Several weeks ago I travelled to Fujian Province on a school trip with our Year 6 and 7 students. This was a trip organised by The Hutong, a company that specialises in organising educational trips throughout China, who happen to be exceptionally good at what they do.
I have to say, despite being a self-proclaimed geography and history buff, I didn’t know much about Fujian Province. Located in south-east China, close to Taiwan, it happens to be where much of the Chinese overseas diaspora originate from. It’s a historically outward looking place, in a historically inward looking country.
Xiamen is probably the best known city in Fujian, a bustling port city of lord knows how many million people. Known as the gateway to Fujian, it was where we started our trip.
It is home to Gulangyu, an island situated just off the main Xiamen Island, which, we were told, was apparently the wealthiest square mile on earth a little over one hundred years ago. The entire island is a maze of former consulates and grand colonial era buildings from a bygone age. Today however, it’s been turned into a modern-day Chinese tourist attraction. It was pleasant enough, but like everything in modern China, it just wasn’t that inspiring. I think the crowds had something to do with it!
After a day of activities in Xiamen we headed out into the countryside, this was where things got interesting. The setting was beautifully serene, and we would be staying in traditional houses, called tulous. These huge buildings are hundreds of years old and nestled deep in the mountains of Fujian.
Some of these remarkable structures have been immaculately preserved and are now protected historical buildings, others have already crumbled, some (but increasingly less) are still inhabited by local families, as they have been for centuries.
Traditionally, up to one hundred families would live in a tulou (often referred to in English as roundhouses). Historically, people came here primarily to seek safety and shelter from the turmoil of more densely populated areas elsewhere in China. With their high, sturdy walls, and lack of windows on the lower-levels, they were easy to defend, and became relative safe havens from bandits.
As China has changed over the last three decades, many local people have abandoned the tulous for more modern and convenient apartments in the cities. But not everybody.
As we explored these areas it became apparent the traditional way of life is slowly dying out. But it hasn’t yet died out. There were moments during our trip, in villages we visited, where we felt we had walked into a different era.
For one of their projects, our students were tasked with interviewing local people, and given a project akin to Humans of New York, called Humans of the Tulou, set by our inspiring trip leader, Bruce. They were tasked with speaking to some local people, and asking them in essence, about their life. The overwhelming majority of people we spoke to were aged over 85 years old, and had some extraordinary stories to tell.
There was one lady, aged 90, who we interviewed, who was now the last person living in her tulou. When she moved in 72 years ago, to marry her husband, there were over seventy families here. Now it was just her. Everybody else had either moved out or died out, whilst her tulou crumbled around her. She had never left the local area, and assumed that we (four caucasian male school teachers) were from Xiamen, the closest major city. It was an utterly astounding moment, one I am unlikely to ever forget.
Many of the local people we spoke to seemed thrilled to have such an interest taken in them. In many ways, they reminded me of my beloved Nana, of the same generation and age, but of an entirely different world. They loved telling their life story to the children, and answering their questions, just like my Nana did to me.
Walking through the villages, we saw many of the older buildings were daubed in graffiti. This is a hangover and legacy of China’s turbulent recent history. The graffiti turned out to be Communist slogans and propaganda, dating from the Cultural Revolution, we were told. This particular slogan reads “Hooray for Chairman Mao”. Hooray indeed.
Perhaps strangest of all, were the portraits of Chairman Mao painted onto the walls outside people’s houses, which continue to be lived in. This was also a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, during which residents would have images of Mao drawn onto their houses as part of their efforts to keep the Red Guards out.
China’s recent history is a tragic combination of the baffling, bizarre and barbaric. The more I hear and read about the Cultural Revolution, the more I shake my head in a mixture of disbelief and utter revulsion. Below is my (failed) attempt at doing a Mao salute (it turns out there isn’t one really and it ended up more Superman / Black Panther than Mao).
China can be a cold place at times, as a foreigner you can be looked upon with suspicion, treated with contempt, and not always made to feel particularly welcome.
Local people here spoke the Minnan dialect, a separate language from Mandarin. The warmth in which we were received by the Minnan people throughout the trip was unique to many of us. for we had never been made to feel so welcome in China before.
I particularly like the picture below of a lovely elderly couple who invited us into their house for tea one morning. If you look closely, you will notice the portrait of Chairman Mao in the background, with the poster of the big red Ferrari next to it on the wall. Oh China…
Rural Fujian was a stunning place, and it was a wonderful privilege to meet the people we met, in the twilight years of their simple, yet remarkable lives, during a period of such unprecedented and monumental change, and to see their way of life, as it was and continues to be, before it’s lost to the modern world forever.