Monday, April 12, 2010

福建土楼, Hakka Roundhouses

At one time, these structures viewed from satellite appeared to be threatening missile silos, at least to some wary American officials. In 2008, UNESCO designated these uniquely Hakka construction as World Heritage buildings. Though generically known as Hakka Roundhouses, not all are round but can come in oval and rectangular shapes as well as in all sizes and configurations. The generic Chinese terminology is tulou (土楼) meaning earthen buildings and is more accurate. Increasingly these buildings are considered as ecologically sound architectural gems and are drawing the attention of professional architects around the world.

Figure 1Bird's eye view of a round and square tulou

Though varied in size and shape, the tulous share certain common characteristics. The walls are made of rammed earth reinforced with bamboo strips, up to 2 meters thick at the base and gradually tapered as the wall rises to the roof, 3 to 4 stories high. Small windows begin on the third floor where inhabitants live. Most roundhouses have only one entrance, a thick solid wooden door heavily reinforced and protected by a water dousing system in the event of siege by fire.

Most of the community activity takes place in the central courtyard. Facing the entrance would be the altar to pay homage to goddess Guanyin (观音) and in the center of large tulous, there would be a community meeting hall. There would be at least one well in the courtyard and in many cases two on the east west axis, though never aligned for fengshui (风水) reasons. Abutting the sides of the meeting hall are pig pens and chicken coops, most of them no longer in use, as well as public bath facilities.

Figure 25-storied Yuchanglou from 1308 AD

Many families can live in one building, usually all related with the same surname. Every family occupies a slice of the roundhouse, from first floor to the top. Ground level is for cooking and eating. Second floor is usually for storage and to do the daily chores and the upper floors for sleeping. Obviously all social activities take place in the central courtyard.Figure 3Mahjong with kibitzers in the courtyard

The basic advantages of the Hakka buildings are low cost of construction and maintenance, the last one built in 1962 cost around $30,000, and long lasting for centuries. The buildings have proven to be earthquake proof, cool in the summer and warm in the winter.Figure 4Qiaofulou, built in 1962 for RMB 90,000

The Hakka people are Han Chinese and not a distinct ethnic minority. Through successive waves of migration from the north to south starting from the days of turmoil and strife during the Western Jin dynasty in fourth century AD, they came to remote regions of Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Hakka is derived from Cantonese for kejiaren (客家人) or guest people. Feeling like unwelcomed guests wherever they go, they devised the easy-to-defend roundhouses for their communities. Known for their diligence and hard work, many important historic personages are Hakka including Sun Yat-sen (孙中山), the father of modern China.

I first learned about the tulous from Professor Bill Brown, teaching at the Business School of Xiamen University and writes humor laden tour books on the side. Bill and his wife, Sue, have raised their two young kids into adulthood while teaching in Xiamen and developing a personal fascination for the roundhouses. I believe the Browns are prototypical of exemplary American ‘hakkas’ living in China.

It’s possible to see the Nanjing (南靖) tulous on a day trip from Xiamen, but that would be missing a lot. There are said to be 20,000 tulous in Fujian. One should at least stay overnight and see the many tulous in Yongding (永定) as well as Nanjing. The Yongding tulous are older and more varied. According to the tour guide at Yongding, the tulous of Nanjing were built by folks that migrated from Yongding.

Better go sooner than later. Along the way, we can see massive investment underway for modern hotels and entertainment centers and “disneyfication” of the scenic countryside is a real concern. The following are some of the photos taken during our visit.

The most photographed cluster is undoubtedly the Tianluokeng (田螺坑) village, nicknamed “four dishes and a soup.” The road to Nanjing leads right up to scenic view. After the obligatory photo stop, we then walked downhill to see and enter each of the buildings.Figure 5The 4 dishes, 1 soup cluster at Nanjing

This is a representative view of the upper structure of a roundhouse. Note the upper floor is cantilevered over the lower and the use of many bamboo baskets.Figure 6Upper floor of a tulou at Tianluokeng

Despite beams that were “off spec” causing as much as a 15 degree tilt from vertical, the building has withstood rain, wind and earthquakes for over 700 years.Figure 7Yuchanglou, mother of all tulous

The highlight of our visit was the opportunity to stay overnight at one of the tulous, Zhenfulou (振福楼) in the outskirts of Yongding. It was built during the turn of the 20th century; the third generation owner, Mr. Su and his family live in a two storied structure next to the tulou. We were their guests for the night. Figure 8Zhenfulou, now a museum on Hakka tulous

The grandfather made his money from tobacco, still grown in the region and built this tulou. The inside courtyard of this roundhouse is particularly elaborate, no doubt a reflection of his wealth and a more modern times. Figure 9The altar and meeting hall inside Zhenfulou

The first two floors of Zhenfulou has been converted into a museum on tulous and the Hakka culture. The area surrounding the building is being beautified and will become a future tourist destination as the heart of the Zhenfulou Scenic District.Figure 10The stream by the Zhenfulou

Figure 11Four generations of the Su family

The next morning we headed for the Hongkeng (洪坑村) village and tulou group. Right away, we can see that this cluster is all set to exploit the commercial potential of the recent World Heritage designation. There was a young lady waiting to guide us, and parking for our car was free since we were returning to have lunch at the hotel built at the entrance to the village.

The first major structure to greet us was Zhenchenglou (振成楼) and its prominently displayed World Heritage logo. A contemporary of Zhenfulou, this building has some advanced designs. Figure 12Zhenchenglou, Hongkeng village, Yongding

The owner, a Mr. Lin, had designed brick walls on the inside to mark off sections of the building and to act as fire breaks in case the wooden structure should catch on fire.Figure 13Inside view of Zhenchenglou

Another advanced design involved the way smoke was led away from the ground floor kitchen to the roof top via channels built inside the wall. Figure 14Kitchen smoke duct leading into the wall

Fuyulou (福裕楼 ) is also part of the Hongkeng cluster. This square shaped building is divided into three sections where, in a break with tradition, the youngest brother occupied the middle section while the two older brothers had the two sides.Figure 15Inside view of a square tulou

Kuijulou(奎聚楼) built in 1834 is a multileveled building more like a palace; in somewhat of a stretch, the guide said like the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Figure 16Kuijulou, Hongkeng village, Yongding

After lunch, we went to the nearby Gaobei (高北) cluster of tulous that included Chengqilou(承启楼), the “king” of tulous, with four concentric circles of buildings, four stories in the outer ring and a total of 400 rooms. Figure 17Inside view of the huge Chengqilou

In the same cluster is a very old Wuyunlou(五云楼) that looks shaky even to long time residents of tulou. Most have vacated and now only three elderly citizens have remained. We were told that they love having the run of the place.Figure 18Inside view of Wuyunlou, Yongding

A diagrammatic map of Fujian Tulou showed that there are more than 43 sites for tourists to visit, 8 of these are World Heritage sites and another dozen are designated as national treasures. So far availability of various Hakka roundhouse tours is not widely known to foreign tourists and that’s the best time to visit.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Are we losing China? Is China losing us?

The Committee of 100 just concluded their annual conference, held in San Francisco. Some significant speeches and gestures took place at this event that I will comment on in a later blog.

In the meantime, you can get one observer's point of view by going on the Andrew Ross' column in the SF Chronicle. Ross moderated one of the panel discussion and stayed to listen to other presentations dealing with US-China relations.

He also hosted and compiled brief commentaries from six disparate contributors, including Susan Shirk, who delivered the keynote speech to kick off the conference and three members of the Committee of 100. The title of this blog is the title Ross used to invite the responses in his compilation.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Famen Temple, where Buddhism meets Las Vegas

Famen Temple (法门寺) is the closest thing in China to Egypt’s discovery of King Tut's tomb. While not nearly as ancient as King Tut, the Tang dynasty treasures sealed in a vault under the pagoda at Famen also escaped the rapacious attention of tomb robbers and lain forgotten for over a thousand years. When the archeologists found the contents to tally perfectly with an inventory list, in a stone tablet found alongside, they concluded that the underground vault had not been disturbed.

The temple had a decidedly ragged history. It was the favorite place for early Tang emperors to go and pray to Buddha for bountiful harvest and a reign at peace. It then fell in disfavor during periodic anti-Buddhism movements. By Ming and Qing dynasty, being remotely located far away from any urban center, it was largely a forgotten place. At some point, lightening struck the pagoda and knocked off half of the tower.

It was not wholly forgotten, however. An old man in the nearby village, fearful of the invading Japanese troops that might break into the underground vault under the pagoda, had set himself on fire at the entrance. The resulting bad karma discouraged anyone that might have been curious.

In the 1980’s the rest of the pagoda toppled and the local authorities decided to investigate and make a determination as to whether the complex was worthy of the cost of restoration. They were thunderstruck by what they found in the sealed underground vault. They found ornaments, scepter, and vessels of silver and gold of exquisite craftsmanship, the best available during the height of Tang dynasty. These were personal tributes from Wu Zetian (武则天), the only woman emperor and arguably one of the most powerful in China’s history.

The first time I visited Famensi it was around 1995 not long after Famensi reopened as a tourist attraction. It was a long drive and took nearly a half day to get there. I remember the priceless items on display and wanted to see them again. This time, it only took one and a half hours on expressway from center of Xian in the direction of Baoji.

On approaching Famen Temple, we noticed a massive, newly built complex of gray granite and faux gold facade. From the distance, we could see a giant golden, diamond-shaped edifice at the far end of the complex. As we approached, we could see that the diamond was formed by two somewhat abstract cupping hands joined at the wrists and fingertips. Nestled in the hands was a golden temple—a giant replica of one of objects found in the base of the original pagoda.

It turned out that this new complex was the new entrance to the Famen Temple. Visitors to the temple now walk through the new building. The enormous front façade contained three main entrances whose purpose seemed to be to make the visitor feel tiny. As we walked through the lobby, we could see as yet not completed areas for future shops. We then came upon a courtyard with two huge reflecting pools complete with plastic water lily pads with sun bleached but never wilting flowers. A row of stone lions stood on the side of one pool facing a row of stone elephants on the far edge of the opposite pool.

Walking in the middle walkway between the two pools—that felt more like a causeway, we entered an airy hallway, open to the sky. On the left of the hallway, we passed a restaurant zone. On the right facing the restaurants was a hotel for overnight guests. Opened since the 2009 Olympics, we could not tell if all the facilities were ready for business.

At the end of the courtyard, we came upon a long promenade leading to the new temple crowned by the aforementioned diamond. On the two sides of the promenade were huge golden statues of various major Buddha figures. In between the statues were golden pillars with Buddhist scripture in prominent black. For those not wishing to walk the length of the promenade, rides on electric cart were available for an extra fee.

At the end of the promenade, after a flight of stairs, the visitor would enter a new temple to be greeted by four heavenly guardians and the smiling Happy Buddha, all in gold color, and then enter the main hall, in a layout that followed the traditional layout of Buddhist temples but bigger and grander. On display in front of golden stature of Sakyamuni was the holiest relic in Buddhist religion, namely the original finger bone of Prince Gautama, found among the treasures under the pagoda.

The rest of the treasures were on display at the original grounds of the Famen Temple, to the right of the new complex. The museum built to house the objects was in neo-Tang dynasty style, far less flamboyant and blended well with the newly restored pagoda and temple. The main museum building in three floors were inspired by the same golden temple resting inside the diamond on top of the new edifice. The unique items of the Famensi were now properly displayed in a building of its own.

I am certain that there will be many visitors whose object is to see the original imperial gifts from Emperor Wu and could do without the ornate granite and gold and the implied ostentation. On the other hand, it will take a long time to forget Famen Temple again.