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In China, life in a round fortress is for holdouts

TIANZHONG, China – From the sky, some are shaped like doughnuts. Others take the form of squares and ovals. The structures are so strange and fantastic that American intelligence officers analyzing satellite images during the Cold War initially suspected they were missile silos or part of a nuclear complex.

Seen from the ground here in southeastern China, though, it’s clear these fortresses – with thick walls and a single, heavily fortified entrance – were designed not for offense, but for defense. And they’re hardly modern technology.

Since the 12th century, the Hakka and Minnan people in Fujian province have concealed and protected themselves inside tulou, rammed-earth apartment complexes lined with wood-framed rooms facing a communal courtyard. Each clan would build its own tulou over a period of years; some are small, housing only a few dozen people, others can hold more than 500.

Traditionally, everyone living in the tulou would share a family name, with the building providing both a haven from bandits and a sense of community.

But that’s unraveling. Amid rising incomes and expectations, residents – especially young couples with children – are abandoning the tulou way of life.

They’re building boxy concrete homes with more privacy and modern amenities such as indoor plumbing and air conditioning, emptying some tulou entirely and turning others into de facto senior citizens’ homes.

“China’s traditional tulou will eventually become museums, maybe even within the next generation,” said Fang Yong, a professor at Peking University’s School of Archaeology and Museology who has studied the structures extensively. “They’re inconvenient and cannot satisfy the demands of contemporary people.”

In 2008, UNESCO listed 46 of the most spectacular tulou on the World Heritage List. The United Nations designation has brought a wave of tourists to this largely agricultural region, where residents now hawk tea, tobacco, herbs and handicrafts to urban visitors, or charging them about $1 to poke their heads into their homes.

But academics, preservation groups and residents say the clock is ticking on tulou as living, breathing communities.

Figuring out a way to preserve both the physical structures and the intangible cultural and social heritage imbued in buildings inhabited by sprawling clans over centuries is a major challenge.

Five years ago, the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund initiated a tulou preservation project, but its efforts stalled amid a dearth of strong local partners. The organization hopes to revive the effort next year.

“The ideal situation is to have people still live in them, but how do you convince people to live in a five-story mud house?” said Vincent Michael, the group’s executive director. “It doesn’t have as much cachet these days.”

A spray of lime green and tangerine fireworks whistled over Tianzhong on a brisk Saturday night last month, fired into the sky by a local family celebrating its move into modernity.

A few hundred feet uphill from the pyrotechnic show that celebrated construction of the village’s newest house, Huang Maoyou, 67, and Xiao Dashi, 73, cling to the simple life in their 400-year-old tulou. They’re the only residents left in the two-story building, which has more than a dozen rooms.

Many tulou proudly bear appellations over their doorways such as Dragon’s Den or Five Phoenixes, but the entryway of the aging couple’s home is adorned with a smiling portrait of Mao Zedong. The sun has bleached the chairman’s once-red sun halo to a faint shade of peach.

Just inside the threshold of the fortress, a rough-hewn timber and stone gristmill is covered with dust. In the cobblestoned courtyard, Huang drew water from a well lined with green fern fronds and put a kettle on her outdoor stove. A group of foreigners on a bicycle tour had dropped by, and Xiao was eager to pour them some local tea from his pink Mickey Mouse thermos.

“My sons and daughter have all moved to the city, but I can’t stand to live there,” said Xiao, who refuses money from his visitors. “I can’t read, and I prefer to stay here and work in the fields.”