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Mary Washington comes to China, Part 1
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Fujian Earthen Houses

On my winter vacation, I had some extra days in between the end of class and the Amity winter conference in Xiamen, on the southeast coast of China. I had always wanted to see the round houses, also called earthen houses (tu lou, in Chinese) of the Hakka ethnic people of Fujian. So, I decided to take advantage of this time to do just that. I had also wanted to go to Zhangzhou, near Xiamen, to see some puppets that I had come to appreciate during my previous trips to Xiamen. So, I combined these two objectives into one trip to Zhangzhou. I stayed at Zhangzhou Teachers College, where a fellow Amity teacher works, and he helped me to hook up with a young man who teaches English at the college to be a friend and guide. We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us the 2 1/2 hours into the mountains to the location of the most picturesque of these round houses, which populate the countryside throughout Fujian Province. The village you see over my shoulder in the photo above, is made up of five of these earthen dwellings. One is square, as you can see, and another is oval; the others are round.

This scene, taken from down in the village shows the mud brick exterior, with windows only at the upper levels. From some of my reading, I learned that these were originally built for security purposes, hence the scarcity of windows. I assume they are not related to security now, but just tradition.

Here is an interior courtyard. George is sitting on the rim of the well, which is the house's source of water. You can see up to seven doorways at the ground level. These represent different families, all relatives. In fact, everyone in this village is related. They are descended from a common ancestor, from about 300 years ago. The houses are maybe 50 to 30 years old. Each family's apartment consists of a room on each of the three levels. The first floor room is the kitchen; the second floor, immediately above the first, is for storage, and the top floor, is the bedroom. There are no interior stairs, and no running water.

The red strips of paper around the door frames are traditional couplets consisting of poetic blessings evoking prosperity for the new year. The ones you see here are old, but they would have been replaced before February 1, which was the lunar new year in 2003. I visited on January 17.

These children, like children everywhere, love good entertainment. They are anticipating a puppet show to be performed later. Perhaps this is in anticipation of the upcoming lunar new year.

Each of these buildings seemed to have this primitive device for de-husking the rice. There were other devices, just as primitive, in nooks and crannies, used for various agricultural chores.

This woman is washing clothes, as you can see. Notice the circular channel that goes around the outside of the well; then, notice the channel that leads off from that. There is a deeper channel that goes around the central courtyard, and then a channel that leads all that water outside of the building.

The people are farmers, and this was much in evidence the day we were there, though many of the fields were empty of crops, since this was in January. I asked about the economy, and learned that of the 500-plus people of the village, about 40 percent live outside. The hard currency they earn and send back helps supplement the crops that are grown for the family's consumption or for sale.

Along the road, as we wound our way up the mountain, we saw a large number of these earthen houses, but none were situated in as picturesque a setting as the grouping we visited. We also saw some interesting motorcycle loads. Here are two you might find interesting. The first is, of course, a load of bananas. Banana trees could be seen lining the roads and growing in orchards. It is a major money crop. The second motorcyclist is carrying a load of Chinese hats. They make an interesting pattern. I snapped these shots out the window.

This was a great adventure. I was very happy to have realized this desire to see these homes for myself. They will eventually cease to exist, or at least will be drastically reduced, as the young people go off to school and seek more lucrative jobs in the cities, but the traditional architectural style will continue to fascinate outsiders, like myself, and from the looks of the buildings I saw, they will be around for many years yet.