In 1986, at the height of nuclear tensions between Cold War superpowers, American satellites mandated by President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative stealthily drifted above southeast China. The resulting imagery shockingly revealed what appeared to be hundreds of missile silos scattered throughout the mountain ranges of Fujian province.

Fearing an impending nuclear attack at the hands of Red China, the U.S. Secretary of Defense immediately deployed a crack unit of C.I.A. spies into the P.R.C. to investigate. They returned to the Pentagon in hysterics reporting: “Those aren’t missiles, dumbass, those are mud!”

Constructed primarily out of cylindric rammed earth with cantilevered slate rooftops, and ranging in size from 7,000 to a whopping 40,000 sq. meters, the spherical tulou villages of Fujian do uncannily resemble missile silos (others say they look like UFOs or massive magic mushrooms). And while they are arguably the most unique structures in all of China, the story behind the origin of the tulou is equally as intriguing.

Fleeing Manchu-dominated north China during the Qing dynasty, waves of Han refugees migrated to the south and settled in coastal Fujian. Hostile Cantonese locals, righteously referring to themselves as “original land” or Punti, however, did not take kindly to the new wave of outlanders and took up arms. Eventually spawning the bloody, 17th century Punti-Hakka clan wars, the territorial Cantonese drove the Hakka—a derisive name meaning “guest family”—far away from the fertile shores of the China Sea toward the inland mountain ranges. With little else to protect themselves from the natives, the resourceful Hakka constructed fortress-like structures directly from the natural elements, which proved both self-sustaining and impervious to invasion.

Hundreds of years later, the Hakka's insular way of life has resulted in a distinct Han subculture, including their own customs and language, which some have mistakenly identified as an ethnic minority, derived entirely from their tulou dwellings.

Not unlike a village, tulou are a microcosm of communal living that puts to shame any urban danwei. The clay compound's periphery orbits an open-air cobblestone courtyard that echoes with the enclosed sounds of up to a hundred families cohabitating within four stories of windowless, 10 sq. meter rooms. The Hakka are emphatic about allowing only families who share their surname to reside in their respective tulou; Mister and Missus Smith not welcome.

But for all their protective measures, the present-day Hakka are again under siege, not by unreceptive Punti or American defense secretaries, but by tourists. Structural engineers from around the globe are hot for the vernacular architecture of the tulou (meaning “earthen structure”), which despite their modest mud-and-wood infrastructure have proven to be some of the most enduring edifices ever built, withstanding centuries of earthquakes, fires, floods and, of course, marauders.

Unlike the quick rise and fall of so many of China’s modern buildings, the average tulou home takes up to five years to complete and involves complex carpentry and masonry defying even the most astute of architects. Fengshui is also factored into the tulou design, along with an aesthetic ability to blend into the surrounding countryside. The densely-concentrated Tianluokeng clusters remain the most breathtaking tulou scenic spot in Fujian, perched atop ribbon-like rice terraces sculpted out of the misty mountains.

But for history and culture buffs, the 280-year-old Heguilou are all the rage. Rectangular rather than elliptical and soaring over 21 meters, the fortified mini-city boasts an always-brimming yin yang drinking well, the waters of which are said to bless drinkers with male offspring (ancestral records verify that a majority of offspring born in Pushancun village have been he’s). “He” Guilou is, in fact, so popular with male-obsessed China that the village chief continues to combat attempted takeovers and buyouts from tourism bureaus. There’s just no rest for the Hakka.

Travel Tips

Getting There:

A majority of Southwest Fujian’s tulou earth villages are scattered about rural Nanjing and Yongding counties. From Xiamen, catch a bus to Zhangzhou, then a shuttle bus to Shuyang, where you can hire a motorcycle taxi to Tianloukeng or Heguilou.

Where to Stay and Eat:

Heguilou allows overnight visitors for ¥50, which includes a home-cooked meal and entrance fee. At Tianluokeng (entry ticket: ¥30) lodging is available in the surrounding buildings for ¥20 per night with meals also available.

Text & Photos by Tom Carter