To look at the massive earthen structure known as a tulou from above is to see a perfect circle tucked into the verdant, subtropical hills of China’s Fujian Province. While this image may conjure up nothing more than faint curiosity from someone today, it created quite a different impression upon those viewing grainy satellite images of them in the midst of the Cold War. Upon seeing thousands of the circular structures hidden away in the Chinese countryside in 1985, those in the U.S. intelligence community could not help but note their striking similarity to missile silos, believing the entirety of the thousand-plus network of buildings to be a sprawling nuclear base. To get a closer look, two representatives of the New York Institute of Photography were sent for a tour of China with one of their stops conveniently being to see the tulous. The images they brought back with them and presented to the CIA must have garnered some level of amusement from those suspecting a nuclear base for the tulous were anything but, the equivalent of suspecting a child’s flashlight to be a planet-destroying laser; the two were simply unrelated.
Our experience with the tulous fell under less suspicious circumstances, though our curiosity about them must have certainly been on par with those first foreign visitors nearly thirty years prior. As our tuk tuk rattled up to the entrance of Chuxi village, one of the many housing the tulous, we happily paid our driver the minuscule fee for the half hour ride and began making our way toward the centuries-old structures that gave the sleepy agricultural villages their fame.
Though we could never recall when exactly it occurred, at some point on our walk into the village we all of a sudden felt as if we had become unattached to the modern world. To our left, an untouched forest climbed out of sight into the punishing glare of the sun, a deafening cacophony of insect noises emanating from its core. To our right, a gurgling stream haphazardly made its way around different rocks and bends, occasionally bursting to life in the form of a small waterfall before quickly returning to a trickle. As we neared the village, a Shire-esque scene unfolded before us. Dominating it were the otherworldly tulous standing formidably over a patchwork of overflowing gardens that covered the landscape. Villagers meandered about, some in an aimless manner suggesting that not only were they not in a hurry to get where they were going, but also that they had no real destination in mind; and others in a more purposeful manner as they busily carried large buckets of water from one garden to the next. It was then that we realized that it wasn’t just the tulous that attracted a steady stream of tourists to the villages, but also the way of life that they helped preserve. It is one thing to escape modernity on a secluded mountain top, it is an entirely other experience to escape it amidst a community of people.
This feeling would follow us to Yuqinglou, one of the three round tulous in the village and our place of residence for the next two nights. Upon passing through the massive front door, we were greeted by a charming, yet noticeably oft-rehearsed tea ceremony where we sipped the local tea, chatted with the residents, and learned that this particular tulou dated back to the 1700s. After finishing our tea we were led to our room up two flights of wooden stairs whose sturdiness was put into question due to the cartoonish creaking they emitted under the weight of each step.
Upon entering our room we were rather surprised to find that, despite booking a private room, we already had a roommate in the form of a spider the size of our hand that moved at the speed of vampire as with each blink we would find it had moved several feet across the room. Well accustomed to smashing giant spiders in hotel rooms on previous trips, I decided that my desire to appear courageous had reached its limit and I promptly summoned one of the tulou residents to help. In a hum drum manner, she cornered the spider, sprayed poison in its direction, and then watched nonchalantly as it scurried by her feet and under the bed. After this, she looked at us in a manner that suggested an, “Okay, all done” attitude and seemed slightly surprised when we asked to be moved to another room. Any misguided comfort we took in the idea that our new room would be comparatively less spidery was squashed as the corpse of one blew out from behind a table as we closed the curtains.
Eager to escape the confines of our room, we headed down to a separate building where the tulou owners cooked dinner for the guests. Upon telling the cook that we only wanted vegetable dishes, he went back into the kitchen and brought back handfuls of different kinds of vegetables that looked as if they had just been picked that day as they were still covered in dirt (we could only imagine what would have happened had we opted for meat!). After nodding in agreement with the choices before us, he returned to the kitchen and shortly after was presenting us with our dinner, a truly farm to table experience. Travel weary, we inhaled the food before reluctantly returning to our room where we would pass the night without the luxury of sleep due to the waking nightmare of spiders lurking in the darkness.
While not technologically advanced like the nuclear base they were expected to be, the tulous were still architectural marvels in and of themselves. Built from nothing more than mud, bamboo and stone, they have withstood centuries of natural disasters, political turmoil, and the wear and tear of generation after generation of families living in them. The walls, which can be up to six feet thick, are so strong that during a peasant uprising in one village, the Chinese army fired 19 cannon shots at a tulou only to barely make a dent in its walls. The twentieth shot, they had apparently decided, would have been just as useless as the previous 19. This level of protection proved handy for the tulou’s residents who, when traveling armies of bandits would rummage through the countryside to sack villages, would simply shut the front door and be fairly certain that the bandits would grow weary of trying to penetrate the impenetrable and move on. Each one was essentially a castle with all of the resources that the several hundred residents inside would need to survive existing within the walls. As we groggily rolled out of bed the next morning, our only thought was that we wished they had figured out a way to keep the spiders out.
Happy to ditch our room and explore the village, we quickly perked up as we exited into the courtyard. Gazing around the tulou’s interior had a dizzying effect as our eyes made loops around the encircling corridors whose charming wooden build was always worth making it back around for another look. Hanging from the eaves of each floor were tattered lanterns whose trademark redness had been reduced to a faint pink; we couldn’t imagine them having ever looked new. Equally time worn baskets hung from the balconies along with bundles of drying herbs and spices. One could spend an entire day just admiring and exploring the tulou’s interior we thought, an idea furthered by the cool, breezy corridor we were standing in.
After leaving the tulou, our first order of business for the day was to climb an outlying hill to get an aerial perspective of the village. A short climb led us to a small pavilion where we took in sweeping views of the village and the forests and hills that encased it. The tulous, whose yellowish tone added to their otherworldly aura, appeared synonymous with the surrounding landscape of mountains, forests and terraced fields. We could scantly imagine one without the other.
Looking closer, we noticed that village life was carrying on much in the same way as it had done the day before. As we watched the motorbikes and people make their way around the village we had the sensation of looking down on a miniature toy set, feeling as if we could almost reach down and pick up one of the people or vehicles moving about. After toying with this idea for what felt like hours, we decided to upend it by going into the village itself and gaining a more realistic perspective into the features we had been examining from above.
As we walked through the streets, the feeling of timelessness dominated our thoughts. Apart from the occasional trait of modernity that came in the form of a new car driving past or a satellite dish perched outside a tulou window, we imagined that there would be no real difference between a photograph taken now compared to a black and white one from a century earlier. Tattered signs desperately clung to building walls, remnants of Mao existed in faded portraits adorning the front door of some residences, and equally worn looking villagers sat in courtyards chattering amongst themselves before being interrupted by long contemplative pauses as they re-examined their surroundings.
The trace of youth was few and far between. Young children could be found running about, some sheepishly approaching us to practice their pronunciation of “hello,” and one afternoon we stumbled across a couple of teenagers playing basketball, chickens scurrying about their feet as they played, but the village was dominated and in essence run by people who looked as if they were enjoying the twilight years of life rather than the prime of it. Perhaps this was one of the biggest purveyors of the sense of timelessness that we felt. The village was stuck, not in an image of today but rather the manifestation of the older villagers’ memory of a time decades earlier. Whatever doom this spelled for the village’s future, it did make for quite a unique experience for us during the time we spent there, a feeling that would sadly end as we climbed in a car the next morning to take us back to Xiamen and away from the slow village life that we had so adored.