Visiting a Tulou in Yongding China
The Ancient Wonders of China Unfold in Yongding China.Article and pictures by M. Maxine George. Special featured pictures by Lenora Hayman.
We were travelling on a day trip to see an ancient Tulou in Yongding. What is that and where would we find it? I can assure you that your guess is as good as mine was. Our travels were taking us into the Hakka country, about a three hour drive. As our tour bus left the city of Xiamen, the road wound through lush green mountainous country, dissected by rushing rivers, mostly sparsely settled countryside, with only occasional larger settlements. The carefully manicured rows of green shrubbery, that we frequently saw growing on the hills, were tea terraces. The Chinese have very conservative agricultural practices. They use mountainous land for growing tea, planting the bushes in terraces up the side of the mountain. They flood flat land for rice. Here in the south of China two rice crops a year can be produced, making southern China the area that produces the majority of the rice consumed by the people of the country. Tea is one of the main products of the area too. Our guide told us that the local women always drink a certain type of tea and wash their hair with rice water, therefore their hair always stays black, never goes gray or white, even in old age. Maybe that is why my friend Lenora and I stand out in a crowd here. We don’t drink enough tea or use rice water to rinse our hair!
Midway through our long drive, we stopped at a shopping mall, this mall was one large building with many shops in it. (Also this mall provided toilet facilities for the many bus travelers who pass this tourist route to visit the ancient tulou.) The largest shop had a variety of produce for sale, the main one being neat stacks of different types of tea, some locally grown coffee and lots of packages of snack food all attractively and neatly displayed, with ladies offering samples of some of the snack food or small paper cups of the tea or coffee. Some of our group bought the snacks and shared them with the rest of us on the bus as we travelled on. Before exiting the shop we went through an area where there were a variety of other goods offered for sale. Two of the ladies bought very smart looking hand bags, with many compartments, at a very good price. I must admit I was tempted, but resisted the temptation, knowing I would have to carry it home for the rest of the trip.
A second stop took us to a small local restaurant where we were led to a small upstairs room and all sat around two tables. With only four tables in the room, our table had a “18” sign in the centre. This was the only time we would get to eat at a “local” restaurant. The food was plain country food that would be served to locals if they were there. A big bowl of rice, thick slices of pork with a Chinese sauce, a pot of steaming soup, local caught fresh fish, stir fried vegetables among other offerings were brought out one at a time and set into the centre of table. Certainly plenty of food to satisfy our group – nothing exotic. Fortunately for me, some of my companions were familiar with the food and were able to identify what we were eating. The centre of the table also had bottles of condiments, a package of tissues, and a bottle of tooth picks and several big bottles of pop. Of course we all were familiar with the bottle of Coca Cola that also arrived.
Eventually the bus came to a stop in a parking area where we saw the large ornate Chinese Gate signifying the entrance to our destination. Our guide told us that the Tulou we were about to see is called the Prince of Tulou, as there is a bigger one known as the King of Tulou. We followed her through the village, built on either side of a river. We stopped to look at a falls with an old water wheel working on the far side of the river.
After passing through the Hongkeng village we came out to a relatively large clearing with a huge round structure standing sedately in the middle. Our guide now told us “That is the Tulou.” It is a bit like a giant fortified castle, only these are unique to China and have been built in this area over a period of hundreds of years. Armed bandits created fear in this mountainous area beginning in the 12th century. Various means of protection were tried before some of the people came up with this idea for protecting their families. Over many centuries the Hakka people, of south-east China, have built the tulou or fortified communal buildings for the safety of the clan or family.
Now forty-six tulous are noted as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. They were built of a combination of stone blocks and clay forming the wide circular base. Above the load bearing base, a mixture of earth, a lime + sand + clay mixture, combined with sticky rice, bamboo strips, pieces of wood, sticks and stones formed the upper walls, known as rammed earth walls. The bottom two floors have no exterior windows or gun holes and only one big heavily reinforced door opening to the outside, making the building very secure. All floors are open to the inner courtyard. The top level could have gun holes to be used for protection. The walls are built to incline slightly towards the centre to harness the natural power of gravity to increase strength. It is said that these structures are earth quake proof and impervious to cannon power. In 1934 a tulou was object of nineteen cannon shots during a siege by the army, only one shot made a slight dint in the wall.
The buildings were meant to hold the large family clans in community housing where people were all treated equally. Each family had one unit of four floors identical to the other families in their clan. Large families might require another unit or two to house their number. Originally allotments were made through the male branch of the family. Each son became eligible for an allotment at a certain age. The bottom two floors were used as family storage areas and for food preparation and communal areas. The upper stories were living quarters for the families.
The tulou we visited is known as the Prince of Tulou or formally Zhenchenglou. It was built in 1912, so is a relatively new one. It is a double ring tulou, meaning there was another ring inside the outer ring. This second ring allowed for expansion of the clan. The outer ring has 184 rooms, while the inner one has 32 rooms. As we wandered around we noticed that different people were using their areas in different ways, as people always do.
We entered the Tulou and were allowed to wander through the central communal areas opening from the private apartments. As we looked up we saw circular corridors opening onto the communal central balconies. At the heart of the inner courtyard, was an Ancestral Hall, with Greek style columns holding a roof over the raised stage. We were told this was where operas were held. However, I suspect it would be used for ancestral worship, ceremonies, festival celebrations, weddings, funerals, or any staged events. The second floor balconies, from the inner ring, overlook this staged area.
We were invited to have tea with a gentleman in one area. Tea is served in a very traditional way in China. We all sat around watching as he heated the water then rinsed the tea leaves before making the tea. Tea is always served in small containers, which are frequently refilled.
It is my understanding that tourism is now the number one industry in this area of China. This Hakka tulou was certainly a fascinating place to visit. I think we could learn a lot from this concept of housing large groups of people.
Article and pictures by M. Maxine George
Special featured pictures by Lenora Hayman
Last Updated February 6, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster