One of my first off-the-beaten-path adventures in China was a trip to see the tulou “earth buildings” in Fujian province that I had first seen in a documentary back home. These unique, fort-like buildings are architecturally completely different than traditional buildings in either China or abroad and as such, were even mistaken for missile silos by Americans during the Cold War. Besides being excited to see them in person, I also became intrigued about the Hakka people who built them.
WHO ARE THE HAKKA AND WHY DID THEY BUILD TULOUS?
The basic facts: Hakka is a subgroup of Han Chinese, China’s and the world’s largest ethnic group. Originating in areas of the North bordering the Yellow River, a series of southward migrations over centuries (or millennia?) settled them into already inhabited areas in the South, where they had to adapt to local conditions, opportunities for land ownership were scarce and the local population was often hostile towards the newcomers.
Stemming from the above, the Hakka embraced a pioneering and innovative spirit, emphasizing education and gravitating towards public service and military careers in which they excelled and rose to many powerful positions. In the mobile and open-minded Hakka communities, women didn’t bind their feet when the practice was prevalent and have earned a reputation for being tough, resilient and self-reliant. Within the native place worshiping Han Chinese context that stigmatized Hakka rootlessness, the Hakka developed a strong sense of belonging within their own clan.
WHAT IS A TULOU?
A tulou is a traditional communal Hakka residence built in the shape of a circle, square or rectangle that resembles a walled village or a fortress. There is only one entrance and no windows at the ground level, making them easily defensible. Three to five stories high, they provided housing and shelter for an entire family clan. An innovative and pioneering solution that makes perfect sense in the Hakka historical and cultural context. Interestingly enough, while the Hakka settled in many Southern Chinese provinces, most of the tulous are located in Fujian province.
YONGDING TULOU AREA
Tulous can be visited on a day trip from the city of Xiamen on China’s east coast, but I chose to spend 2 nights and an entire day strolling around in the village of Hukeng in the Yongding tulou area. The village was small enough to be explored in a day, yet large enough to contain tulous of all different types, plus a closeup view into life in the Chinese countryside. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site, I only saw a handful of Chinese tourists in the Yongding Hakka Earth Building Cultural Village that day, and no foreigners. Plus, life in the village didn’t seem overly staged or built for tourists, but rather authentic.
Just taking in the atmosphere in the village was a definite highlight. Getting a glimpse into the culture and past of the Hakka people in their fortresses hidden in the mountains was an experience that spoke to me much more than the vapid modern materialism of China’s big cities.
After the trip, the experience stayed in my mind, as if there was still something more there for me to discover. To scratch the itch, I got back to reading more about tulous, Hakka culture and history, Chinese ethnic groups… Living in China made me want to understand what makes it tick, what lies beneath, where are the origins of what I experience and witness.
A fascinating and thought-provoking article by Mary S. Erbauch, published in The China Quarterly in 1992 caught my eye with its provocative title: The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise.
That Hakka people are historically more likely to hold high positions in politics and military than other Han Chinese is well documented yet rarely discussed. Erbauch talks about the overwhelming disproportionate number of political leaders to emerge from the group (both in China as well as in neighboring countries) and how the communist revolution essentially drew its fuel from traditional Hakka strengths: mobility, military prowess, strong women and a strategically useful common language. It seems that to a great extent, the communist revolution was a Hakka revolution.
It is astonishing to think that a sub-ethnic group making up only about 3% of the population of mainland China could have had such a huge impact on the course of history. All the more so when this is not even discussed or generally known at all.
And there I have it, another piece to my China puzzle. Except the picture doesn’t get any clearer- just more complex and mysterious. And intriguing. My quest continues…