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Heights of the Tulou

A stay in Fujian’s tulou country is well-rewarded – just watch out for the flood warnings

By Kathleen Naday Updated Mar.1

An overview of Tianluokeng cluster of tulou, Nanjing County, Fujian Province which is popularly known as “four dishes and a soup”

It was a race against time to get to my guesthouse in the small Hakka village of Taxia, some 160 kilometers west of Xiamen, Fujian Province. The rain had been pounding all day, and the driver was worried. We charged along the narrow stone river path just as the water started to lap over the edge and police pulled barriers across the entrance higher up.  

It was a dramatic welcome to the village, nestled in the heart of Fujian’s tulou country. Hopping on some stones to get into the raised entrance of my guesthouse, a converted tulou, I managed to avoid the flood. By the time I got upstairs to my room, the river had obliterated the path on both sides of the river, which cut the village in two.  

Taxia, now in present day Nanjing County in Fujian, was first settled in 1426, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  

It lies in the heart of an area known for a cluster of large tulou, called the Nanjing Tulou Cluster, which includes three sites – Taxia, Yuchanglou, and Tianluokeng. All are covered under one entrance ticket which allows access to all the sites over multiple days for 90 yuan (US$14), which is purchased at a roadside entrance booth on the way in.  

Taxia Tulou 
The tulou – which literally means earthen house – are a fortified rammed-earth construction, built by the Hakka people and most closely associated with Fujian, but also found in neighboring Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces. The Hakka were a people who migrated south from northern China during periods of war and turmoil from the 11th to the 13th centuries. There are estimated to be around 3,000 Fujian tulou today, some of which have been recognized as UNESCO world heritage sites. With Hakka meaning “guest people,” the migrants often faced hostility from local tribes people after they moved, and were forced to live in marginal and mountainous places – one reason they developed such a defensive form of architecture to protect the families that lived inside from wild animals, warlords and bandits.  

The typical tulou is a round construction of several floors, with a central communal living space, and only one small main entrance. Outer windows are small, as most look onto the interior courtyard. Some are square in construction, and some take the form of a mansion. Many say the tulou, with walls of 1-2 meters thick, which can withstand attacks and earthquakes and could be a sustainable building construction for the future, although it is skilled and labor intensive.  

Taxia has around 20 of these earthen mansions along the river banks, which are joined by several wooden or stone bridges. Narrow, steep alleys lead away from the river, and there are two larger communal round tulou on each side. Many of the buildings date from the 18th century.  

With a reputation as a sleepy chilled-out place, different from the popular tourist centers of nearby Yongding County that seem to be full of karaoke bars and evening light shows, Taxia proved a good choice. My guest house, Shouwang Inn, was a renovated riverside mansion, slightly more rustic in reality than in the pictures, but still charming. Plus it had resident cats and dogs. When the waters had subsided enough, I went out, as did many villagers, who took the opportunity of the flood to empty their recycling bins directly into the river. When I remonstrated with them, they looked at me pityingly. This was how it had always been done. The fancy new trash cans decorated to look like tulou (as is the nearest high-speed rail station at Nanjing), had not sparked a garbage revolution. 

Walking around the alleys, the mostly elderly residents were keen to chat, although it was hard to understand what they were saying.  

Apart from the tulou, the main attraction is the Zhang Family Ancestral Shrine – the village having been founded by the Zhangs who moved south during the Song Dynasty. Nestled on the mountain slope and overlooking the village, the shrine has 20 stone flagpoles in front adorned with dragons. Inside, the wooden shrine is decorated with paintings of animals and gods, flowers and legendary figures. It is said to be one of the best preserved of its type in China. It may have been the weather, but there were few other visitors to the town. At night, with the bridges and riverside lit up, and sitting with a plate of noodles and a drink on a restaurant terrace overlooking the rushing water below, it felt like a fine way to end the day.  

Yuchanglou and Tianluokeng 
The next day’s departure was, if anything, more dramatic than the previous day’s arrival. Having arranged a time with the driver, and sitting in the pleasant guesthouse courtyard with my morning coffee, he called to say the river was rising again and we had at most 10 minutes to get out. With the rain coming down in sheets, we just made it.  

A few kilometers away – which would have been a nice walk or cycle had the weather been clement, lies Yuchanglou, a large fivestory tulou dating from 1308, one of the oldest still in existence. Inside, the building looks rather higgledy-piggledy – it is often referred to as the zigzag building, or the leaning tulou, as the inner wooden posts all lean to the left or right, due to mistakes in measurements. There are some 50 rooms in each floor. On the first floor, many of the rooms have been converted into small shops or restaurants. Notices on the stairs expressly forbid visitors from going beyond the courtyard, where you are free to wander among the pecking chickens and roosters, but residents furtively offer “10 yuan to go upstairs!” I didn’t.  
With the rain still pounding down, we pressed on to the Tianluokeng cluster – a dramatic quintet of large tulou – four outer circular ones, three round and one oval, and an inner square building, surrounded by steep terraced mountain slopes and the cobble stone streets of Tianluokeng Village – literally Snail Pit Village. Walking inside the largest round one, I found some old men entranced by a lunchtime war drama on a huge communal TV attached to the wall where I imagine the shrine used to be. The scene was a beheading of a prisoner. They liked dramas like this, they said.  

The square tulou – also called a buyunlou – at the center is the oldest, dating from 1796, with the others more modern, built in the 20th century. Most of the residents, however, seem elderly, and few families seem to live full-time in the tulou now, preferring homes with plumbing and heating. Plus the tulou are expensive to repair, and not many residents can afford the cost. Even though some of these tulou were built as late as the 1960s, it’s hard to imagine a new one being built now.  

The trip ends with the must-see overview of the village – looking down on the roofs of the five tulou – referred to as “four dishes and a soup.” The mist and rain made the view of the terraces and tulou even more atmospheric. 

A view of Yuchanglou at night, May 12, 2019. Yuchanglou is a five-story tulou, dating from 1308, one of the oldest still in existence