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The Tulou of Fujian Province: Life in the Round

Sitting incongruously amongst nearby apartment blocks in Yongding County, Fujian Province, these ancient houses sit squatly on the landscape like a cluster of recently landed earthen UFOs. There are more than 30,000 tulou土楼 or rammed earth houses in Fujian and neighbouring southern Jiangxi Province, completely unique to this corner of China, and to the Hakka and Minnan people who built them hundreds of years ago when they settled in the region.
It’s an extraordinary feat that so many still survive (the oldest dates to 1371), thanks in no small part to recent UNESCO World Heritage status and the tulou‘s increasing popularity as an architectural tourist destination.
Tulou are extraordinarily impressive inside and out, designed for communal living for up to 400 families at a time, and for defence against armed bandits who were rife in the area for several hundred years.
From the outside tulou have all the features of a fortress – walls thick enough to withstand attack from guns and even cannons, sloped slightly inwards to protect against earthquakes, the only exterior windows too high to climb and too small to enter but perfect for lookouts and for gun stockades. An imposing gateway cut from a single block of granite marks each entrance, sealed by two massive wooden doors plated with iron and barricaded from within by horizontal crossbeams once closed.
But enter the tulou and you step into the heart of an entirely different world – a busy community of several hundred people, living in circular rows of individual apartments over four or five floors facing inwards onto a central courtyard with a small shrine. Each individual family owns a column of rooms, from the ground floor storage and cooking area to the sleeping apartments above, one on top of the other, like a slice of cake. Wealthy families might own several ‘slices’ side by side.
Nowadays the tulou have far fewer residents as young people leave to seek work in bigger cities. But one old resident told me the tulou come alive for the many festivals of the year when extended families return home to celebrate together in the communal way.
Built in 1912 by the family of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Zhencheng Lou in Hongkeng village is one of the most recently constructed tulou wth two concentric rings around a central shrine for ceremonies.
One of the smallest tulou in Fujian is Rusheng Lou with only 16 rooms, still inhabited by several families.

Communal well inside one tulou
“Tourists come in to the tulou, they look up and say ‘Wow it’s big, wow it looks great’ but they don’t understand the depth of tulou culture and history” said one elderly resident who has lived in the tulou all of his 72 years. He looks forward to Chinese New Year when all of his family return to the tulou to celebrate together.
Individual kitchens side by side on the ground floor

Family shrine
Square tulou and round tulou side by side. The Dragon waits for New Year celebrations.
Fujian Tulou 福建土楼
Yongding township, the largest town in Yongding County, makes a great base for visiting the nearby tulou, and has several hotels.
From Yongding you will need to hire a driver or join a tulou tour as the  tulou clustered in multiple small groups spread over a broad area.   We visited Chenqi Lou (in the village of Gaobei 高北) and Zhencheng Lou。  There are other clusters of tulou nearby at Hekeng, Tianluokeng and many more. The tourist trails are well signed but in Chinese only – look for the brown signs.    In addition to the tourist sites it is also possible to stop and visit any tulou you see along the way. Check with the local residents first before entering and always ask before going upstairs.