Tulou 土樓, the Earthen Building in China

Hukeng in Yongding County, southwest of Fujian (China), is almost on the border with Guangdong Province. The region is famous for its old buildings, still habitable, called “Tu Lou” or clay buildings. They are sets of “apartments”, made of clay, stone and wood, with a perimeter in the circular shape, some squares, built on the edge of streams and rivers. Dated between 100 and 700 years ago, in the region there are some twenty thousand of these houses, the largest fit a thousand people with six hundred rooms, from three to four floors. In the past they were built with the defensive function. Some shapes have half-moon, half-square, oval and pentagonal perimeters.

“Tu Lou” are built by the Han subgroup known as Hakka, which means “guest”. The culture here is basically subsistence, here they live as if they were stuck in time, they have their own customs and language. I don’t understand Hakka at all. In the center of the condominium, animals such as chickens, ducks and pigs are raised, and the plantations are outside, as are the bathrooms. Depending on the construction, in the center there is a temple where ceremonies and weddings are held. The largest group even had a school. The kitchens are typically located on the first floor, the bedrooms are located on the other floors and there are windows to the outside. There is only a single entrance and exit door or main gate, which at night was always closed.

The region began to be explored for tourism after American satellites discovered the buildings and thought they were missile silos. Progress has progressed fast here, talking to locals in their 30s and 40s, they say the region was totally isolated, with no car, horse, electricity, telephone, running water and rare bicycles. The roads are recent with less than five years old, the reservoir was only two years old. Telephone and electricity are a little older, between five and ten years. It was a very poor region, but with the arrival of tourism – an important factor – life has improved a lot for the locals.

Some Hakkas keep their faces turned against tourists, after all, nobody likes to have their houses invaded all the time to take pictures. But there are many who are very hospitable, unlike most Chinese, who are rude and just want to make money from tourists. Hakkas are kind – but children don’t like taking pictures very much.

From the balcony of my room I had the view of a “Tu Lou”, right in front, which was also an option to stay, but without a shower and a very rustic room. I have decided to stay another night here. As far as I know, I was the first Brazilian to appear here. My friend and I took a motorcycle-taxi ride to see more houses in this interior. We have passed by bucolic landscapes and have seen peasants and farmers working. We also have seen many houses today and have entered some, although similar, each one has its own peculiarity.

I have seen how they made dry persimmon, first peel them one by one manually, then let them dry for a long time, knead them to stay flat and let them dry a little longer, all very artisan and slow. Women peeled hundreds a day. The region smelled of rotting bark in the bush. A sachet that should be about twenty units cost only RMB 4 or USD 0.50 – in Beijing it cost five times more.

This region exceeded my expectations! In fact, I didn’t even plan to come here, because I had never heard of these buildings. Fujian is a province full of contrasts. China’s coastal cities are well developed while those in the countryside live isolated from civilization.

See more details and enjoy the video below: