Ancient guardians

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 12:00am

Jiangmen's fascinating watchtowers provide a look at the surrounding countryside and a glimpse of a bygone era

The famed watchtowers of Jiangmen served as crude protection against bandits and floods during the chaos of the early 20th century. Now, though, they crop up at the strangest places, lonely reminders of a bygone era that serve as intriguing tourist attractions. They rise above the rooftops of urban centres, peak out from behind the hilltops, stand proud and alone in the middle of rice paddies and hide behind veils of bamboo.

Some watchtowers date back hundreds of years, but most were built in the early decades of the last century by returning locals who had made their fortunes overseas. The once impoverished landscape around Jiangmen began to enjoy the trappings of prosperity following the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, and this attracted an increasing number of bandits to the region. Meanwhile, decades of neglect of the infrastructure had led to an increasing problem with floods.

As a result, villagers began building ever taller and sturdier structures ? some as permanent homes, others to be used only in times of calamity. Entire families or even villages could huddle inside, taking refuge in the upper floors while doors and windows were boarded up with heavy metal shutters. In the event of a bandit attack, men could take potshots through holes in the walls and drop things from balconies on higher floors.

Watchtowers can be found in many parts of China, but nowhere offers a greater concentration of them than the countryside surrounding Jiangmen. And nowhere in Jiangmen are there more of them than in Kaiping municipality. More than 1,800 of the 3,000 or so that were built are still standing, but most of them are unoccupied.

A selective list of Kaiping?s most interesting villages and watchtowers is on the following page.