19 July 2010

The Fortified Towers of Kaiping

The rambling villages of Kaiping are generally unremarkable until you come across a diaolou. Rising up from the small villages like the proverbial sore thumbs, these century old fortified towers are a reminder of a significantly more dangerous times for the villagers.

This county in the province of Guangdong has a history of banditry as well as more recent political turmoil  These towers that dot the landscpape are now protected by the government.

However Chinese they seem, however, they are a combination of a variety of architectural forms with a very interesting history.

The name itself even comes from a combination, of two Chinese characters. Diao means stone and lou mean tower and there is a second meaning for diao which has a rather more interesting history.

It can also mean to throw and it seems the root goes back in time to when a woman threw herself off a cliff rather than tell local bandits where her husband was, as they wished to kidnap him.

Whether this is a true story or not the words when conjoined ultimately came to be a military term for a watch tower, or indeed a place where troops could shelter while they were guarding land. Their relative modernity, when concrete was available to build higher than ever before, leads to some interesting choices by their architects. Columns in the Roman and Greek manner, arches with a Mediterranean them. There are domes that echo the mosques of Turkey. It is quite unexpected in this now peaceful countryside but we shall see why shortly.

Although the architecture would indicate European influences, the diaolou go back to the sixteenth century. However, the building of these remarkable structures reached a peak in the first two decades of the twentieth century when there were over three thousand of them. Even today there are over 1800.

What perhaps is surprising is how this mix of styles reposes in harmony with the surrounding landscape.

The Diaolou were a response in the Ming period to the banditry which plagues the area, although all extent towers were built in the Qing period which lasted from 1644 – 1912 and the several decades after. Although they were mostly used to protect the villagers from bandits, some of them were designed to be lived in permanently. Some were used simply as watch towers, meaning that there are three distinct form of Diaolou to be found in Kaiping county.

What is perhaps most surprising is that these towers are not of the result of European influence in China but rather the cultural impact that the buildings of the western world had on those who had emigrated from Kaiping to America and then later returned. Kaiping and the other three counties around it represented the bulk (in terms of population) of Chinese emigrants to the US. Many returned and fused the local architectural tradition of the diaolou with those they had seen abroad. Other influences nod towards the journeys of the Kaiping people to places such as Hong Kong and Malaysia.

The strong but rather plain diaolou were constructed very close to a village. In times of banditry, each family would be allowed in to the tower (they usually had their own room) as long as they had paid towards the construction and upkeep of this communal defense. An example is below.

The more beautifully constructed the more likely that these diaolou were built by a single family for protection in times of strife and, quite simply, for showing off their wealth in more peaceful times. Certainly, the often well preserved interiors are something to behold.

The flamboyant style of many of these towers show that the synthesis between the Chinese and western styles was something which was adopted in a relaxed and confident way. The more modern of the diaolou, which make up the majority, are often abandoned but this means that their states are unaltered from their original purpose. Others have been renovated to shelter twenty first century inhabitants.

In 2001 the Chinese government designated the diaolou as protected so they are no longer going to be reused for modern dwellings. No large conservation efforts have been made as generally the towers are well preserved but minor repairs are carefully done. It would, though, be a shame if the wonderful views were to ever disappear.

Additional Image Credit
Map of Kaiping in China - Wikimedia