Magazine article Geographical

Last Line of Defence: Hidden Away in the Mountains of Southeastern China, the Hakka, One of the Country's Largest Ethnic Groups, Live in Circular Fortified Buildings, Some of Which Date Back to the 12th Century. Matt Havercroft Looks at the Modern Realities Facing the Hakka and Their Unique Architecture Photostory: Nicolas Reynard

Magazine article Geographical

Last Line of Defence: Hidden Away in the Mountains of Southeastern China, the Hakka, One of the Country's Largest Ethnic Groups, Live in Circular Fortified Buildings, Some of Which Date Back to the 12th Century. Matt Havercroft Looks at the Modern Realities Facing the Hakka and Their Unique Architecture Photostory: Nicolas Reynard

Article excerpt

Several years ago, military liaison officers at the US embassy in Beijing received a disturbing phone call. Missile silos, they were told, had been spotted on satellite images of a remote mountainous area of Yongding county in Fujian province, China. The officials rushed to this isolated region to investigate, and although the structures they found could he said to have a military function, it certainly wasn't the one they'd feared. The source of all the consternation was in fact a group of tulou, the unique earthen buildings that are home to an ethnic minority known as the Hakka or Kejia. As news of the discovery spread, it wasn't long before tourists and scholars were beating a path to the impoverished area.

These formidable inward-looking earthen edifices are designed to repel attack. Made of a mixture of compressed earth, lime, brown sugar water, rice paste and small stones, the tulou were built layer by layer, taking as long as eight years to construct. With outer walls up to 80 metres in diameter and two metres thick, these fortified buildings are the ancient Chinese equivalent of a gated community and serve as a reminder of the systematic persecution that has plagued the Hakka. Leading sinologist Joseph Needham describes the tulou as "the most extraordinary types of Chinese rural dwellings". They are also tough enough to cope with earthquakes.

Hakka settlements were established along the southeast coast of China as early as the 12th century, when consecutive waves of migration swept down from the Yellow River basin Fleeing war, famine and oppression, the clans finally settled in the provinces of Jiangxi, Guangdong and Fujian. Having been driven into areas that were already occupied, the Hakka communities were forced to survive on the fringes of society on poor agricultural land. The outcome was a series of clan wars, including land feuds between the Hakka and their neighbours in Guangdong in the 18th and 19th centuries. As resources became ever more scarce, defence increasingly became a priority. Roaming bands of bandits were a constant threat to the settlers, who relied on the tulou as their main defence.

And defensive these buildings certainly are. With inward-facing, concentric rooms, the outside walls is featureless apart from small lookout windows and a door. The windows are too small for enemies to squeeze through but provide an elevated vantage point for firing on them. The entrance door (which is locked and barred at the night curfew) is lined with iron and secured with two horizontal wooden bars that retract into the walls. This locking mechanism is designed so that it will still work even if the bars are sawn through. Firetraps between the concentric rooms provide further protection, preventing flames from spreading from one section of a tulou to the next.

The tulou are designed for self-sufficiency, built around at least one well and a space allocated for pigs and water buffalo. Between two and We storeys tall (three storeys is typical) and composed of between, one and three rings, they can have as many as 72 rooms and usually hold around 20 families, or 100 people. Each family residence has its own separate staircase and covers all three floors--a kitchen and dining area on the ground floor, storage area on the second and small rooms for sleeping on the third. …

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