Chinese villager’s nostalgia for communal living sparks revamp project for unique roundhouses of southeast China

Forty-six doughnut-shaped roundhouses in Fujian have been awarded Unesco World Heritage status, but roughly 3,000 others are in a state of decay. One returnee is now trying to revive his childhood home and community

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 8:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 3:34pm

Lin Lusheng has fond memories of growing up in a tulou, one of the traditional circular buildings peculiar to southeastern China that house dozens of families in homes centred around an inner courtyard.

“As my parents went up the mountains to cultivate the land, I was free to go to the neighbours’ home to play with other children, or to eat at their place. They treated me like their own child,” Lin, 36, says.

Inside Fujian’s Unesco-listed Hakka roundhouses

Tulou are usually associated with Hakka clans who originated in northern China and began migrating south around 1,000 years ago. While the name Hakka means “guest people”, they were not always welcome in the places they settled, and their round, or square, inward-looking buildings, with a single doorway to the outside, served as protection against hostile forces.

Tulou, meaning “earthen house”, are built with thick mud walls and feature overhanging eaves.

Hundreds of people from the same clan could live in a single tulou, which were often regarded as “a little kingdom for the family”. Behind their walls, a communal lifestyle thrived that promoted strong ties among the inhabitants.

The architectural style was also adopted by non-Hakka groups, and nowadays Han Chinese including Lin and the other residents of Neilong village live in similar buildings.

The village, tucked among hills and rice paddy fields in the southern part of Fujian province, in southeast China, is dominated by the Taoshu tulou, which appears on the surface to have changed very little since Lin’s childhood.

There used to be more than 200 people living in the tulou, but now there are only a few dozen residents left.
Lin Lusheng

Chickens cluck idly in the streets, dusty red lanterns and auspicious banners hang from battered wooden doors, and fading Cultural Revolution slogans can still be seen on some of the walls.

The number of people living in the doughnut-shaped tulou, which was once the lifeline of this rural community, has been dwindling for years, as young people have left Neilong village in search of opportunities in China’s rapidly developing coastal cities.

“There used to be more than 200 people living in the tulou, but now there are only a few dozen residents left,” says Lin.

Lin decided to go in the opposite direction. After spending years studying and working for NGOs in Beijing and other parts of China, he returned to his home village determined to preserve the communal lifestyle that revolves around the tulou.

At the end of 2015, Lin founded the non-profit Good Neighbourhood project with the aim of revitalising communities and to stop the haemorrhaging of residents from the tulou of Neilong and nearby Wailong village.

The project, supported by several Chinese charities, including the Alibaba Foundation (of Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post), employs five full-time workers, and counts on the support of more than 50 “very active” local volunteers.

“If projects [devised by] outsiders don’t earn the support of local villagers, they will fail,” says Lin, when we visit the village with other guests at the end of June.

Ancient Chinese villages ‘rotting away’ for lack of money

The Good Neighbourhood project’s first goals included repairing some of the old homes inside the Neilong and Wailong tulou, and turning some abandoned dwellings into a library and kindergarten.

“When we arrived, the exterior wall [of the tulou] was seriously damaged. Wooden beams had been eaten away by bugs, and the roofs of most residents´ homes were leaking,” says Lin Weicheng, an architect who helped with the renewal works when the organisation was getting started.

“Most of the villagers had no experience in maintenance work and they had to learn about the reparation techniques of traditional buildings.”

In 2008, 46 tulou built between the 15th and 20th centuries in Fujian province were declared Unesco World Heritage Sites, helping to boost tourism and preservation efforts.

The long and winding road back to a proud Chinese heritage

But most of the 3,000 remaining – in Fujian, Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces – have not been so fortunate. Some are quickly deteriorating as families increasingly move out.

“If the building is not occupied, it will easily collapse. Only residents can know if the structural strength has been weakened; if the roof is leaking … The life of the building depends to a large extent on the lives of the people in it,” Lin Weicheng says.

The Good Neighbourhood project also aims to provide new opportunities for residents in the area, so they do not feel they are forced to abandon their lifestyle and the tulou.

The initiative aims to attract groups of children from other parts of the country to enjoy life in the countryside for a few weeks and learn more about rural living. According to Lin Lusheng, more than 100 children have already taken part in short-term stays in Neilong and Wailong.

The activity has become a much-needed source of revenue for the villagers, and has created new ties between local communities and families from elsewhere in the country.

“Sometimes the visiting children become very close with their friends in the village, and a few of them have come back to visit with their parents,” says Lin, who has a master’s degree in social welfare management from the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University.

At the same time, the volunteers and workers have been offering a kindergarten service, and weekend and holiday activities, to more than 200 children still living in both villages, says Lin.

Lin shows us two buildings in Neilong that are being turned into a dormitory for volunteer teachers, and a new education facility on the outskirts of the village.

It’s hoped that the programme will keep expanding to help local farmers to “develop a sustainable livelihood”.

Local residents explain that they were “very moved” when outsiders stepped in to help them, and soon decided to participate in the project.

“We thought, ‘If strangers can come to help us, why can’t we help ourselves?’” says Lin Chamei, a 28-year-old volunteer from the village.

Lin Lusheng explains that, at first, it was difficult to convince local residents to participate in the project, as many “didn’t feel confident about their abilities”.

“One of the volunteers was reluctant to start teaching in the nursery because she had no formal preparation, but we encouraged her. It was a success, and she even ended up receiving some training from Fujian Normal University,” says Lin.

Fujian cuisine’s rich, diverse and distinct varieties

Another volunteer, Zhang Jiaofeng, recalls how local people started supporting the project once they saw what was being achieved.

Can a programme like this lead to a transformation in the region? “Villagers and grass-roots cadres from neighbouring villages often visit and exchange information. The experience will definitely inspire them to work in their respective villages, as they all face common problems,” says Lin.

As the group of guests sip local tea and eat home-made tofu and rural specialities at the Taoshu tulou gate, Lin explains to them his vision to conserve the village lifestyle.

“We don’t need to become very rich, we are satisfied with covering our basic needs. As long as more visitors come to the area, we can achieve that,” he says.

The audience might have just had a first taste of tulou hospitality, but they all seem to agree that it is a cause worth fighting for.

Additional reporting by Zhang Qian