The “lost world” of Yongding, in China

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There is a region of China that once knew how to capture the attention of the United States from space with its circular constructions that are repeated for thousands and kilometers. An area where the way of life of its inhabitants reached a degree of harmony with the environment sustained for centuries, in an organization in family clans where there were no hierarchy distinctions.

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yongding It is a county in the province of Fujian that resembles a “lost world” for the mere fact of preserving with few changes a culture, traditions and constructive forms that even today would surprise any foreign visitor. yongding It is an area inhabited by ethnic groups like the hakkawho, among other skills, built circular or square residential buildings in a walled layout with a hyper-functional design, sharing a sustainable way of life among clans, with houses sheltered from the wind, bright, ventilated and capable of generating a microclimate inside.

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Interestingly, the scattered circular shapes in the Yongding County region baffled the United States in early cold war spying raids via satellite imagery.

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Speculation about the discovery of thousands of buildings like rings triggered hypotheses that ranged from secret military installations to nuclear technology development bases. However, Hakka communities or ‘apartments’ pre-dated the Cold War escalation by several centuries.

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The inaccessibility of the area for the Western world, preserved almost unknown the elements and features that distinguish the culture of the Hakka ethnic group, especially its organization around the “apartments” called Tolou. The Tolou (or tulou) are housing communities (circular or square), which can have up to five floors, and contain a number of 80 families, as well as spaces for warehouses, water wells, living areas, community libraries and waste processing areas. The spatial organization is as functional as it is planned: all the inhabitants share common spaces and feel part of a community that lives in tune with its environment and in a sustainable way. Evidently it has worked for several centuries.

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The Tulou are built on mud structures, so they could be translated as “earth structures”. These types of rural dwellings are abundant in the mountainous areas of southeastern Fujian, which is why they are also known as Fujian Tulou. Although most are circular, there are others with a square shape. Some of the most emblematic sets were recognized as World Heritage Sites. And reasons are not lacking, as can be seen in the Tianluokeng Tulou setone of the most recognized sets of this type of community, located near the city of Zhangzhou:

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Characteristics of a Tulou

The architectural concept of the Tulou is based on the Chinese tradition of housing closed to the outside, a kind of wall with houses and a common courtyard in the center with a room for ancestral worship and ceremonial functions. The walls served as a defensive method, especially between the 12th and 19th centuries, when armed bandits besieged much of southern China.

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The outer walls were thicker at the bottom, and resisted attacks with simple weapons, or more sophisticated. In more recent years (1934), some Tulou resisted numerous cannon fire from the army in times of riots. Of course, the door was the weakest and most fragile side.

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coexistence

As interesting as its morphology is the community coexistence system. The tulou were homes for a community of equals, therefore, their architecture does not reflect any type of social hierarchy. All the rooms were built with the same size and with the same quality of materials, the exterior decoration has the same style of windows and doors. The Tulous were occupied by a family clan for several generations, although some had more than one family clan inside.

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Each room was assigned to a clan member according to the male branch of the family: each son was considered as one of the branches. The tasks within the community also rotated temporarily in each of the branches of the family. Sharing the same roof symbolized unity and protection from the entire clan. The tulous environment functioned and still functions as a communal farm.

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When a clan grew to exceed the spaces of a tulou, a new outer concentric ring was added, or simply, a new cluster-shaped tulou was built, and the clans continued together.

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Most of the Tulou surround a central sanctuary with their circular shape.

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UNESCO declares the Tulou as a World Heritage Site, precisely because it is an exceptional example of a constructive and functional tradition that is a model of community life and defensive organization, in harmonious relationship with the environment.

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Today, many of the Hakka clans move to new, modern homes with greater comforts, following the trend of leaving the rural areas of China. However, they keep their ancestral homes and return on special occasions, for family gatherings or parties.

The circular Tulou buildings are scattered in the mountains of Fujian province. Many times, they are accessible via winding mountain roads. Some towns, such as Tsuchi, are ideal places to observe the Tulou, as are areas near the city of Nanjing.

Information in Fujian Tulou

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