Sunday, September 7, 2008

Fujian Tulou

Fujian Tulou is a unique Chinese rammed earth building of the Hakka and other people in the mountainous areas in southwestern Fujian, China. They are mostly built between the 12th to the 20th centuries. Tulou is usually a large enclosed building, rectangular or circular in configuration, with a very thick weight supporting earth wall and wooden skeletons, from three to five storeys high, housing up to 80 families. These earth buildings usually have only one main gate, guarded by 4-5 inch thick wooden doors reinforced with an outer shell of iron plate. The top level of these earth building have gun holes for defense against bandits.

46 Fujian Tulou sites including Chuxi tulou cluster, Tianluokeng tulou cluster, Hekeng tulou cluster, Gaobei tulou cluster, Dadi tulou cluster, Hongkeng tulou cluster, Yangxian lou, Huiyuan lou, Zhengfu lou and Hegui lou have been inscribed in 2008 by UNESCO as World Heritage Site,"as exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization, and, in terms of their harmonious relationship with their environment".


In the 80s, Fujian Tulou had being variously called "Hakka tulou", "earth dwelling", "round stronghouse" or simply "tulou". Since the 90s, scholars in Chinese architecture have standardized on the term Fujian Tulou. It is incorrect to assume that all residents of tulou were Hakka people, because there were also large number of southern Fujian people lived in Tulous. Fujian Tulou is the official name adopted by UNESCO.

Part of Hakka tulou belong to Fujian Tulou category. All south Fujian Tulou belongs to
Fujian Tulou category, but do not belong to "Hakka tulou".

Furthermore, "Fujian Tulou" is not a synonym for "tulou", but rather a special subgroup of the latter. There are more than 20,000 tulous in Fujian, while there are only three thousand plus "Fujian Tulou".

Fujian Tulous is defined as: "A large multi storey building in southeast Fujian mountainous region for large community living and defense, built with weight bearing rammed earth wall and wood frame structure."

There are about three thousand plus Fujian Tulous located in southwestern region of Fujian province, mostly in the mountainous regions of Yongding county of Longyan City and Nanjing county of Zhangzhou City.

Famous Fujian Tulou

Chuxi Tulou cluster

Chuxi Tulou cluster, located as Yongding county Xiayang township Chuxi village. Inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site 1113-001.
*Jiqinglou, the largest rotunda tulou also the oldest in this cluster, built in 1419 during the reign of Emperor Yongle Ming dynasty. It consists two concentric rings, the out ring building is 4 storey tall, with 53 rooms on each level. The outer ring has 72 staircases. The second ring is one storey building.

Zhengcheng lou

Zhenchenglou 振成楼, nicknamed "the prince of tulou", belongs to Hongkeng Tulou cluster. It is located in Hongkeng village, Hukeng township of Yingding county. Inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage 1113-002 It was built in 1912 by the descendents of a rich tobacco merchant. Zhenchenglou is a double ring tulou, its outer ring is 4 storey high, total 184 rooms, the inner ring is 2 storey with 32 rooms. The outer ring was partitioned into four segments according to of Chinese Fengshui.

Western influence is evident in the Greek style columns of the ancestral hall, and in the wrought iron railing of the second level corridor.

Chengqi lou

Chengqilou 承启楼 nicknamed "the king of tulou", of Gaobei Tulou cluster at Gaotou village 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 meter in diameter and 4 storey tall 288 rooms, with 72 rooms on each level, circular corridor on 2nd to 4th floor, with 4 sets of staircases at cardinal points connecting ground to top floors. A big roof extending out ward covers the main ring. The ground floor rooms are kitchens for family branches, the second level rooms are grain storage rooms, and the 3rd and 4th floor rooms are living quarters and bedrooms. The second ring of 80 rooms is 2 storey high, with 40 rooms on each level, the third ring served as community library, one storey with 32 rooms; there are 370 rooms in all. The 4th ring is a circular covered corridor surrounding the ancestral hall. If a person stay only one night in each room, it would take more than a year to go through all the rooms. The ancestral hall is at the center. Chengqilou has two main gates and two side gates. 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.

Other buildings in this cluster include: a three ring Shenyuanlou, outer ring 70m diameter; a Wujiaolou with irregular pentagonal floor plan and a rectangular tulou, the Shi-Ze lou

Tianluokeng Tulou cluster

Tianluokeng Tulou cluster is tulou quintet cluster located at Fujian province, Zhanzhou City, Nanjing County, Shuyang Township, Tian Luo Keng Village in southern China, about four hours drive by motor coach or taxi from Xiamen, through winding and bumpy narrow mountain roads. It consists of five tulous with a square "Buyunlou" at the center, surrounded by three rotunda tulous and an oval tulou, forming a pattern of "four dishes and a soup".The five earth buildings at the Snail Pit village are:
*The square Buyunlou at the center of the quincunx. It was the first tulou at this site, built in 1796. It is three storeys high, each storey has 26 rooms, four sets of stairs, and a go around corridor in front of the rooms at each level. The Buyun building was burnt down by bandits in 1936, rebuilt in1953 according to the original plan.
*The Hechang building, a three storeys high round earth building,
*Zhenchang building, three storeys, round shape, 26 rooms per storey, built in 1930
*Ruiyun building, built in 1936,3 storey, 26 rooms per floor.
*The oval shape Wenchang building of 1966, 3 storey, 32 rooms per floor.

Yuchang lou

Yuchanglou 裕昌楼 is a 5 storeys tulou located at Nangjing county Shuyang district Xiabanliao village. It was built in 1308Yuan dynasty by Liu family clan. It is one of the oldest and tallest tulou in China. Yuchanglou has a nickname:"zigzag building", because the vertical wooden post structure is not straight and perpendicular, but zigzag left and right. It was built that way due to error on measurement of material length. But in spite of apparent infirmity, this tall tulou stood 700 hundred years of natural elements and social turmoil. Yuchanglou's outer ring is 36 m in diameter, five storeys with 50 rooms on each floor.
The 25 kitchens on the ground floor at the back half of the circle have private water well for each beside a stove. This is the only tulou in all Fujian with such convenient water supply.

There was a one storey inner ring house surrounding the ancestral hall as late as 2003.Unfortunately this part of the building stood nearly 700 hundred years intact was dismantled after 2003


Eryilou 二宜楼 of Dadi Tulou cluster is located at Zhanghou City Hua-an County Xiandu township Dadi Village. Built in 1770 it consists of a 4 storey outer ring and a one storey inner ring. The outer ring is 71 meter in diameter, with 48 rooms on each level. Eryilou has no circular corridor at the front of each upper level, instead it has a back corridor adjacent to the wall. The outer ring rooms are partitioned vertically into separate households, each household partition has its own set of staircases not share by other families; some partition has a frontal width of 3 rooms, others has width of 4 rooms. The partition of the inner ring is attached to the partition of the main ring via covered verandah as antechamber.


The layout of Fujian tulou followed the Chinese dwelling tradition of "closed outside, open inside" concept: an enclosure wall with living quarters around the peripheral and a common courtyard at the center. A small building at the center with open front served as an ancestral
hall for ancestry worshipping, festivals, meetings, weddings, funerals and other ceremonial functions. Ground floor plan includes circle, semicircle, oval, square, rectangle, and irregular pentagon.

The foundation of tulou building was built with paved stones on top of compacted earth ground, in two to three tiers. There is a circular drain around the top tier foundation to prevent rainwater from damaging the tulou wall.

In most cases, the weight bearing outer wall of tulou consists of two sections, the lower section is built from cut stone blocks or river cobbles held together with a lime, sand and clay mixture to a height of about one or two meters, depend upon the regional flood water level. The compacted earth wall stacked on top of the stone section. The construction of earth wall from compacted earth mixed with sticky rice and re-enforced with horizontal bamboo sticks was described first in Song dynasty building standard the ''Yingzao Fashi''.

The walls were built inclined toward the center, such that the natural force of gravity pushes the wall together. This inward inclination method was also used in the construction of Pagoda of Fogong Temple. The thickness of the Tulou wall decreases with height as specified in Yingzao Fashi. The bottom two storeys of tulou are solid with no window nor gun hole, windows are open only from 3rd to 5th storey, because rooms at the bottom storey served as family storage rooms and the upper storeys were living quarters.

The rooftops were covered with baked clay tiles, arranged radially;λ insertion technique was used at regular intervals to compensate for larger circumference at the outside.. This technique allowed the tiles to be laid radially without visible gaps, and without the use of small tiles at top, larger tiles at bottom.

The eaves usually extend about two meters, protecting the earth wall from damage by rainwater pouring from the eaves.

The wooden frame supporting the rooftop had no dougong elements common in traditional Chinese building.

Circular corridors from 2nd to uppermost level were made of wood boards laid on horizontal wooden beams with one end inserted into the earth wall. The corridors are protected with a circle of wooden railing.

Stairwells are distributed evenly around the corridors, four sets of stairwells being the usual number. Each stairwell leads from ground floor to the highest floor.

Public water wells in groups of two or three are usually located at the center court; more luxurious tulou has in-house water well for each household in ground floor kitchen.

Housing for Community of Equal

Unlike other housing types around the world with architecture reflecting social hierarchy, Fujian Tulou exhibits it unique characteristic as model of community housing for equal. All rooms were built the same size with same grade of material, same exterior decoration, same style of windows, doors, and there was no "penthouse" for "higher echelon", small family owned a vertical set from ground floor to "penthouse" floor, larger family own two or three vertical sets.

Tulou was usually occupied by one large family clan of several generations; some larger tulou had more than one family clan. Beside the building itself, many facility such as water wells, ceremonial hall, bathrooms, wash rooms, weaponry were shared property, even surrounding land and farmland, fruit trees were shared. The residents of tulou farmed together, this continued
to the 60s even during the people's commune period, at that time a tulou was often occupied by
one commune production team. Each small family has their own private property, and every family branch enjoy their privacy closed door.

In old days, the allotment of housing was based on family male branch, each son was counted as one branch. Public duties such organization of festival, cleaning of public area, open and close of main gate etc was also assigned to family branch on rotational basis.

All branches of a family clan shared a single roof, symbolizing unity and protection under a clan, all the family houses face the central ancestral hall, symbolizing worship of ancestry and solidarity of the clan. When a clan grew, the housing expanded radially by adding another outer concentric ring, or build another tulou close by as a cluster, a clan stayed together.

Now a day, newer housing with modern facility popped up in rural China, many residents bought more modern houses and moved out, or live in larger town or city for better jobs, however they keep their ancestral tulou apartment homes under padlock, only return home during festival for family reunion.

Effective Stronghold for Defense

From the 12th century to 19th century, armed bandits plagued southern China. The people of southern Fujian, first built strongholds on top of mountain as a defense. These early strongholds later evolved in to Fujian Tulou.

The thick outer wall of tulou was immune to arrows and gunfire. The lower one to two meter section of the outer wall sometimes was built with granite blocks or large river cobbles. This granite or cobble section was immune to digging, since the outer layer of cobbles were purposely laid with their smaller end pointing outwards, it would be futile for any attacker to dig out such cobbles. Digging a tunnel under the wall was not possible either, because the cobble section wall was extended deep down more than one meter.

The earth wall section was built with rammed earth together with lime-sand-clay mixture and re-enforced with horizontal bamboo strips for lateral binding. It was solid as a castle, immune even to canon fire. In 1934, a group of uprising peasants of Yongding county occupied a tulou to resist the assault of army, who fired 19 cannon shots at that tulou, but made only a small dent on the outside wall.

The weak link in a walled system was usually the gate. But the gate of Fujian tulou was specially designed for defense. The doorframe was built from large solid block of granite, the double doors were built with fire resistant solid wood boards up to 13 cm thick, reinforced with thick iron armor plate. The main gate door was barred with several horizontal and vertical strong wood posts inserted into granite. To guard against enemy to destroy the front doors with fire, some doors were equipped with water tanks on top to quench fire set by
the enemy.

Fujian Tulou residents used firearms for active defense, shooting at enemy from gunhole on top level of the building. Some Fujian tulou are fitted with a circular corridor along the inside
wall to facilitate the movement of armed men and ammunition.


The term "tulou" first appeared in a 1573 Zhangzhou county record of Ming dynasty, it was on record that due to the growth of bandits, many villagers built walled strongholds and tulous
as means of defense, many families banded together in a stronghold, and several strongholds or tulous joined hand in hand with sentinels constantly on guard and lookout, loud drums and gongs were sounded as alarm signal for any sign of approaching bandits or invaders. Due to massive solidarity of tulou residents, even large powerful bandit gangs with tens of thousand men strong dared not attack the inhabitants of tulou.

The term "tulou" also came out occasionally in some poems, other than that, the existence of tulou bypassed main stream literature, and was not mentioned in literature dedicated to the study of people's habitat.

In 1956 professor Liu Guo-zhen was the first scholar to carry out research on Fujian Tulou,
his article ''Hakka dwellings in Yongding county of Fujian Province'' was published in
''The Journal of Nanjing Polytech Institute''.

In 1980 Chengqi tulou appeared in a book titled ''History of Ancient Chinese Architecture''. From then on, streams of scholars from mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Europe and America came to Fujian Zhangzhou and Yongding to explore and study tulou; tulou has walked out from seclusion into the world stage. In particular Chinese scholar Huang Han-min has spent more than twenty years on research of Fujian Tulou; his master degree thesis ''The Tradition Characteristics and Regional Style of Fujian Civilian Residence'' was completed in 1982 and published on the Chinese magazine ''Architect''. Japanese scholar published a report ''Study on Chinese Civilian Housing-- The Square Tulou and Round Tulou'' followed by photo exhibition in Japan and a book in 1989. In 1997, Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger inspected Fujian Tulou, and in 1999 Dr. Neville Agnew of the Getty Conservation Institute inspected Tianluokeng, Yuchanglou and Heguilou

The book ''Fujian Tulou'' by Huang Han-min published in Taiwan in 1994, revised and republished in China in 2003 is at present one of the more authentic studies on Fujian Tulou, covering the history of tulou, its characteristics and style, its geographic distribution, folklore about tulou etc, with hundreds of color plates and drawing. English literature on this topic is still absent.


The Fujian tulou buildings are scattered in mountainous SE region of Fujian province, connected to Longyan City and Zhangzhou City by winding mountain roads. However there are highways from
these two cities to Xiamen or Fuzhou. There are commuter buses from these cities to
Longyan or Zhangzhou, about 4 hours drive each way.

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