I have always been fascinated by the architectural ingenuity of humanity, especially in periods or places where resources seem lacking. One case in point is the tulou, a type of large, multi-storied communal home built with wood and fortified with mud walls. Built between the 15th and 20th centuries in China’s subtropical Fujian province in the south, these structures were not only durable — 46 survive to this day — but they conformed with feng shui principles and are cleverly sited to be close to tea, tobacco, rice fields, and lush forests, giving their denizens access to crucial resources and livelihoods.
Little wonder that they were granted World Heritage status by UNESCO back in 2006, in recognition of their uniqueness and importance to humanity’s cultural heritage.
National Geographic had an article on them as well, which is how I first learned about these interesting structures.
While tulou translates to “earthen building” in Chinese, the construction materials consist of far more than just mud. The foundations of the structures are composed of local river stones and the walls are made of fine sedimentary mud sourced from rice fields. The mud was reinforced with split bamboo, mixed with sand and lime, and then compacted with a thick staff.
While similar in layout, each tulou is unique. The Yuchang Building, built in 1308, is the oldest and tallest and known for its titled pillars, some of which lean to a sharp 15-degree angle. The Hegui Earthen Building is the largest rectangular one, clocking in at nearly 3,600 square yards. The Chengqi Building is the most massive in size, with roughly 400 rooms.
Each structure essentially doubles as a self-contained village. While the tulou are open to the public for visitation, there are still people living in them—many of whom are from the same clan. Communal living is integral to these villages, as well as equality. Each of the rooms is identical in design. The closed-wall design fosters social interaction. Although individual families have their own sections, residents congregate in the courtyard for ceremonies such as ancestor worship and weddings.
Fortunately, all the global attention has driven tourism to the region, which in turn has given incentive for locals maintain the sites and has provided the economic boost they need to continue using toulou as they have for centuries. I hope I get to see them myself some day!