China's Massive Earthen Fortresses Once Housed Up To 800 People

Discover the giant multistoried homes in a Chinese fortress.

Tucked in the rolling subtropical mountains of the southeast Chinese province of Fujian are a series of giant multi-storied homes built with wood and fortified with mud walls. Constructed between the 15th and 20th centuries, these massive communal homes were sited with feng shui principles and are purposefully nestled amidst tea, tobacco, and rice fields and bountiful forests of pine and bamboo.

These 46 structures are known as the Fujian Tulou. Throughout history, their residents have mostly been Hakka—migrants in southern China who originated from lands adjacent to the Yellow River. Population pressures created conflict between the Hakka and their neighbours, so they built their homes to double as fortification structures.

Walls are up to 1.5 metres thick and can reach 18 metres high. Defensive features include ironclad gates, underground escape tunnels, weapon slits underneath the dark, tiled roofs, a water well, and a backup stock of grains and livestock in the event of a lengthy conflict. The buildings, usually three to four stories, are symmetrical in their shapes—this means that in the event of a conflict, there are no blind spots.

National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita captured a bird's-eye view of the tulou, which once housed up to 800 people each, often from the same clan.

While tulou translates to “earthen building” in Chinese, the construction materials consist of far more than just mud. The foundations of the structures are composed of local river stones and the walls are made of fine sedimentary mud sourced from rice fields. The mud was reinforced with spilt bamboo, mixed with sand and lime, and then compacted with a thick staff.

While similar in layout, each tulou is unique. The Yuchang Building, built in 1308, is the oldest and tallest and known for its titled pillars, some of which lean to a sharp 15-degree angle. The Hegui Earthen Building is the largest rectangular one, clocking in at nearly 3,000 square metres. The Chengqi Building is the most massive in size, with roughly 400 rooms.
Each structure essentially doubles as a self-contained village. While the tulou are open to the public for visitation, there are still people living in them—many of whom are from the same clan. Communal living is integral to these villages, as well as equality. Each of the rooms is identical in design. The closed-wall design fosters social interaction. Although individual families have their own sections, residents congregate in the courtyard for ceremonies such as ancestor worship and weddings.

Because of the economic draw of the neighbouring cities, there’s been a significant decline of residents over the last 25 years. Today the structures that once housed thousands of people are now only home to a couple dozen permanent residents, most of them elderly. In 2008, 46 tulou (many more are scattered throughout the region) were given World Heritage status by UNESCO. The subsequent influx of tourism in the area has not only kept the buildings from falling into disarray, but has bolstered the local businesses and allowed the tulous to remain living and functional relics.


The Fujian Tulou is a series of structures dispersed across Nanjing County and Yongding County in the Fujian Province. The closest first-tier city is Xiamen and from there, bus or railway is the usual method of transportation. By bus, there’s a direct line to Hukeng Town in Yongding County. The closest railway station is the Yongding Station, where there are mini-buses that go straight to the sites.


Most visitors allocate just half a day for touring the buildings. For an immersive experience, some of the more famous tulous offer homestay options, complete with Hakka cuisine.


Fujian has moderate temperature fluctuations and can be visited year-round. March through August is the rainy season and typhoons tend to touch down towards the latter half of summer. September through December is the dry season, which is generally the best time to visit.

Lead Image: The Fujian Tulou are nestled amidst the subtropical mountains of southeast China. PHOTOGRAPH BY KEREN SU, GETTY IMAGES

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