The Fortified Villages of Southern Fujian.
I was rifling through my big cardboard box of tea the other day, looking for something different to drink, and I came across an almost untouched bag of hongmeiren (red beauty) that I picked up two years ago from the Nanjing tulou. To be clear, that’s Nanjing, the county in Zhangzhou, Fujian, not the better-known capital of Jiangsu province.
The tea itself is pretty unremarkable; as the lady who sold it to me pointed out, it’s just zhengshan xiaozhong (lapsang souchong) grown locally and sold to tourists. However, the same cannot be said about the tulou themselves, which are truly magnificent pieces of engineering that, when seen up close, really do take your breath away.
Tulou in Mandarin simply means earthen building, which gives you some idea of the style, but little to pin down the scope. More self-contained village than family home, some of the larger tulou stand four stories high and contain over 200 separate rooms.
The tulou have traditionally been home to vibrant communities, replete with shops, storehouses, wells, and even shrines for religious worship in some of the larger buildings. As the country around them has developed, and younger generations have flocked to the cities and towns is search of work and education, these communities have begun to shrink, yet the tulou remain, vast monuments to an ancient, dying way of life.
Though mainly located in southern Fujian, there are thousands of tulou scattered throughout the hills and mountains of southeastern China. With some having stood for hundreds of years, these seemingly ageless cultural treasures have become enduring symbols of the local Hakka people who first built them and still call them home.
The Hakka are an ethnic Han people who are thought to have arrived in the south of China from their northern homelands in successive waves of migrations beginning millennia ago. With most residing in Guangdong, but with significant populations elsewhere, their name, which means “guest people” is derived from their northern origins.
The Hakka have their own culture, cuisine, and language/dialects, the latter of which has been grouped with Min (Hokkien) and Yue (Cantonese) as part of a proposed “Southern dialect group” (Jerry Norman, Chinese), and like its peers, is entirely unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin.
This unique cultural heritage is, to an outsider, perhaps most visibly embodied in Hakka architecture, which shows a strong predilection for fortified villages quite unlike the typical walled settlements found elsewhere in China. Built to protect their inhabitants from bandits and wildlife alike, the tulou are just one prominent example of Hakka architectural innovation.
As for myself, I first visited the tulou towards the end of my original stint in Quanzhou. Although on that occasion I based myself in Yongding, rather than Nanjing, the two groups are treated as a single scenic area, with a single ticket, and most tours take in tulou from both sides of the county line.
Traveling alone, the local hotel where I was, well, not quite staying exactly, helped me to hire a motorbike taxi for the day. My friendly, enthusiastic local driver-cum-guide then proceeded to take me to see more tulou than I could reasonably be expected to shake a stick at, while filling me in on a wide range of details that I might otherwise have missed.
There is, of course, plenty of transport of the four-wheeled persuasion available for hire too, but for a party of one or two, traveling by motorbike is definitely the more rewarding option, as it allows for panoramic views of the surrounding scenery and that blissful sense of freedom and motion that open air travel provides.
And the scenery truly is worth drinking in. For all that the history, architecture, and bustle of the cities may excite, my favourite travel memories from China are invariably those that involve getting away from urbanity and immersing myself in the simple charms of rural retreats, and the fresh, rejuvenating embrace of nature.
It’s always worth remembering that China, the clichéd land of “people mountain, people sea”, is also a land of incredible and varied natural beauty, a land of lakes and rivers and mountains; Jiuzhaogou, Shennongjia, Wuyishan, Dehang, these are the places where I’ve felt the happiest, where I’ve felt most at peace, and by no coincidence, these were the places where I’ve felt farthest from the madding crown.
The undulating hills which envelop the tulou in their protective embrace, carpeted as they are in the emerald greens of bamboo and banana trees, and criss-crossed by limpid mountain streams, provide a compelling tableau of the harmony that once flourished between man and nature.
That night, with the help of the hotel I had stopped at earlier, I arranged to stay in a run-down tulou by the side of a gently murmuring brook. The wall on one side had collapsed inwards and the wooden pillars that support the roof, as in many older tulou, were bowing under the strain of ages.
Besides myself, the building was near deserted; there were three or four old ladies living on the ground floor and talking animatedly, and impregnably, in their local language, as well as a handful of chickens strutting around the central courtyard, there may well have been a dog. Suffice it to say, the place had seen better days. But perhaps that merely added to the charm.
As night closed in it began to rain, the droplets slanting in through the open roof and pattering against the grey tiles of the eves that covered the circular walkway outside my door. The room itself was bare; earthen walls, earthen floor, plank bed, hard mattress that could have been made of solid wood for all the give it provided. So I found a wooden stool and drew it up to the walkway’s edge, where I sat and watched the rain descend.
There’s an almost unassailable romance that comes with the absence of human noise, the majesty and simplicity of nature, and the dull sound of falling rain. The scene in the tulou that night was beautiful, and it was peaceful, but like most of my excursions in China throughout the years, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a little lonely too.
Fortunately, I’m rarely forced to travel alone these days; for all the advantages that doing so offers (the freedom to chop and change plans, the added opportunities for adventure afforded by dormitory living), I personally prefer travelling with others. For me, an experience shared with friends makes for far more lasting memories.
So, when 6 years later I had the opportunity to revisit the tulou with Nhung, and to bask in the tranquil beauty of the countryside with the person I love, I was very much looking forward to it. However, while I could happily go on from here, this little reminiscence has become too long already, and we live in a post-patience world, so I’ll leave the rest for another time.