Heritage homes of Hakkas in Fujian

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The Hakka houses of China’s Fujian Province transport visitors to another time zone.

FROM far, the circular-shaped tulou or earthen buildings in China’s Fujian Province resemble grounded UFOs.

In the 1960s, they even startled American spy jet pilots who thought that they were missile launchers.

There are over 20,000 tulou in China, and most of them are concentrated in the Yongding, Nanjing and Hua’an counties. They are not secret weapons of mass destruction but China’s national treasures.

Massive: The circular Yuchang earthen building in Nanjing from the outside. – Foong Thim Leng/The Star

The tulou crystallises the industrious lifestyle of the Hakka and their wisdom. History records that the ancestors of the Hakka people had migrated southwards from the Central Plains of China to escape the turmoil of the Yongjia period (304-312 AD) and the wartime ravages of the late Tang dynasty and the Song dynasty.

The young and the elderly left their homes behind and travelled in grief and despair across the Yellow River and the Yangtze with their clothing, valuables, pots and pans, poultry, horses and pigs, and the bones of their ancestors kept in jars, towards an uncertain future.

As they traversed the high mountain ranges of southwestern Fujian, they had to endure harsh weather conditions, and fend off attacks by wild animals and raids by bandits.

After years of wandering, the weary Hakkas finally found a valley where they could build a new life. They cleared the land and worked from dawn to dusk to construct their earthen houses with clods of earth.

A hall in Fuyu tolou in Yongding

The clan elders decided to build a home with a large courtyard that would allow clan members to live closely together.

Building materials consisted of red soil mixed with strips of bamboo, sand and stone, a watery glutinous rice paste, brown sugar and egg whites.

The earliest of the extant earthen buildings were constructed more than 1,200 years ago in 769 during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Many of the earthen dwellings date from the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. Structures from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) can be seen everywhere. Of course, most were built between the time of Qing dynasty’s Kangxi emperor (1661-1722) and the 20th century.

Most of the earthen buildings are circular, square, or phoenix-shaped (mansion style). Others are oblong, in the shape of the Eight Trigrams or crescent-shaped.

Yongding, located in western Fujian on the border with Guangdong, has more than 4,000 tulou, some circular, some square while others are shaped like an amphitheatre. The exotic earthen dwellings that were unknown for so many years had in 2008 gained recognition as World Cultural Heritage buildings.

UFOs: The World Heritage Tianluokeng complex in Nanjing looks like UFOs from far.

Recently, the Perak Press Club organised a tour of several counties in Xiamen with the main objective of visiting the tulou in Nanjing and Yongding.

Nanjing county, established in 1356, is a three-hour drive from Xiamen. Our coach stopped at the Tourist Reception Centre; from there, we continued our journey in a smaller coach.

As the vehicle climbed the winding mountain road, we could see terraced farms, rivers, and villages on the slopes and beside small streams on both sides of the road. We had a glimpse of an earthen building, occasionally.

As the vehicle negotiated a blind bend, a massive complex of earthen buildings loomed in the valley. We were looking at Taxia village. Most of us could not contain our excitement at the sight of a square tulou surrounded by four circular ones, and took snapshots through the glass windows of our coach.

Our guide Siao Huang said it was the Tianluokeng complex which had gained World Cultural Heritage status. The complex, he said, was commonly referred to as “four dishes, a soup”.

We stopped at a vantage point above Taxia village to take more photographs before proceeding.

Siao said the founder of Tianluokeng was from Aoyao in Yongding on the other side of the mountain.

According to genealogical records, his name was Huang Baisanlang. He chose to settle in Taxia because of its favourable fengshui.

Huang scraped together a fortune raising ducks to build the earthen dwellings. Another story was that a fairy fell in love with him and helped him build the earthen buildings.

The square-shaped tulou named Buyun was constructed in 1796. It has three storeys with 26 rooms on each floor. The circular building called Hechang is on Buyun’s right. It also has three storeys with 22 rooms on each floor. In 1936, both Buyun and Hechang were burned down by bandits and were rebuilt in 1953.

The other circular building, Zhencheng, was built in 1930, while Ruiyin was built in 1936. Both are three storeys high with 26 rooms on each floor. The last building, Wenchang, was constructed in 1966. It is oval-shaped and like the others, has three storeys with 32 rooms on each floor.

Our group made a stop at Xiaban, a village 4km away from Tianluokeng. Twelve earthen buildings are scattered on both sides of the river. The most famous earthen building here is Yuchang.

Stepping into the building, we found that the ground floor corridor was occupied by stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs and food.

Welcoming: The Fuyu tulou in Yongding which is now a hotel.

We were surprised when our guide pointed out to us slanting supporting pillars in the corridor on the third and upper floors.

Siao said the pillar with the biggest tilt was slanted at 15°. He assured us that the building was in no danger of collapsing after surviving the elements and even earthquakes for more than 600 years.

Siao said construction of Yuchang began in the middle years of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) through the cooperation of the Liu, Luo, Zhang, Tang and Fan families.

The building has five storeys with 54 rooms on each floor. It is divided into five large units, each with its own staircase. The ancestral hall is located in the middle of the courtyard.

So how did the slanting pillars came about?

Siao said the five families took turns to provide meals for the masons and carpenters during construction but they were not well coordinated.

It is not known whether it was due to poor workmanship or that the carpenters did it on purpose to punish the residents when food did not arrive regularly, especially when they had to work on cold nights, he added.

Yuchang was originally a seven-storey building. A fire broke out before work was completed.

“A group of outsiders had come to pay respects to their ancestors at the tombs behind the building. However, the wind blew some of the burning hell notes into the building and set fire to the pillars on the seventh floor.

“The Yuchang residents considered it a bad omen, and so the sixth and seventh floors were done away with,” said Siao.

He said the residents later noticed that the supporting pillars in the corridors on the third and higher floors were slanted and they became fearful that the building would collapse.

“However, at dusk, a tiger wandered into the building and moved along the corridors like a high-ranking official during inspection. Then it jumped from a rear window and escaped into the woods behind. That night the residents heard the tiger’s roar.

“The Lius interpreted the roar as a congratulatory message from the tiger on the completion of the building.

“However, the other four families thought it was an inauspicious omen and they sold their units to the Liu family and moved to other villages. Some sailed across the ocean to South-East Asia,” Siao explained.

Idylic setting: A tulou by the riverside in Yongding.

He said the Liu family carefully investigated the tilting girders and pillars and found that the building was sound and in no danger of collapsing. Today, more than 100 people still live in the building.

The next day, we visited the famous Zhencheng building in Hongkeng village in Yongding.

Our coach parked at the entrance to the village. After a short walk we saw an old waterwheel turning in the stream and Zhencheng was just a few metres away.

Zhencheng stands on 500sqm of land and was built by a descendant of Lin Zaiting, who was the 19th generation of the Lin clan in Hongkeng village.

During the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) Lai Zaiing took his three sons to seek shelter in Fushi in Yongding, and to learn to be blacksmiths making tobacco cutters.

Later the Lin brothers returned to Hongkeng and established the first factory producing tobacco cutters. They became rich and opened shops in Guangzhou, Shanghai and other major cities.

They first built Fuyu, a mansion-style square earthen building. Later one of the brothers, Lin Renshan, built Zhencheng.

The couplet on the main door of Zhencheng reads: “Establish principles and discipline; bring about virtue and talent”.

Zhencheng is shaped like the Eight Trigrams, with inner and outer rings. The four storeys of the outer rings are 16m high and have 184 rooms. The two storeys of the inner ring have 32 rooms. The outer ring is divided into eight large sections.

After going through the two massive doors of the two rings, we reached the ancestral hall which the residents used for weddings, funerals or festivals.

Part of the compound has been converted into a hotel.

There are stalls selling souvenirs, artwork, Chinese tea, herbs and pickled vegetable, a specialty of the region.

From the Zhencheng building, an ancient cobblestone path continues along the mountain stream. On either side of the path are earthen buildings scattered along the riverside and in the open country. Large banyan trees provided shade for people to rest on the stone benches. There is also a small local temple dedicated to Mazu, the sea goddess.

It is little wonder that the tulou of Fujian continue to draw in tourists, for they enable one to feel the pulse of the rich Hakka culture that has survived the passage of time.

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Category: Travel Guide@Tulou
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