Head deep into the mountains of Fujian to see the tulou buildings of the Hakka, visiting those both well-known and obscure, and staying overnight in a tulou building in one of the smaller, less-visited clusters. Trip includes sights around Xiamen, including Gulangyu Island.
Meet up in Xiamen, visit seaside sights including Huli Mountain Cannon Fort, evening walkabout in downtown night market; overnight in Xiamen hotel.
Day Two main activities
Drive to Yongding County and tulou area, check in at tulou guesthouse in small village, explore nearby tulou buildings; overnight in tulou guesthouse.
Day Three main activities
Easy hike in the hills and rice paddies behind the village, drive to the Hongkeng tulou cluster area for a walking tour of the main buildings, drive back to Xiamen; overnight in Xiamen hotel.
Day Four main activities
Tour of Gulangyu Island with included lunch; trip finishes mid-afternoon.
Fujian is a coastal province in China’s southeast with a population of some 37 million people.
Over 98% of the inhabitants are of the Han ethnic group, but the remaining 2% has room for 47 of the other ethnic groups that are counted as part of the Chinese population.
The mountainous terrain in the northwest and the sea to the east mean that Fujian has been somewhat secluded through history.
In more modern times the tough terrain and lack of road networks and railways contributed to slower economic development, which is said to be one of the main reasons that much of Fujian is still well-forested.
The remote mountains and valleys were also seen as a refuge and became home to people from China’s north seeking to escape war and turmoil, particularly during the collapse of the Western Jin Dynasty in the fourth century, after the break up of the Tang Dynasty in the tenth century, and during the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty.
Hakka: Guest Family
Some of the refugees were of the Hakka ethnic group. Originally said to have been Han Chinese from the Central Plains of China, the Hakka migrated southwards through Fujian and then on to other parts of southern China, receiving the appellation ‘guest family’ from inhabitants of the areas they passed through, a nickname that eventually stuck.
The Hakka people who stayed on in the valleys and mountains of Fujian Province are the ones who began to build the tulou, fortress-like structures of rammed earth and stone.
The main dialect spoken by people who live in the tulou area is one of the varieties of the Minnan family of Chinese languages, a tricky one with five to six tones.
Add the perhaps strange sounds of a new language to the sights of the unique architecture here and you’ll certainly feel you’re seeing (and hearing) a different side of China.
The highlight of this trip is definitely the overnight stay inside a tulou (‘rammed earth building’) in one of the less-visited tulou clusters, in a green valley deep in the mountains.
Deep in the mountains of Fujian are more than 20,000 tulou buildings, built between the twelfth and twentieth centuries.
“Tulou” translates literally as “earth building”, and rammed earth is what they are mainly constructed of, with other locally sourced materials like rocks, stones, and bamboo mixed in to create the walls, and a wooden frame of beams set up inside to support the balconies and rooms that run around the inner walls.
The thick and tall walls of the tulou enclose a space large enough to hold a small community of people, commonly a clan of several generations.
The buildings are a defensive structure that combines rammed earth construction techniques brought from central China with southern Chinese wood construction, and are the result of a gradual improvement of the first basic forts built to protect inhabitants from threats that included armed bandits and wild animals.
From the outside, the tulou appears completely closed off. Inside, it is an open space, with rooms and living areas around the outside wall and a communal area in the middle that includes a small hall used for gatherings and ancestral worship.
More about tulou buildings
Read about how the tulou buildings are built and how they are laid out inside the walls.
Key points in the construction of tulou
Site: The site of the building is selected and marked up according to fengshui principles, and the layout of the tulou is outlined on the ground with lines of lime.
Foundation: a deep pit that follows the outline of the walls is excavated to make a strong foundation for the rammed earth walls—the bigger the tulou, the wider and deeper the pit. When necessary, thick pilings of pine are used to create extra support for the stone foundation, which fills the pit. The stone foundation finishes above ground level, keeping the rammed earth part of the walls above and away from any puddles of water that might build up on the ground because of rain or flooding.
Walls: The walls are built in sections, using boards to form the shape. The earth is poured into the forms and rammed, a long and complicated process with many steps, checks, and special techniques. The wooden frame is added in storey by storey.
Roof: The roof of a tulou is tiled, and the eaves of the roof extend quite a way out so that the potentially erosive runoff from rain is kept well away from the walls.
Entrance: There’s typically only one main door, which is big and reinforced – often the whole frame was made of a single piece of solid granite. Generally this is the only way in and out of the building, but secret escape tunnels were constructed under some of the tulou.
Inside the tulou
The outside of the lower storeys of the tulou are windowless, for defensive reasons. Inside, the rooms of the lower levels are used for storage, with the thermal mass of the rammed earth walls regulating the temperature.
The upper levels of the inside of the tulou are the living area, ringed by balconies, with ladders and stairs between levels. The balconies are supported by struts embedded in the rammed earth walls.
The walls surround a communal space, with a hall for gatherings and the worship of ancestors. In some of the larger tulou the communal space contains more halls and structures, sometimes constructed in several concentric circles.
Chuxi Tulou Cluster
At Chuxi Village there is a cluster that contains three very large circular tulou and several that are square. The main tulou in this cluster is Jiqing Lou, built in 1419. Jiqing Lou is one of the largest tulou: it’s four storeys tall, has more than 200 rooms, and there’s a second ring of rooms within the main walls.
Chuxi Village is picturesque, surrounded by green hills and with a stream running in front of the tulou buildings.
Hongkeng Tulou Cluster
The tulou cluster at Hongkeng Village is spread out on either side of a river, and is full of all sorts of tulou: round, square, U-shaped; short and tall, big and small.
Parts of this cluster have been developed for tourism, and we’ll use the tourist trail either side of the river as a base for our tour, visiting the main sights along the way.
The earliest tulou in Hongkeng date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), making them some of the first to be built.
One of the main tulou here is Zhencheng Lou, a round tulou with a two storey inner ring. Zhencheng Lou is one of the most recently built tulou, finished in 1917.
Sights in Xiamen
Also known as Amoy, Xiamen has long been the site of a busy and coveted sea port: goods were traded out of here during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a fort was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to guard the harbour against pirate incursions, and the huge cannons of the Huli Hill Fort, built during the late Qing Dynasty, saw action in World War II.
European traders began to visit Xiamen in 1541, and as well as trading goods and money they took words from the local dialect which found their way into English, the best example being “tea” (tê in the Minnan dialect, versus chá in Standard Mandarin).
Xiamen was also the base for the last pocket of resistance of the Ming Dynasty against the Qing Dynasty, and at that time was known as Siming, which translates as “Remember the Ming”. The name remains attached to Xiamen’s waterfront district.
Xiamen was captured by the British in 1841, during the First Opium War. In 1842 it was one of the five treaty ports opened as part of the Treaty of Nanjing. Around that time a European settlement developed on Gulangyu Island, and the leftover architecture makes the island a popular tourist destination.
Xiamen has been a Special Economic Zone since 1980, and its port is one of the busiest in China.
Huli Hill Cannon Fort
Built in 1894, the Huli Hill Cannon Fort is most famous for its matched set of 60-ton Krupp cannons, a huge expense back in those times. Fortifications, smaller cannons, and pillboxes remain, as well one of the big cannons—it may be the one that sunk a Japanese warship in 1937.
The fort sits atop cliffs at the south end of Xiamen Island, and the main attraction for us is the views of the sea and islands. On a clear day we might be able to see Kinmen Island, which is only 10km off the coast and actually administered by Taiwan.
During the time Xiamen was a treaty port, Gulangyu Island was the site of the consulates, churches, and hospitals of some thirteen countries, including Great Britain and France.
These buildings remain, and are in the Victorian style of architecture. Some are in excellent shape, and house museums, shops, and hotels. Others are shuttered and empty – quite a spooky sight!
As well as their style of architecture Europeans also brought their pianos, and a strong tradition of piano-playing remains. The pianos stayed behind when the Europeans left, and Gulangyu’s Piano Museum holds a huge variety.
Gulangyu Island is free of cars and bicycles, and is only ten minutes by ferry from downtown Xiamen. Just a wee bit kitschy, the island is not free of tourists, and can get quite busy. The ban on vehicles doesn’t extend to the electric carts used to carry around the more out-of-shape tourists.
If you’ve visited Nanluoguxiang in Beijing you’ll find that Gulangyu is a little similar: popular spots thronged with tourists, and little side streets and residential areas frequented mostly by locals.
We’ll make a relaxed tour of Gulangyu Island, taking a stroll through the residential district to the west side of the island, walking along the beachfront promenade, and climbing the steps up to the aviary and the Piano Museum. We’ll find time for a tasty restaurant lunch before walking back through the shopping streets to find the ferry again.
Neolithic Jade Exhibition
On the way to the Huli Hill Cannon Fort we’ll stop off for a look at an exhibition of jade artifacts. The gallery brings together many private collections of jade into a huge exhibition containing many beautiful and ancient pieces.
The exhibition covers four of the main Neolithic groups of China: Hongshan Civilization (4000-3000 BC); Liangzhu Civilization (3300-2200 BC); Sanxingdui Civilization (2800-1000 BC); Qijia Civilization (2000-1000 BC).
Of particular interest are the Sanxingdui pieces: made by a civilization previously unheard of and discovered only in 1987, and in an artistic style not seen before in the history of Chinese art. Some of the faces and figures of Sanxingdui artifacts look rather unearthly!
As well as being beautiful pieces of art, the jade sculptures and tools are a good way to start thinking about what people were up to in China, all that time ago.
Pedestrian Street Market
On the first night of the trip, we’ll take a stroll through the streets in an area of downtown Xiamen where we’ll find lots of little shops and outdoor dining. A good chance to try some local street food, and to get some fresh seafood cooked up on the spot!
Getting to and from Xiamen
You’ll meet your guides at the Xiamen Airport between 12-1pm on the first day of the trip.
The itinerary will finish in Xiamen at around 3:30pm on the last day of the trip.
Please do not purchase your flights until we are able to confirm the departure of the trip.
Photos and trip reports: Hakka Tulou Clusters and Xiamen, Fujian Province