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Hakka and Minnan “tulou”: Former Residents Emigrate, Opt for Indoor Plumbing

The New York Times has just published Monuments to Clan Life Are Losing their Appeal, a marvelous look at the state of tulou (土楼) built by Hakka and Minnan in Fujian. These communal structures, usually but not always round, housed dozens of families from the same clan:

Yongding, China—The gargantuan buildings are so iconic that they appear on a Chinese stamp. The most famous have distinctive round shapes, appearing from a distance like flying saucers that have plopped down in the middle of farm fields. Some were reportedly mistaken for missile silos by American officials poring over satellite images.

But the thousands of “earthern buildings” here, built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people of rural Fujian Province, are the ultimate architectural expression of clan existence in China.

For centuries, each building, called a tulou in Mandarin Chinese, would house an entire clan, virtually a village. Everyone living inside would have the same surname, except for those who married into the clan. The tulou usually tower four floors and have up to hundreds of rooms that open out onto a vast central courtyard, like the Colosseum.

The outer walls, made of rammed earth, protected against bandits. The forms vary. Many are square, resembling medieval keeps. With stockpiles of food, people could live for months without setting foot outside the tulou.

But as the clan traditions of China dwindle today, more and more people are moving out of the tulou to live in modern apartments with conveniences absent from the earthen buildings—indoor toilets, for example.

Also of interest is a book by Huang Hanmin (黄汉民) published only in Chinese (I believe), 《福建土楼》(Fújiàn tǔ lóu).

You might think that China’s media minders would be fairly happy with this report, but when it was translated and published in Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息) on March 24 (美报称福建土楼对居民失去吸引力), large chunks of it were deleted.

Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.” For earlier coverage of how Cankao Xiaoxi repackages foreign newspaper reportage for domestic eyeballs, check out But where are Pederasty, Passion and the Dalai Lama? or Just Say “No” to Orgasms.

Here is some of the copy that appeared in the New York Times report but was deleted from the Chinese version:

  • “President Hu Jintao visited them [some tulou] during the 2010 Lunar New Year festivities”
  • “One afternoon, they [elderly residents] were moving firewood stacked outside the front entrance of the tulou to nearby storage sheds; the local government had asked them to do this to hide the messy stacks from tourists.”
  • “Chinese officials tried smashing the clan system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Collectives built more and more tulou and randomly assigned people to live in the buildings, so each clan would have members spread among different collectives. When the Cultural Revolution ended, people drifted back to their clans.”
  • ” ‘People don’t clean it [Huan Xing tulou] anymore,’ said Jiang Qing, 28. . .’As long as people live here, the ecosystem thrives. Once people move out, then it all falls apart.’ “
  • “Mr. Huang, the scholar. . .’What they’ve preserved is just the structure, but the people have all moved out,’ he said. ‘So the living part has died. You’re just preserving a relic.’ “

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