Earthen "fortress" homes join World Heritage list

2008-07-07 13:23:08 GMT       2008-07-07 21:23:08 (Beijing Time)       Xinhua English

By Xinhua writers Wu Yilong and Ji Shaoting

FUZHOU, July 7 (Xinhua) -- The homes called Tulou (literally, earth buildings) that are indigenous to China's remote southeast mountains were listed in UNESCO's World Heritage List on early Monday morning Beijing Time during the 32nd session of the World Heritage Committee in Quebec City, Canada.

Tulou owner Lin Rigeng can earn a good living just by talking about his house -- Zhenchenglou, one of the 46 Tulou in Fujian Province that made it onto the World Heritage List after decades of trying.

Swarthy-faced Lin, 57, beamed on hearing the news, which will probably mean more tourists and more money. And there's something else: "I'm proud of my forefathers' unique architecture," he said.

Lin's sentiments are shared by many other inhabitants of the more than 3,000 Fujian Tulou.

Built on a base of stone, the thick walls of these unique buildings were packed with dirt and fortified with wood or bamboo internally. The architectural arts of the Fujian Tulou can be traced back nearly 1,000 years, and their design incorporates the tradition of fengshui (favorable siting within the environment).

The Tulou nestle among mountains and streams, alone or in groups. Most are round and some are centuries old.

"You only need local materials to build Tulou, which is very important for people living in remote mountainous areas," said Xu Songsheng, a 55-year-old official master of the Tulou construction techniques, which is part of the nation's intangible heritage.

Born in a Tulou in Yongding County, Longyan City, Fujian, Xu learned the building skills from his father and helped him build Shanqinglou in 1978, the youngest World Heritage-listed Tulou.

"The government's reform policy made farmers rich and I was busy teaching them to erect Tulou in the early 1980s," said Xu.

But the heyday of the houses didn't last long. "Transportation improved and bricks begun to replace earth. I haven't had a chance to build a new earthen house since 1985." he said.

Still, Xu and his fellow artisans can always find a niche for their skills. Since 2000, the provincial government has poured tens of millions of dollars into renovation and restoration to get these time-honored buildings onto the World Heritage list.

Xu himself took charge of the maintenance of the 600-year-old Jiqing Building, the oldest among the listed. The World Heritage-listed Tulou "will receive the best maintenance and conservation," said Yu Dehui, an official of Yongding County's government.

Warm in winter and cool in summer, well-drained and ventilated, Tulou could house huge extended families, with hundreds of members, in ancient times, with ancestral halls usually right in the middle of the broad open atrium.

Yongding County's Chengqilou, covering an area as big as 12 basketball courts, once sheltered more than 800 people in its 384 rooms. Nanjing County's Tianluokeng complex, four round buildings surrounding a square one along a terraced slope, shelters only Huang families.

"In the past, many family members lived under the same roof. We chatted together, helped each other and formed a harmonious community," Xu sighed. "Now, young folks have left the Tulou to live with modern facilities. Only some old-timers stay."

Tulou were also castles or fortresses. Fleeing disorder in central and northern China more than 1,000 years ago, early Tulou dwellers needed to protect themselves from hostile natives, bandits and beasts in comparatively uncivilized areas.

Partly for this reason, Tulou usually have only one gate and three or four stories. The first floor serves as kitchen and the second as storage, both without windows. From the third up are bedrooms with narrow windows, used for firing on attackers when necessary. The buildings used to have look-outs on top and secret passages underground.

"You shut the gate and the Tulou becomes a stronghold. The 268-year-old Eryilou survived a three-month siege in 1934, and mortars only knocked some clods off," said Tang Zhusong, an Hua'an County official born in Eryilou, pointing to the bullet and shell holes on the wall, which is as thick as 2.5 meters.

The Tulou were, it is said, spotted by U.S. satellites and mistaken for missile silos or nuclear devices because of their shape. True or not, the tale helped draw tourists from all over the world in the early 1980s.

"I was surprised and perplexed to see people trek through mountains and scrutinize my house inside out," recalled Lin, who owns one quarter of Zhenchenglou. It was only in 1991 that roads were paved to the grand edifice in Yongding County.

Lin was quick to seize the opportunity. He learned from tourists and became the first well-known Tulou guide.

With his strong local Hakka accent, Lin enchants listeners with the wonders of his house, the legends of his ancestors and the engraved mottos of his family. His prosperous family business sells souvenirs, lodges tourists and serves Hakka cuisine.

Still, Lin has one regret. "I've seen people from more than 30countries. They could see the beauty of the construction, yet they couldn't hear the beauty of the culture," he said. "I'll send my daughter to learn English. I hope more foreigners can fully appreciate our earth buildings."

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