Clan homes in Fujian

Jens Aaberg-Jørgensen

Rushenglou, Hongkeng village



Originally published in Danish in ARKITEKTEN  no. 28, November 2000, pp. 2–9. 
Text and illustrations have been updated for the web edition.
(Copyright © 2004-2006 JAA-J).


The Wuyi mountains of Fujian

We are in the impassable Wuyi mountains of the province of Fujian in South Eastern China, 7 or 8 hours' drive from the city of Xiamen. which lies on Taiwan strait. On the coast the land is flat and arid while further inland the landscape becomes more hilly and fertile, with banana plantations appearing. The hills become mountains, and here, nested in the mountain valleys we find these extraordinary clan homes, the Tulou


(Discussion of the terms tu and tulou::
In this article the use of the word tulou is restricted to the description of these unique three or four storied clan homes. The word tulou is normally used to describe any earth walled building over one storey, (tu=earth, lou=building). Such buildings are to be found in many places, throughout China and elsewhere.
Wagner adds that the word tu also is a prefix meaning ‘native’ and often follows a place name or the name of an etnic group, e.g. is Fujian tulou means the traditional living house in Fujian. Later the meaning changed to Fujian tulou or Kejia tulou (Kejia is the mandarin pronounciation of Hakka, which is Cantonese meaning guest or foreigner, se also note 6). Today many Chinese think of tulou as a multistory living house made of clay). Donald B. Wagner, 2002.
According to Ronald G. Knapp: "China's Old Dwelling", Honolulu 2000, p. 260 and 266, the use of the term 'earthen dwellings" og "tulou" is a misnomer. Some tulou were actually constructed completely of cut granite or had substantial walls of fired brick. Most large-scale tulou seen today were built of a composite material known as sanhetu (a composite mixture af earth sand and lime) rather than just earth. In calling these structures "tulou", however, one must be careful to qualify the term as a broadly descriptive label for a building type rather than as a narrow term defining a specific building material).

Shipei village, Yongding county 

Shangchikeng village 

Village in Longyan county
The tulou complement the surrounding landscape. Not only are their form and scale impressive but their building materials and color reinforce the sense of complete contextual synthesis in this mountain soil, lying among fields of rice, tea and tobacco and the surrounding forest slopes of pine, bamboo and the occasional banana palm. These great buildings have the appearance of forts, completely closed to their surroundings. Under large overhanging eaves, small windows are set high into the massive outer walls on the third and fourth floors. A village quite often consists of only two or three, or even one, of these giants, each surrounded by a handful of huts and inhabited exclusively by a single clan. As we shall see, each tulou contains many of the functions normally necessary for a village. In many respects, a tulou is a village.

Round tulou: Zhenchenglou (short: ZCL), Hongkeng 

Outer wall with overhanging roof 

Quadrangle tulou, Hongkeng 

The tulous are found in the southern and western part of the Fujian Province as well as in the neighboring province of Guangdong. 
They vary in size, and can be circular or rectangular.

The round form is exceeded by the squared in numbers but seems to be the most recent form having diameters ranging from 17 to 91 metres. 

The exact period in which they first appeared is not known, but it is believed that they originate from the 13th or 14th century or even earlier. Some were built as late as the late 1900's.
There are a few thousand tulou in existence today, with as many as 5-600 inhabitants spanning three or four generations. Of these perhaps a thousand are round, yuanlou (round building). 

The round tulou, yuanlou, range widely in size. Five standing yuanlou exceed 70 meters in diameter and there are several less than 20 meters in diameter.  Perhaps the largest is Zaitianlou in Zhaoan with 2,4 m thick walls and a diameter of 91 meters. Among the smallest yuanlou is Rushenglou in Hongkeng village with a diameter of 17 meter's (Knapp, 2000, p. 264).

Tulou typology 
(Source: Huang Hanmin in: 
"Chuugoku minkyou no kuukan o saguru", 
Keiichirou Mogi, Kenchiku Shiryo Kenkyusha Co. Ltd., 1991

The tulou are often called Hakka-houses, but it is not only the Hakka people, an ethnic group from Northern China, that inhabit them. This will be discussed in the section "Hongkeng - a village in Fujian".

A recent focus on tulou

The Interest in these very special structures has increased since the 1980’s. Japanese architects were among the first to visit them and write about them. Not till the mid-nineties did the knowledge of the tulou reach Europe and the USA. It was in fact in Japan in 1990 that I turned over the leaves of an architectural magazine and saw a tulou for the first time. I wanted to visit this area as soon as possible– I did not get the chance until 1997.

Main questions

Three questions occurred to me during my visit in 1997:
1.Why do the tulou have such a closed and defensive nature?
2.Why are some tulou circular?
3.Why did the building of tulou cease?


The tulou

The thick outer wall of a tulou separates two distinct worlds:

On the outside, the village's relatively bare pathways and buildings are of the same material, clay, giving the village and its surroundings a very homogeneous appearance. One meets very few people and the tulou with their forbidding appearance show little interest in the world outside.

Behind the main gate there is normally only a single portal. The tulou is dense and compact, with up to 250 small uniform rooms, constructed in two- or three-story wooden structures. These are placed around the buildings periphery and ordered symmetrically around the tulou's central axis. Through identical galleries all of the rooms look out onto the open courtyard, as is normally the case in most Chinese homes. 

chengqilou-gr.floor.jpg (39446 byte)

chengqilou-3rd-floor-w.jpg (30274 byte)

The courtyard is used for drying clothes and rice, for communal activities, and for children's play. It may be empty or filled with one- or two-story buildings. These buildings may be stables, guest rooms, toilets or, for use in the summer, an outdoor kitchen. It is also in the courtyard that the ancestral altar is situated. 

The larger the courtyard the less influence these lower buildings have on light and air. This may explain why the circular tulou often have many additional low buildings while the smaller, rectangular tulou often have empty courtyards.

Ancestral altars

A rectangular tulou has the ancestral altar set into the building's peripheral range of rooms facing the courtyard while in the case of the circular tulou it is a detached one-story building in the courtyard.
The ancestral altar is where the founding members of the clan are honoured and guests are received. On the wall hangs a picture of the founding father of the clan - perhaps next to it a crane symbolising a desire for long life. By the wall is a long narrow table on which is placed an incense burner or a vase with flowers. It is in this chamber that the boys of the clan were taught reading and writing etc. On less formal occasions the old men sit here and smoke or the old women gossip while they watch over the youngest children and grandchildren.
In South China success in life is guided by supernatural forces, and this has consequences for the building's orientation. Like water from the mountain, the supernatural forces are to be channeled into the the ancestral altar, which therefore lies on the central axis opposite the entrance (J. M. Potter, quoted in the Amos Rapport: "House Form and Culture", Prentice-Hall, 1969, page 51).

Bray writes about the altar: "Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western observers remarked that every Chinese house, whether of peasent or gentleman, was first and foremost an ancestral temple: the entire structure was centered on the shrine, and when a household divided, each brother set up an altar of his own in his new dwelling. Though it seemed that such customs were immemorial, peasants - and even scholars - had not always been entitled to their own ancestral altar. The domestic shrine was originally a privilege strictly confined to the aristocracy. But during the Song a new elite, the educated gentry, established dominance over government and local society. To underline their elite status they formed their own patrilineal descent groups and set up ancestral shrines within their homes" (Francesca Bray: "Technology and Society in Ming China (1368-1644)", p. 56, American Historical Association, 2000).

Ancestral altars

- in a rectangular tulou

- in a circular tulou

The living quarters

In China, as elsewhere, a family home is divided into zones, from the open and accessible entrance and courtyard to the total privacy of the bedroom.
In the tulou guests have access to the ancestral altar and the family’s living quarters, while access to the rooms along the gallery is restricted to the inhabitants.

Outhanging eaves

family unit, courtyard

Entrance to kitchen
The rooms of a tulou are shared among its inhabitants in such a way that a single family unit uses two or three rooms on each floor, in a vertical segment of the building.

One room on the ground floor is the kitchen and another is used for eating and daily living. The stove in the kitchen is vented to the outside through small openings in the outer wall. Steep stairs lead to the verandas that ring the upper three levels. The sleeping quarters are on the first and second floor and food, clothes and valuables are stored on the top floor, although in other yuanlou such as Zhenchenglou bedrooms are found on the upper floors. 
The preparation of meat and vegetables is done in the courtyard immediately in front of the kitchen where the oven and firewood is to be found.


Stove in the kitchen

Eating, daily living
The tulou have a reputation for a more equal distribution of rooms than other Chinese residences. The size of a household is an important factor when deciding the number of rooms to be allocated (John Lagerwey: "Cult Patterns among the Hakka in Fujian: A Preliminary Report", HK, 1994), but further research is needed to ascertain how family status affects which rooms are chosen. Despite the symmetry of the tulou, there is a side which receives direct sunlight and a side that does not .
I have not found signs of the seclusion of women in the household that was practiced in most other private homes in China. (read more in: Francesca Bray: "Technology and Society in Ming China (1368-1644), American Historical Association, 2000).



The tulou as a fortification

In past there has been a tradition for the extended families of South East China to live together and there are good grounds for this tradition. Clan cohesion was a important factor in the controlling of all activities - political, religious and economical. This cohesion meant greater stability for the clan and the individual  
(Fei Xiaotong: "Xiangtu Zhongguo - From the Soil", California, 1947/94, page 83).

'Rectangular      ... and

round 'fortification'

The Hakka are a ethnic group from the North belonging to the Han Chinese. They are today spread over the whole of Southern China, concentrated mostly in the mountainous regions and have migrated further into many other countries.
During the last two thousand years mass migration has been evident in China, as the Han Chinese influence spread towards the South, especially towards the then thinly populated and "wild" South / Southwest China.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth century there were many migrants from north China, including many Hakka. As relatively late arrivals they were forced to inhabit mountainous and less fertile land such as the Wuyi mountains.

Through the centuries there were many family feuds and conflicts between ethnic groups. The Hakkas were often involved in these conflicts.
The ruling power was centred far away, in distant Peking, so that disputes had to be solved locally. Consensus was not always reached. This resulted in far more feuding than is found elsewhere in China, and that is the reason why the tulou was also a fortification, with outer walls of stamped clay (terre pisé, hangtu) up to 1.5 metres thick and 18 metres high, an iron-clad portal, weapon slits under the eaves of the large overhanging roof, and a connecting gallery that enabled rapid movement of people and weaponry.
The portal is the most vulnerable point of attack and is therefore protected by an ingenious fire-dowsing system with an internal gutter above which is connected to a water tank situated on the second floor.
The animal pens, a water well and food stockpiles in the courtyard provided for a lengthy conflict.
The tulou is probably the largest, and defensively most advanced, village residences known.


Gate from inside

Weapon slits
Clan and village feuds where part of normal social life in Fujian and Guangdong well into the late 19th century. In 1859 a missionary, R. Krone, wrote, "Not only are robbers and pirates to be feared, but internecine wars are almost always raging between some or other of the villages and these wars, though often arising from trivial causes, are not mere temporary quarrels, but are often long-continued and sanguinary."..."in these quarrels, many a bloody battle is fought, hundreds of men are perish [sic], and whole villages are destroyed. Men of neutral villages or clans are generally well distinguished."..."Missionaries also are considered neutrals."..."The only way in which the government endeavours to put a stop to these disturbances, is by not allowing the fighting clans to send up their graduates for examination - a severe punishment which deprives the graduates of titles and honours..." (This is a reference to the Imperial examinations, which were a prerequisite for appointment to the civil service.) 
(R. Krone: "A Notice of the Sanon District", quoted in: Freedman, 1966, page 104).
Maurice Freedman observed the correlation between a well developed clan structure and the increased number of inter-clan conflicts. Apart from the fighting over agricultural land due the large migration, conflicts also occurred over increases in political or economic influence or the situating of burial grounds or buildings. (See the section " Hongkeng - a village in Fujian") (Maurice Freedman, in "Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung", New York., 1966, page 110)



The Circular tulou

The circular tulou are something of a riddle, for apart from a few temples there are no other examples of circular buildings to be found in China. Some maintain that the shape was known in Fujian in watch towers and fortified villages, and that these have simply developed into residences. Others suggest that, they were the last stage of a long development, starting with more complex forms and consolidating into the simpler rectangle and finally evolving into the circular form.
(Huang Hanmin, Echo No. 22, Taipei 1989, pages 25 and 32 (The article was kindly translated by Laila Liu and Peter Lauridsen.))

The circular form has several advantages:

1. Technically a circular form is easier to build because of the identical cross-section throughout and without the need for complex roof and wall corner construction. See also the section "Construction"

2. The circular form allows more economic use of material. Wood is more expensive to obtain, transport and work than clay. For each jian (building module) the outer rim of clay is longer than that of wood, which faces the courtyard. 
Further, a given amount of material gives a 41 % larger courtyard and approximately a 13 % larger building area in the circular than in the rectangular tulou

Clay versus wood

Circular versus 

3. A circular building has greater static stability. Analysis of the outer wall alone indicates that a cylindrical shell is more stable (ring and restraining moments).The cylindrical shell is further strengthened considerably by the rigid, horizontal and circular decks of each floor (membrane forces). If additional vertical elements are built, such as fire walls (as illustrated in the case of the Zhenchenglou) the rigidity and strength is further improved, as the cylinder surfaces are fixed in all four directions. 
(Ole Vanggaard, engineer and lecturer at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, in Copenhagen, kindly analysed the tulou's static stability for this article).

Static stability

4.The circular tulou has a more uniform room division - As the main source of light is from the courtyard, a corner room would be poorly lit and without adequate ventilation.

5. Local superstition holds that evil spirits are everywhere, especially along roads and in brooks, streams and mountain passes. Every corner in a rectangular building is an opportunity for evil spirits to enter the building as the circular tulou have no corners, spirits are more likely to pass by (Huang Hanmin in Echo (ref: note 12)).

No contemporary sources explain why circular tulou were built. Most counties in China have ‘local gazetteers’ spanning hundreds of years but very few contain information regarding local building costums.

The local history for this part of the country does not contain any interesting information regarding the locality’s architecture and house form (Poul Andersen).


The change in clan structure 
and the dereliction of the tulou.

The tulou represent an epoch in China’s history which is now closed, both technologically and socially. It took up to six or seven years to build the larger tulou, and today there are cheaper and faster methods of home construction.

The tulou were built in response to a specific historical situation, with a cohesive clan structure and a weak state that could not manifest its power at the periphery. The reduced importance of the clan today is a logical result of changed social structure. Since the 1980's there has been a resurgence of clan influence in local politics, but many of its functions have been taken over by the individual on the one hand and the state on the other. Rural economies are disintegrating as people move to the city.

In some Fujian villages, during the last 15 years, up to 25% of the population have found employment in the nearest towns working as drivers or in restaurants, brick and fertiliser factories, coal mines and trade etc.
(Olivier Laude, Unique Habitats, p. 163-173 in ‘Village Landscapes’, ed. by Ronald Knapp, Hawaii, 1992).

The stronger State has made fortified architecture unnecessary as well as illegal. The result is a splitting up of the Clan structure into individual families, who build separate family homes, often adjoining the tulou, which gradually become uninhabited and derelict. There is neither money or incentive to maintain them. Since 1985 many single family houses have been built in the villages. I have seen several examples of the traditional tulou room functions and disposition being applied in the newly built concrete and brick houses (although poorer people still build in stamped clay), which lack any form of elegance or proportional sense after many years of disregard for traditional aesthetic values and craftsmanship.

A new single-familyhouse in Xincun village

- and another near Hongkeng

In the early or mid 1990's plaques were placed on the facades of a few tulou, telling briefly of their size and special characteristics. This was in conjunction with a major international conference on the Hakka people, The First International Conference of Hakkaology, held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1992.

The plaques drew attention to the buildings but did not automatically lead to funding from the State, even for their minimal upkeep.

China is not and should not be an open-air museum. Understandably, the country’s development proceeds without much regard for the conservation of archaic social structures and the corresponding architecture. The tulou are no longer built, and in a few generations they will have disappeared entirely, only to be found in literature.