On a day that promised both rain and heat I traveled to the countryside. The further away from the city, the more verdant the landscape. Hills turned into majestic mountains and we wound our way up and up and up. Deep inside Fujian's coal country I went to meet one of my students, Lakers, and spend the day with his family who are Haaka.
Most Chinese can trace their roots back to the Han. The Haaka people are a distant cousin. Some refer to them as the gypsies of China, others the Guest People. They are known for their music and agricultural skills. They are also known for the Tulou.
It is estimated there are 2,000 living Tulou in China. A vast majority of them can be found in the south west corner of the Fujian provence. Like medieval fortresses of Europe, the Tulou were built to protect their in habitants. They are incredible earthen structures that are built to protect entire extended families from the neighbors who did not welcome their arrival.
The Tulou are earthen structures. Clay and bamboo are among the materials used in their construction. Over the centuries they have proven to be earthquake proof as well as cool in summer and warm in winter. Up to six stories high, the bottom floor is used for cooking, communal areas and keeping livestock when under siege. The floors immediately above is where stores are kept. Upper floors are reserved for family residences, each having a view of the magnificent surroundings. Hundreds of families were able to live together in the larger Tulous. When one got over crowded, another would be built nearby.
Often the Haaka were forced to live in the most inhospitablele places, but they made them verdant and productive. Rice, oolong tea, persimmons are among their crops. They immigrated here from the northwest of China, slowly. They would find a spot and then be forced to move on by war and or famine.
Haaka customs were unfamiliar to those they moved near, women often taking a role in decision making and working with the crops. They often communicated from one mountain topped field to another through song. Even at the height of foot binding, Haaka women did take part. The result was they were often considered unsuitable by any men who were not Haaka.
The Hakka people are known to socialize over food. In fact my arrival was marked by a grand lunch and departure a rousing and festive dinner. Their cuisine is simple and flavorful. Texture takes an important role in the meal. Preserved vegetables, legumes and meats feature in Hakka cooking. Food most often stewed and braised. The menu most often reflects what is most readily available. Of everything I tried my favorite were Haaka Dumplings. A minced meat center surrounded by a taro and sweet potato dough.
Rice paddy's, fields of taro, fruit trees that blossom throughout the year, racks of drying beans, ducks and chickens roaming free and a brook stocked with fish, even a brewery; the villages of Tulou are self sufficient. Everywhere you turn the lush green springs life to food.
The insurgencies and wars if the 19th and 20th century called many Haaka men to service. And while the Haaka still live in the south western corner of Fujian many continued to move on bringing their customs and cuisines to distant parts all over the globe. Today the heads of state throughout southern Asia can trace their roots back these places.
While many still live in the Tulou and the architecture is taking on new life as the inspiration for afforable housing in China; the Haaka of today are doing what they have always done, moving forward in search of life's treasures all the while respecting the legacy of what went before them.
A day or so after returning to Jimei, Lakers asked me if I had enjoyed myself among his people, this is what I told him;
"I intended to see the Tulou alone, and then your hospitality meant I did not need to, which was so much better! I can not believe a trip to the great wall (the worlds largest graveyard) would be as magnificent as enjoying the heritage of your people. I am humbled by the experience. In the Tulou and with your people, I believe that life is filled with possibilities and hope! I can not thank you enough."
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Photo Credit: Julie Cecchini