Category: Kaiping.

About Kaiping Diaolou and Villages

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kaping diaolou about

The Diaolou, or multi-storied defensive villages houses of Kaiping, mainly constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms, and reflect the significant role played by émigré Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia, and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the close links between overseas Kaiping and their ancestral homes.

The four selected groups of Diaolou in their landscape represent some 1,800 remaining tower houses still surviving in their village settings, reflecting the culmination of almost five centuries of tower-house building and still strong links between Kaiping and the Chinese Diaspora.

Kaiping lies in the southern part of Guangdong Province, south-west of Guangzhou, near to the coast. The undulating landscape of many hills and low mountains is well watered by rivers flowing into the wide Pearl River Delta to the east. The warm tropical monsoon climate and good soil encourage prosperous mixed farming with two rice harvests a year on the low ground and ample pasture for animals on the hills. In between are the Kaiping villages with Diaolou houses mostly strung along parallel streets. This comparatively prosperous area has for many centuries attracted bandits from the north and it was as a defence against these intruders that farmers began to construct fortified tower houses, some individual, some communal, during the Ming Dynasty. The final development of these towers was in the 1920s and 1930s when people from Kaiping, who had migrated to South Asia, Australia or North America, prospered and returned to build towers which reflected their wealth and connections. Built of reinforced concrete, these latest towers display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and ‘Western’ structural and decorative forms – all set within traditional spatial arrangements of the villages – and were built as much for comfortable living as for defence. Today in most villages the farming community has relatives living overseas and many of the Diaolou are looked after by caretakers for absentee owners.

The villages consist of groups of scattered buildings, mostly aligned along parallel lanes and with formal entrance gates. Immediately outside the gates are areas for communal activity such as rice drying. Usually in line with Feng Shui principles, the villages have a pond or river in front and are fringed by bamboo groves. Within the village, in accordance with a traditional saying ‘to the right an ancestral shrine, to the left a shrine to the earth gods’, the villages usually have a hall for worship of the ancestors on one side of the village and on the other an altar to the local gods of grain and fertility.

Beyond the bamboo groves on the slightly lower ground are the rice paddy fields with tracks and roads running through and above lightly wooded hills providing grazing for livestock.

Towers take three forms: communal towers built by several families and used as temporary refuge, of which 473 remain; residential towers built by individual rich families and used as residences and for defence, of which 1,149 survive; and watch towers, the latest development, which account for 221 of the towers.

Towers are built of stone, pise(compressed earth), brick or concrete. The stone construction, of field or dressed stone laid in lime mortar, is rare and found in only 10 towers. Pise, an ancient and widespread technique in China where pounded earth mixed with ash and river gravel and bound with a type of sugar or glutinous rice paste was laid in courses, is extant in 100 towers.

Bricks of various types – red Ming Dynasty bricks, bluefrom the Qing Dynasty and early republican period and imported red bricks – are found in 249 towers. The most common building material is concrete, used in 1,474 towers. The stone and pise towers have the simplest forms. The use of bricks allowed the development of complex window openings and rounded corner turrets, while the full potential of cement and concrete is displayed in the highly complex forms of the latest towers with their arcades, balustrades, stucco decoration and occasional domes.

The nomination is a serial nomination consisting of four properties that together represent some 1,800 tower houses extant in the area. Each of the properties consists of one or more Diaolou surrounded by village houses. The properties have been chosen to reflect the various types of construction and historical development of the Diaolou, for the completeness of their village settings, for their furnishings and because they have the full support of the village communities. In the nomination details are mainly provided of the Diaolou buildings. The property has been nominated as a cultural landscape.

The nominated properties are:

• Sanmenli Village of 14ha with a Buffer Zone of 691ha;
• Zili Village & the Fang Clan Watch Tower of 252ha with a Buffer Zone of 988ha;
• Majianlong Village Cluster of 103ha with a Buffer Zone of 417ha;
• Jinjiangli Village of 61ha with a Buffer Zone of 584ha.

The boundaries are marked by permanent boundary stones.

These properties are considered in turn:

Sanmenli Village

sanmenli village#2

This village is one of the oldest settlements in the area and reflects the longstanding development of the Guan clan for over 450 years. In contrast to the other villages, the lanes within are narrow and winding and run at right angles to the route in, to deflect bad luck moving straight through the village. Only one Diaolou remains, Yinglong Lou within a settlement of 186 homesteads. Originally built in the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (1522-1566), of red brick and two stories high, a third story of blue brick was added to Yinglong Lou in 1920. It is a plain traditional, defensive structure. Many of the single village houses (around 60%) surrounding the Diaolou were rebuilt with two storeys in the 1980s when the overseas Chinese owners were encouraged to return to help build up the ‘new economy’.

sanmenli village

Zili Village & the Fang Clan Watch Tower

diaolou at zili village#2

The village consists of three separate sub-villages, constructed between 1821 and 1920. There is a cluster of nine Diaolou and a group of six western style villas (lower and simpler version of the towers). The remainder of the houses are single storey of blue brick with tiled roofs, laid out mostly in what is known as ‘three-sessions-two-gates’ plan. Overall there are 60 households. Both the tower houses and the low village houses are built in rows amongst the paddy fields.

The Diaolou are:
• Longshenglou (Worthy of Dragons Tower);
• Yunhuan Lou (Illusory Clouds Tower);
• Zhulinlou (Bamboo Forest Tower);
• Zhenanlou (Protecting Peace Tower);
• Mingshi Lou (Inscribed Stone Tower);
• Anlu (Peaceful Cottage);
• Yinonglou (Leisurely Farming Tower);
• Qiuanjulou (The World Lives in Peace Tower);
• Juanlou (Peaceful Life Tower).

They were mostly built around the same time, in the 1920s, and in similar circumstances, their owners being prosperous émigrés from Malaya, Chicago, and elsewhere returning to their roots. Although differing in decorative detail, the Diaolou are all built of reinforced concrete and are similar in concept, of five or six storeys, with a ballustraded terrace at low level, and arcaded loggias at the top level to catch the breeze, and often housing an ancestral shrine. At Mingshi Lou, the upper floors are particularly ornate with the ancestral room carved and gilded with images representing traditional cultural values, while the architectural detail incorporates half-enclosed turrets and pavilions decorated with Ionic columns and green glass. Several of the Diaolou contain well preserved original furniture and fittings as well as ephemera dating from the time of their construction, altogether presenting a very complete picture of the success and aspirations of returning Kaiping émigrés.

Around 1.5km south of the village on a hill is the Fang Clan Watch Tower built communally by the farmers from Zili and several other villages in 1920. The slender five storey concrete tower, which rises to an arched loggia surmounted by a domed pavilion, is a landmark for the surrounding area. It was fitted with searchlights and a siren and manned by an armed militia group, contributed to by each of the villages; their guns are still in the tower.

zili village and the fang clan watchtower

Majianlong Village Cluster


This cluster consists of fiveseparate villages, Yong’an, Nan’an, Hedong, Qinglin and Longjiang, all alongside the Tanjiang River and fringed on three sides by bamboo groves. They were constructed between the 17th century and the early 20th century. Together they have 176 homesteads housing people of the Huang and Guan clans. When the area was first settled the villagers employed a Feng Shui geomancer to establish the most auspicious sites. The villages all have similar grid plan layout and include ancestral halls, ponds, banyan trees, gatehouses and communal drying grounds. The one storey village houses are of three-session-two-gates plan and constructed in blue brick with tile roofs, some of which have boatshaped gables and dragon’s back or phoenix-crest ridges (tilting upwards at either end). Although the street facades of the houses are constructed to a uniform plan, under the eaves are stucco panels of birds, animals, flowers and emblems of the Eight Immortals and below brightly painted calligraphic paintings, which reflect the style of individual owners.

There are seven Diaolou, including a communal watchtower and eight villas (of three to four storeys).

The Diaolou are:
• Tianlu Lou (Heavenly Success Tower);
• Baoanlou (Preserve Peace Tower);
• Huianlou (Gracious Peace Tower);
• Qinglin Nanmenlou (Tower at South gate of Qinglin);
• Qinglin Beimenlou (Tower at the North Gate of Qinglin);
• Baozhanlou (Defending Peace Tower);
• Hedonglou (East of River Tower, Hedong).

The architectural details are very similar to towers in other villages with stucco panels, cantilevered balconies, arcaded loggias and small domed pavilions crowning the tops. Many of the Diaolou in this cluster have traces of a red ochre paint finish to the smooth concrete surfaces and traces of multicoloured paint on the stucco panels. Several of the Diaolou have contemporary furnishings.

The Tianlu Lou tower was built by 29 households in 1925. It is seven storeys high and the lower five floors contain 29 small rooms, one for each contributing household. In 1936, 1965 and 1968 disastrous floods engulfed the surrounding villages, but their households survived in the safety of this tower.

majianglong village cluster

Jinjiangli Village

jinjiangli diaolou#2

The village is sited on a small rise near to the Tanjiang River. It was founded by the Huang clan in the Qing Dynasty and laid out to an agreed grid plan. It houses 48 households. There are two entrances to the village, to the east and west, guarded by gatehouses, and the whole is surrounded by groves of bamboo. There are three Diaolou sited in a line amidst the bamboo woods, their upper storeys visible above the green fronds of bamboo.

The Diaolou are:
• Ruishi Lou;
• Shengfeng Lou (Tower Reaching the Heights);
• Jinjiang Lou (Embroidered River Tower).

The Jinjang Lou was a communal tower built by the villagers with the support of the overseas Chinese community. It is of five storeys with a cantilevered balcony at the top supported by caryatid figures. The Shengfeng tower was designed by a French architect in 1919 and has corner pavilions in 17th century European Baroque style and exterior walls finished in a ‘French Blue’ colour. The Ruishi Lou tower is of nine stories and the tallest tower in the nominated property. All the material used in its construction was imported from Hong Kong. It is a western style building ornamented with Chinese stucco work and its spacious living quarters were furnished with 19th century Guangdong style furniture which still survives.

jinjiang village

Category: Kaiping
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