Hakkas and Their Earth Buildings

Dotted around the mountain triangle where Fujian, Guangdong, and Jiangxi provinces meet, the so-called earthen buildings (tulou in Chinese) are attracting more attention in China and the other parts of the world. Architects consider them to be the cream of traditional Chinese residential architecture. Scholar shave discovered that they embody a distinctive culture while local governments have realized that they can lure tourists like magnets. Bearing all this in mind, local architects, scholars and government officials are working together to try to put the buildings on the World Cultural Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The huge buildings, which resemble fortresses, are called earth buildings because of their tall and strong earthen outer walls. The walls, often propped up by a frame of bamboo and wood chips, are made of earth, fine sand and limestone. The largest concentration of the buildings is in western Fujian Province, especially the areas inhabited by the Hakka people – a group belonging to the Han Chinese family, who can trace their ancestors back more than 1,500 years ago to Central and North China.

Originally living in Northern China, the Hakkas began migrating south towards Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces in the third century BC to escape sever persecutions caused by war and frequent nomadic invasions. Further persecutions in the fifth century pushed them farther south, and in the 10th – 13th centuries they ended up settling in Gungdong, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces. They were called Hakka or kejia in Mandarin, which mean, "guest people," "guest families," or "strangers."

During the hundreds of years of migration, the Hakka people tried to maintain their own culture and way of like, keeping their own unique dialect, customs and cuisine. They built the earthen complexes to guard against invasion from local bandits and protect their children from the influence of local communities. All the families of a Hakka clan lived together in an enclosed earthen building. The Hakkas worshipped their ancestors. Ancestral halls can be found in almost every earthen building. They also attached great importance to education – primary schools have been found in many of the buildings. There are some 30,000 earthen buildings scattered around South China, 20,000 of them being in Fujian Province. Originally, appearing about 1,200 years ago, the buildings were mostly completed in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 -1911).

 A clan of some 150 members surnamed Wang still live in an earthen-building complex with 108 rooms completed in 1835. They say it took their ancestors seven years go finish constructing it.

Chinese architects think the five-phoenix buildings are influenced by the imperial architecture popular in ancient central China. The building usually has three main structures – the upper hall, the central hall and the lover hall – plus two side-rooms. The five structures represent the north, east, south, west and central sections of the house. They were built in an enclosed rectangular compound. There are variations of this building. The largest five-phoenix complex in the area has nine halls. With the standard layout of three halls and two side-rooms, the Dafu (meaning senior official in feudal China) Building in Yongding County of Fujiang Province, where the clan of  150-odd members lives, is one of the most famous five-phoenix buildings. The lover hall is the entrance hall of the compound. The central hall is the sitting room. The upper hall is the major living area, with four floors. Facing a clean stream with curved tiled roofs, overhanging eaves, and tall earthen walls, the complex has a distinctive classical elegance.


The square building is the most common type of earth building in Fujian Province. It has two main designs, one with circular galleries and the other with separate units. From the outside, passers-by cannot tell the differences between the two styles. The difference lies in their different interiors. One layout emphasizes the unity of the building complex by the use of galleries while the other respects the convenience and privacy of individual units.

The three-storey Xishuang Building built in 1679 in Pinghe County, Fujian Province, is a testimony to the latter. There are 65 units in the building but each unit has a staircase of its own and rooms on each floor, and is completely separated from the other units. There is a large courtyard inside the compound, where six ancestral halls once stood. Today a crescent-shaped big pond and an area, which catches the sun delights residents. With an area of pond and an area of some 8,000 square meters, it now houses some 500 residents. Some square complexes have integrated the two styles into one. In the Yijing Building in Yongding County, people can find three six-rooms with-one-hall-units in its five-story back section. However, the galleries connect all the rooms in the other three four-story sections (front, left and right) of the building. Encompassing 10.336 square meters with 400 rooms, it is the largest square building standing in the county. It is said that construction of the building started in 1806 and finished 70 years later. With 1.1-meter-thick outer walls and a 20-centimeter-thick wooden gate, the building had survived several earthquakes and wars. The Hegui Building in Nanjing County of Fujiang Province is a typical square building with circular galleries. The five-storey residence encloses a square courtyard. There are 24 rooms on each floor, which are connected by a circular gallery. All of the doors and inner widows open onto the courtyard. There is a staircase connecting the ground floor with the top floor at each of the four corners of the structure. The rooms on the ground floor are used as kitchens and dining rooms. The rooms on the second floor are used for storage. The rooms on the other floors are living rooms. While the 13-meter-high outer walls are made of earth, the interior of the residence is made of wood. Mostly found in Fujian, circular buildings are the most distinctive earthen buildings. They also have two styles, one with galleries and the other with separate units. The Hakkas constructed their buildings with galleries but local indigenous residents decided to build their own with separate units. The Huaiyuan Building in Nanjing County is a well-preserved circular building with galleries. With a diameter of 33 meters, the whole compound consists of a circular four-storey, 13-meter-high building and a round ancestral hall at the center of the inner court. There 34 rooms on each floor of the round building, which are connected by a wooden circular gallery. Four staircases are evenly scattered around it.

 The Longjian Building in Pinghe County of Fujian Province is a typical unit-style circular building. With a diameter of 82 meters, the tree-floor building has 50 vertical units and only one entrance. The clan to worship their ancestors uses three units on the opposite side of the entrance. With a length of 21.6 meters, each fan-shaped unit has an entrance on to the inner yard of the compound, a staircase and a small yard of its own. Covering an area of 5,376 square meters and built between 1628 and 1684, the Chengqi Building in Yongding County is known as one of the oldest and largest circular buildings or “the King of circular buildings.” The complex consists of four major structures – three concentric circular buildings circling a rectangular three-room ancestral hall. The four-floor first (outer) ring is 12.4 meters high and has 288 rooms, 72 rooms on each floor. The two-floor second ring has 40 rooms on each floor. The third ring is the single-floor structure with 32 rooms. There are a total of 400 rooms totaling 5,375.17 square meters and three wells in the complex. The main complex has three gates, and each ring accommodate some 80 families with more than 600 people. Different from the Chengqi Building, the Jinjiang Building in Zhangpu County in Fujian Province has single-floor outer ring, a taller single-floor second ring and a three-floor central (third) ring. There are embrasures (small openings) evenly scattered on the outer wall of the central building, which reveal the defensive considerations of the unique design.

These earth buildings have the advantage of being cool in summer, and warm in winter, economic, durable and wind-proof, and fireproof andante-earthquake and they can be also used as fortresses. They demonstrate the high artistic level of architectural science.

 Tulou, literally means "a big castle-like building made of soil." In order to make the soil wall strong enough against floods and rain, Hakkas built it on stone groundwork higher than the tallest flood line. Soil was mingled with glutinous rice and sugar soup before it was made into adobes used to build walls. Large eaves were installed to cover the wall from rain drops as much as possible.

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