Before I headed southeast from Beijing to Xiamen, a sub-provincial city in Fujian Province, I didn’t even know what a tulou (土楼) was.
I had spent most of my time in China exploring the top wonders of the nation: the Great Wall in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an and the grasslands, dotted with yurts, in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Xiamen offered me a simple, seaside escape away from the hype and backpacker’s guides, and I had planned for it to stay that way until my traveling companion steered me toward a tour advertised in our hostel. We were to take a four-hour bumpy bus ride out of town, and I must say that, at first, I was less than thrilled.
Tulou literally means “clay building” or “earthen structure.” The first tulou were believed to have been created in the Song and Yuan Dynasties (11th-13th centuries), but many of those surviving today originate from the 14-17th centuries and were designed to protect large clan families from invaders. Built in “clusters” across southern Fujian Province, the tulou is most commonly made up of concentric rings, with the outer ring being several stories taller than the inner rings.
The outside wall might as well have been made of steel; its hard shell began with a tall foundation of large cobblestones, impenetrable by arrows or gunfire, and was topped with a thick wall of earthen material and sticky rice, strengthened with sticks of bamboo. Tulou have a single entrance, a granite door frame and a thick door made of wood and iron. The interior housed a large community, usually composed of a single family spanning many generations, with rooms along the upper stories of the outside wall, kitchens on the lower stories, and areas for worship and meetings, washrooms and water wells within the center rings.
The reason I had never heard of the tulou was that they hadn’t received much attention from researchers until around the 1950s. In 2008, many of the tulou in Fujian gained recognition from UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, and just over two years ago President Hu Jintao visited the very tulou I wandered through. That visit, of course, encouraged a good amount of remodeling, but many tulou are the same as they ever were, with their remaining inhabitants dedicating their living space to producing tea and hand-rolled cigarettes like they’ve done for more than 400 years.
It’s easy to imagine what life might have been like back in the days before young clan members abandoned rural China for better jobs in the bigger cities, when families had to stay glued together to protect themselves from attackers. Nowadays, the inside of a tulou is quiet and relaxed. Not quite as peaceful as the beach day I imagined, but certainly worth a stop if you’re headed that way.