Southern China was once plagued by roving bands of bandits causing the locals to build near-impenetrable homes known as the Fujian Tulou. These large rammed earth structures were essentially villages, some with around 1,000 people living in them. These UNESCO World Heritage sites were built from the 12th century to the 20th century. Nestled in the green mountains of Fujian Province and surrounded by crops and orchards, a visit to the Fujian Tulou transports to another world.
The Fujian Tulou are generally round or rectangular structures of three to five stories. They follow traditions Chinese building philosophies of being closed to the outside and open to the inside. Like courtyard houses found around the country, these have a large open space in the center.
The walls are made of rammed earth with bamboo and wood for reinforcement. Some of the structures have stood and been lived in for hundreds of years, so the construction technique seems to work. Like many fortress buildings, the lower walls are thicker than the upper walls and the gates were made for defense.
Each tulou has an ancestral or religious shrine on the ground floor. This could be a standalone building or a large cove opposite the entrance. Other amenities on the ground floor include wells, cooking spaces, animal housing, and communal gathering spaces. Some of the tulou even have concentric rings of buildings within the courtyard.
Nanjing County – Tianluokeng Cluster
There are several tulou scattered around Fujian. The majority are located quite close to each other in Nanjing and Yongding counties. The first grouping we visited is perhaps one of the most photographed views of the tulou. Tianluokeng consists of five tulou—three circles, one oval, and one square. The round structures surround the square building giving it the nickname of four bowls and a soup.
After gazing down on the amazing vista of tulous snuggled in farmers’ fields, we hiked down and investigated each one. Most of these are touristy in the fact that the courtyards now have souvenir vendors set up. But the vendors are all locals, so they still bring a bit of real life to the buildings. The oval tulou didn’t have vendors like the others and you could climb up the stairs and walk around the other levels.
From this grouping, our driver took us to see many more including some that we just hopped out and wandered through. These were not set up for tourists, but are lived in and used as they have been for hundreds of years. The old residents were friendly when we popped our heads in the courtyards. Even though they are all the same, each has its own little things that make it unique.
The Nanjing County clusters include the small village of Taxia, which is built along the banks of a winding river through the mountains. There are many tulou, including one built in the 1300s, mixed into the village buildings.
Yuchanglou, one of the oldest tulou, is also one of the biggest. It is five stories tall with zigzag support beams due to mismeasurement during construction. In the center of the courtyard is a lovely temple adding a focal point some of the others were missing.
Most of the rest of the village wasn’t as interesting to us. I didn’t really think it all that charming.
Just passed Taxia Village and outside of the Tianloukeng Cluster scenic area is another cluster that I found truly charming. The Meilin grouping isn’t even mentioned in Lonely Planet that I can find. It is a small village with more than a dozen large tulou and several smaller ones mixed in. There is a separate fee for this group, but it isn’t all touristy, yet. The tulou and village are clean and inhabited.
First thing we did was climb up the steep stone stairs to an overlook across from the village. This vantage point offered fantastic views of the whole cluster resting in its verdant valley home.
We then wandered through the village ducking into a handful of the fortresses and looking around. The locals were friendly and the buildings authentic. Perhaps none of these is the biggest, oldest, or most special, but the grouping all together was my favorite to visit.
Yongding Cluster – Gaobei Village
We then left Nanjing County to see the Fujian Tulou in Yongding County. These tulou are in the small city of Gaobei. They are not as rural as the Nanjing buildings, but do have some highlights. The entrance is much more like a tourist site and the whole set-up much more like one too.
In this cluster we found a couple of lovely tulou including the King of Tulou. This is an extremely large circular structure with two more circles of small buildings in the courtyard surrounding the central temple. Whereas the others feel like homes or small communities, this one actually feels like a city because of how enclosed everything is with the interior buildings.
We went up to the top to see the concentric rings, and we paid to get the photo everyone is touting at the gates. The interior buildings all seem to be tea shops, except the temple. When we entered that space, an elderly man proudly pointed to the news clippings and letters on the wall from UNESCO.
We popped our heads in a couple of the other tulou at this cluster, but we bombarded by touters at the entrances and inside. This was the end of a very long day checking another off the bucket list, so we quickly finished up and made the journey back to Xiamen.