Kaiping Diaolou: China’s 1,800 Fortified Watchtowers

watchtower1Photo: kevinpoh

Every man has the right to defend his home, but sometimes the neighbourhood can be so bad that people need to act together for more effective defence. In such cases those involved may feel that their best defence is to create places where they can make a stand against the bad guys. In parts of China, less then a century ago, just such a thing happened.

tower1Photo: Kevin Poh

These strange buildings are known as the Chinese Fortified Towers, or Diaolou, and are to be found in the Chinese province of Kaiping. Over 3,000 were built in the 1920s and ’30s by Chinese immigrants as they returned from places like the USA, Canada, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Over 1,800 of them still stand to this day, and part of the area has been declared a World Heritage Site. They are located in the villages of Sanmenli, Zili Village & the Fang Clan Watch Tower, Majianlong Village Cluster and Jinjiangli Village.

watchtower3Photo: Aaron Lee

During the Ming Dynasty period of Chinese history, between 1368-1643, the Kaiping area was constantly beset by bandits and natural disasters, especially floods. To protect themselves in future, people starting building multi-storey towers – the diaolou, which helped to provide protection. Although some were used as schools, or storerooms, the diaolou’s primary purposes were housing and defence.

tower4Photo: Kevin Poh

Upper floors acted as living quarters, while lower floors were mainly for defence, with walls much thicker and stronger than normal houses, making it almost impossible for bandits to break through, or to set alight. Windows were also kept smaller, protected by grills of iron bars or by iron shutters. Main entrances to these towers were protected on the outside by an iron gate and on the inside by an iron door. Both doors and windows could be shut at a moment’s notice, rendering the tower an enclosed and easily defensible structure, able to resist any attack from the outside, even with firearms.

tower3Photo: Kevin Poh

On the four corners of the roofs, there tended to be constructions jutting out from the buildings. These formed forming totally or partially enclosed corner turrets – locally known as ‘Swallows’ Nests’. these had loop-holes facing outwards and firing ports facing downwards, so that missiles could be rained down on attackers. Further loop-holes provided on each floor increased the places from which those inside could launch attacks on those outside.

watchtower4Photo: Pacuel1er

These defensive structures made a huge difference to the lives of villagers here, and they began to find a return to feelings of normalcy and security as time went by. The World Heritage Site that exists here today gives the modern visitor real glimpses into a past that we now find hard to imagine.

watchtower2Photo: Kounosu

Those who lived and worked here suffered incredible hardship and yet they battled through it. This truly is a place worth visiting, where history seems to come to life within the Diaolou, with strong, silent reminders of a time when everyday living required a lot of courage. What a wonderful place this is.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

My sincere thanks to China.org for the use of one image, and to Kevin Poh for allowing me to use another.