The last moment in history to see the tulou

On an assignment for Le Monde d’Hermès earlier this year, I flew half-way around the world to a small Chinese village called Xiashi in rural Fujian province to look at a bridge.  The river it spanned was barely more than a creek but the bridge — which won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010 — was something unusual for China: at once contemporary and contextual, it united two rival clans by creating a public space (originally a schoolhouse, since converted to a library) spanning the divide between them.

That article has just been published — you can pick up the magazine at any Hermès store or view my article and photographs here — and in it you’ll see something even more remarkable: at either end of the bridge there are large circular structures that, from the outside, resemble Spanish bullfighting rings.  These are centuries-old tulou: mud-walled communal housing, unique to the region, that can be four- or five-stories high and encompass hundreds of apartments.  The interior structures are made of wood and there is an expansive oval courtyard where cooking is done and children can play untended.  Originally built for defensive purposes by the migrant Hakka community, every resident in a tulou is a member of a single clan and so shares the same family name; in China, this is the first name (thus, in the case of the most famous Hakka, Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew, Lee would be the family name) and generally a single character and syllable.

The tulou were fully occupied until the 1980s when China’s economic boom began to reshape village life, with some tulou residents migrating to the cities in search of work and others moving out to newer housing.  Tiled roofs and mud walls need constant tending, so as residents left the structures began to deteriorate and the people who remained migrated to the lower floors.  That is where the tulou stand today: partially occupied, partially destroyed, with no future that resembles their past.  In Xiashi, one of the few remaining tulou residents invited me to see his apartment, which was dark and drafty though fairly large, and I understood both the communal appeal and the material depravation of tulou life.  He told me he would leave if he could afford to do so; anyway, he said, there’s no reason to stay because there are so few people left in the tulou.

This was, I realized, the last moment in history when it would be possible for me to experience tulou life in anything like its original form.  In villages like Xiashi, no one is moving into the tulou and the residents are getting older; soon, the roofs will collapse entirely and the buildings will be uninhabitable.  The larger and more famous tulou like Tianluokeng and Yuchanglou are in better physical condition but are already being transformed into tourist sights.  It is possible, as night falls and the tour buses leave, to see the residents in these larger tulou engaged in all sorts of activities (like air-drying leaves for soup) that one imagines will soon be displaced by the far greater profits to be made by selling souvenirs because, by day, they have already begun the theatrical and self-conscious reenactment of their lives and habits for the benefit of tourists.

This distortion will only grow, especially if the brand new Tiananmen Square-sized ticket hall at Tianluokeng and football field-scale tour bus parking lot are an indication what is to come.  UNESCO declared these tulou a World Heritage site in 2008, which ostensibly would help to preserve them; in fact, it seems mostly to have encouraged a huge tourist promotion effort.  I saw this happen to the town of Lijiang in Yunnan province: in 1994, when I first visited, it was a beautiful, living town, lined with canals and weeping willows and occupied mainly by ethnic minorities; in 2007, when I returned, it had become a World Heritage site and was now a Spring Break destination for domestic tourists, with Han girls dressed up in minority clothing standing at the entrance to bars and discos enticing passersby, while every single storefront in the old town had been converted to a shop selling cheap trinkets.

China’s newfound prosperity has produced a middle class looking for domestic escapes, as happened in other, wealthier countries around the world; but what China has that the others do not is the sheer size of its population, creating a flood of visitors that can drown any village or town they set their sights on.  Even the places they overlook, like Xiashi, will be transformed.  Part of the inspiration for building the bridge in Xiashi was to breathe new life into the tulou but unfortunately neither the architect nor the project manager was able to tell me how, exactly, that would work.


Click here to see my article and photographs about Xiashi in Le Monde d’Hermès or here for why that trip to Fujian made me think the great China infrastructure boom might be ending.  Or here for my photographs of China, including Lijiang.  Or here for my article about Kunming for the New York Times style magazine ‘T’.  Or here to read about my experience when Chinese street artists try to draw a foreigner.



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