- a village in Fujian

Clan homes in Fujian

Jens Aaberg-Jørgensen


Rushenglou and other tulou, Hongkeng

Originally published in Danish in ARKITEKTEN  no. 28, November 2000, pp. 2–9. 
Text and illustrations have been updated for the web edition. (JAA-J, 2003-04).

Map of China and Fujian


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Satellite photo

Map and satellite photo


Hongkeng is a long village lying along both banks of a river that winds between fertile, sunny mountain slopes with terraced rice fields. In places where it is impractical to create terraces are found camphor and pine trees, tea, hemp, banana, bamboo and tobacco. Hongkeng is administratively a part of Hukeng Commune, which lies in the southwestern corner of Yongding County in the province of Fujian.

Hongkeng: The river

New bridges

A road from the 1990's
Until the 1960's Hongkeng village and the surrounding villages were connected to the outside world by narrow, almost impassable roads. Since then, small gravel roads, precisely wide enough for two cars to pass, have been built, mostly following the river. Landslides caused by floods are common, with houses and roads disappearing into the river. 
In the village of Yulincun, two hours’ drive south from Hongkeng, I witnessed major construction work for the diversion of rainwater and strengthening of riverbanks. A year earlier (1996), due to flooding, 35 people had lost their lives here.
Yulincun village

All of the 2500 inhabitants of Hongkeng bear the surname Li and almost all are Hakka.
Earlier, Hongkeng , as all villages in the area, consisted of very few tulou, perhaps no more than two or three. Today we find about one hundred tulous of various sizes. The most prominent buildings apart from the tulou are the ancestral temple (citang) which lies on the river bend, approximately in the centre of the village and the village temple (simiao) to the south. In construction the temples do not differ greatly from ordinary single-family houses, apart from greater and rich decoration. 

The ancestral temple from outside

- and from inside


The village temple
next to the river

- from south

- the temple courtyard


In many villages, including Hongkeng, communal activities take place in the shade of an especially large tree. Here is also found the local altar of the soil, a small stone typically about one metre high.

Local altar of the soil




Villages are rarely planned, and nowhere is this more apparent than in China. For the uninitiated it is very difficult to understand the relationship or reasoning behind the disposition of the buildings. The belief behind fengshui, wind and water, ordili, the principles of the earth, is that any change can evoke positive or negative forces and it is important to maintain the balance. Any change in the landscape has a series of consequences that must be controlled in order to maintain the balance. Therefore the major decisions regarding the choice of site and a building's orientation are taken by the geomancer, who by the use of the ‘five phases’ (or ‘five elements’, wood, fire, metal, water and earth) reads the landscape and ground conditions in order to exploit these forces positively, and normally with respect for the neighbouring properties.
The ancestral altar was the heart of the house. The geomancer first found the suitable spot for the altar, and the rest of the house was built around it. Its configuration channeled the qi of the local environment into the ancestral tablets where the reproductive vitality of the family was concentrated. A well sited and well laid out house brought health, wealth, and happiness, and numerous male heirs; a badly sited dwelling brought strife between father and son, shameless daughters, loss of wealth, and illness.
 (Klaas Ruitenbeek ("Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China") in Francesca Bray: "Technology and Society in Ming China (1368-1644)", p. 61, American Historical Association, 2000).

There are many practical considerations behind the rituals of fengshui. For example, the buildings should be sited as to give them lee from the winter storms, from the North the building's orientation should be east-west, so as to maximise the effect of the sun, and the site should be well-drained but near a watercourse.
(Ronald D. Knapp, The Chinese House, Oxford University Press, HK 1990, pp. 54 )
For many years it was believed that the Hakka were the first to build tulou, as a direct consequence of their traditions and way of life. But there is now evidence of the existence of the tulou from before the arrival of the Hakka and regards the circula tulou, most are today inhabited by other, South Chinese, ethnic groups. (Huang Hanmin in: Lao Fangzi Fujian Minju,"Nanjing 1994, p. 5 and 24).

The She people (a subgroup of the Yao people) lived here in the hills before the Hakka and inspired them in such matters as gender roles, division of labour, and even their architecture. (Sow-Theng Leong: "Migration and Ethnicity in Chinese History", Stanford, 1997, page 31).

On the other hand, the counties of Yongding and Nanjing are predominantly inhabited by the Hakka and there is little doubt that they have to this day exerted a great influence on the buildings appearance.