Hakka Houses

Hakka-speaking people moved south from north central China in a series of waves, probably to escape invading barbarians. They were not received hospitably by their new neighbors. So the Hakka learned to build walled communal houses called tulou that were, effectively, fortresses.

Tulou cluster at Tianluokeng, Construction began in 1796. The square building at center was burned by bandits in 1936 and later rebuilt. The round buildings have three stories with 26 rooms each. [all photos on this page are from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise tagged.]

Tulou cluster at Tianluokeng, Construction began in 1796. The square building at center was burned by bandits in 1936 and later rebuilt. The round buildings have three stories with 26 rooms each. [all photos on this page are from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise tagged.]

A typical Hakka house/village is round, from 15 to 75 meters in diameter, with a rammed earth wall a meter thick. There is only one doorway, carved from a single block of granite, that may enclose two thick wooden doors, designed to be fire-resistant. Originally there were no windows to the outside except rifle slits, but some buildings now have windows.

The five-story tulou of Youchanglou. Cannon could be mounted in the upper embrasures.

The five-story tulou of Youchanglou. Cannon could be mounted in the upper embrasures.

Inside the enclosure there is usually a water supply — a well or spring — and storage space for food and supplies. The central open area often contains a temple or a public gathering space.

Inside the tulou of Youchanglou. The tier supports were cut to the wrong length so had to be installed at an angle -- zigzag fashion. This tulou was constructed in the 1300s.

Inside the tulou of Youchanglou. The tier supports were cut to the wrong length so had to be installed at an angle — zigzag fashion. This tulou was constructed in the 1300s.

Rooms line the wall, opening onto an outside platform. Tulous are three to five stories tall. Families usually occupy a vertical tier of rooms, from ground to the building top. Wealthy families or clans may own several adjacent tiers.

Chuxi tulou cluster. The largest building, called Juqinglou, was constructed in 1419.

Chuxi tulou cluster. The largest building, called Juqinglou, was constructed in 1419.

The Hakka language is believed by some to be a very old version of Chinese, but Hakka history is very difficult to elucidate. The earliest migrations may have taken place after the collapse of the second Han dynasty in the 3rd Century, or they may have come a century or several centuries later. There may have been three great migratory waves; there may have been five.The Hakka share the same Han DNA as their southern neighbors but there seems to have been little effort to assimilate nor much interest by southern Chinese in having them do so.

Interior of Juqinglou. There are four stories withy 53 rooms each and 72 staircases. A second one story ring is constructed inside the outer stories.

Interior of Juqinglou. There are four stories withy 53 rooms each and 72 staircases. A second one story ring is constructed inside the outer stories.

Probably the most brutal Hakka war was against the Punti, or Cantonese-speaking people, around the Pearl River in southeast China in the mid-19th Century. The Manchu Qing dynasty was facing foreign takeover and internal revolt. The Taiping Rebellion that broke out in 1851, was led by a Hakka but other groups, including Cantonese, joined in to fight the Han-Manchu regime. By the time the war ended in 1864 somewhere between 20 and 40 million people were dead. The Hakka-Punti War was a sideshow of this event killing a million or so people between 1855 and 1867. During this latter period, some Hakka fought alongside imperial armies to put down Punti revolts, such as the Red Turban Rebellion. Once the Taiping Rebellion was contained, the Punti and Hakka were forcibly separated into separate enclaves.

Three rings nested inside the wall of Chengqilou, built 1709. The outer ring has four stories of 72 rooms each. The first inner ring has two stories with 40 rooms each. The one-story second inner ring was used as a community library and has 32 rooms. The final inner ring is an ancestral temple.

Three rings nested inside the wall of Chengqilou, built 1709. The outer ring has four stories of 72 rooms each. The first inner ring has two stories with 40 rooms each. The one-story second inner ring was used as a community library and has 32 rooms. The final inner ring encloses an ancestral temple.

Today there are an estimated 60 million Hakka speakers around the world. A number of these — 3 – 5 million — live in Taiwan. Not only does Taiwanese Hakka differ from the several dialects used on the mainland, there are five dialects spoken on the island. Efforts to aid the Hakka in preserving their language have had little real success. Other groups, such as the Hakka in Malaysia, are merging into the general mass of overseas Chinese. “An ethnic group dies out when its language is no longer spoken.” If true, then the Hakka will disappear in a few generations.

Exterior of Chengqilou.

Exterior of Chengqilou.

Meanwhile, many Hakka tulous, especially in Fujian, have been designated as World Cultural Sites by the UN, so should be standing long after the culture that built them has gone.

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