The earth houses (also called Tulou) in Fujian Province in South Eastern China are traditional dwellings built by the Hakka minority people and still inhabited today. They were mostly built between the 12th and 20th centuries, and they are fascinating both because of their unusual structure,and also because of the communal way of life that this structure provides. Each house is home to a number of families, who use the round space in the middle of the structure as a communal area for cooking,selling products and just sitting together.
I had wanted to visit this site since my arrival in Fujian province,where I live and teach English. So when two students agreed to travel with me and my husband ,we jumped at the opportunity. They helped us to book the accommodation and to get bus tickets (which is all difficult if you aren’t proficient in Chinese).
The trip to the Hakka Tulou at Yongding takes about 3 hours by bus from the city of Xiamen, and requires a change of bus en route. Therefore it is advisable to stay at the site overnight, especially because staying at the Tulou gives you a chance to really feel the atmosphere of the place at night, and to sample local Hakka cuisine.
The Tulou houses
There are many different Tulou houses scattered around the region,so it is impossible to see all of them. But it is possible to rent a driver and a car to drive you around a few different ones. Most are free but the largest one Fusheng lou (福盛楼),with a diameter of 77.42 meters charges entry fee. The structure of the tulou is really the most fascinating thing about them. The guide told us that the round structure was a defence against the armed bandits that attacked villagers between the 12th and 17th centuries. Families preferred to live together and help each other and so constructed the thick outer walls of the buildings to be immune to arrows and gunfire.
It is not really necessary (or even feasible) to visit all the Tulou sites, however it is really advisable to view a few of the different sizes, and to observe the local residents going about their everyday business, cooking, preparing tea leaves and rice, picking fruit,fishing and so on. The general atmosphere is of a lifestyle little impacted by the changes of modern day life and technology. Many of the young people have left for the city so the majority of Tulou dwellers today are from the older generation. You can also sample and buy the local tea,and pick fruits.
Possibly get your driver to take you above the Tulou villages, as the view from above is most spectacular. Also the surrounding countryside is really beautiful- the area is full of fruit trees and gently rolling hills and the fields are full of crops grown by the Hakka people.
Each Tulou house has 3 or floor stories, and you can climb up to the top and look down on the communal space from above.Some of the buildings are in very good condition, whilst others are more run-down,since the young people have moved away. Many have tourist shops selling handicrafts and food.
Sitting with the locals over a cup of tea, and learning about their traditions and their customs, so if you can manage to visit with someone who speaks the language you can learn first hand about the Hakka. Some of the older people only speak Hakka and don’t speak Mandarin,so it is best to go with a local guide.This way of life is in danger of disappearing,and that is why the Fujian Tulou are designated UNESCO heritage sites. The special construction of the houses which reflects this specific communal style of living is a very interesting and worthwhile excursion.
This article was submitted by Ruth Sheffer, author of her self-entitled travel blog. Ruth comes from the UK, has spent 30 years teaching EFL in Israel. Along with her husband, they took early retirement so they could travel, but shortly after that, they found themselves teaching at a university in China. They travel extensively and have spent the last 3 years traveling in Asia, including China, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam.