated by President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative stealthily drifted above southeast China. The resulting imagery shockingly revealed what appeared to be hundreds of missile silos scattered throughout the mountain ranges of Fujian province.

Fearing an impending nuclear attack at the hands of Red China, the U.S. Secretary of Defense immediately deployed a crack unit of C.I.A. spies into the P.R.C. to investigate. They returned to the Pentagon in hysterics reporting: “Those aren’t missiles, dumbass, those are mud!”


File:Zhenchenglou 4 rings.JPG

Chengqilou 承啟樓 nicknamed "the king of tulou", of Gaobei Tulou cluster 高北土樓群 at Gaotou village of Yongding County was built in 1709. Inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site 1113-003 in 2008. It is massive rotunda tulou with four concentric rings surrounding an ancestral hall at the center, the outer ring is 62.6 meters in diameter and four storeys tall, 288 rooms, with 72 rooms on each level, circular corridor on 2nd to 4th floor, with four sets of staircases at cardinal points connecting ground to top floors… 15th generation Jiang clan with 57 families and 300 people live here. At its heyday, there were more than 80 family branches lived in Chengqilou.

Fujian Tulou on Wikipedia





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