Deserted villages around Kaiping, abandoned diaolou / 开平周围的无人村,荒废的碉楼

If you follow my blog, you know that I like historical ruins a lot, much more than unfinished and abandoned buildings. I also love finding buildings with an interesting architecture, especially the ones combining Chinese and Western architectural styles, such as Republican-era buildings in Beijing and Shanghai. But there are other fascinating forms of mixed-style architecture in the southern parts of China. Yesterday, I rode a bicycle with Gui around Kaiping city, in Guangdong province, to appreciate from a closer point of view the many « diaolou » in surrounding towns and villages. Dialou is a military term which means watchtower or fort with more than one storey.

A unique combination of Chinese and Western architecture, revealing a special regional tradition

Abandoned watchtower, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

The diaolou were built between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th by émigré Kaiping inhabitants (who emigrated to North America, Southeast Asia and Australia) in order to protect their home villages during a chaotic time. When they returned home, they held a very high degree of social prestige and their architecture shows the socialization to another culture. The diaolou built by those wealthy families are unequaly distributed around Kaiping county. They also have various structures and forms. Some were made out of stone, others of rammed earth or even of reinforced concrete1. Not only were they a symbol of wealth, they also played an important defensive role in the history of those villages when the region was politically unstable and when the local authorities were unable to guarantee the people’s safety. But nowadays, almost no watchtower is inhabited. Most of them are used as storage space or to raise chickens.

Chikan Film City, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

Abandoned diaolou in deserted villages

Some villages have been protected since 2001 as part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. There, the diaolou have become a very valuable asset for the local inhabitants and for the local growth. But other villages are still losing their population. As for the diaolou in those deserted villages, many are in ruins. Here are some pictures I took during this short trip. I could go inside some watchtowers. But most of them were locked. In any case, the most interesting part is their general architecture, and this should be admired from outside, as there is a global harmony between the buildings and their natural environment. There are still many villages to explore, so I might update this report later.

Watchtower, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

This watchtower has been abandoned for at least 20 years. It is completely overgrown and one must walk in a jungle to find it. But it was possible to go inside.

Residential compound of diaolou in the jungle, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

One can appreciate traces of its delicate decorations on the walls.

Around the main door, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

There were still a few elements of the past inside.

Ancestral shrine, Kaiping area, Feb 2017
Leftover suitcases, Kaiping area, Feb 2016
Broken chair, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

The houses around it had no roof and doors and windows were just holes.

Ruined house, Kaiping area, Feb 2017
Former main room of the house, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

In another village, there were many abandoned diaolou altogether, next to some farmlands.

Several abandoned diaolou, Kaiping area, Feb 2017
Ruined house, Kaiping area, Feb 2017
Diaolou facade, Kaiping area, Feb 2017
Facade of a diaolou, Kaiping area, Feb 2017
Door detail, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

Finally, last but not least, there was a beautiful school, but unfortunately, it was quite hard to go inside.

Abandoned school, Kaiping area, Feb 2017
Abandoned school, Kaiping area, Feb 2017

The diaolou buildings display a unique fusion of Western and Chinese historical elements, and their diversity makes a trip to this area worth it, both for landscape lovers and for ruin lovers.

If you like historical ruins with Chinese and Western styles, you can read about Beijing’s most famous haunted house or about Shanghai’s Shamei Mansion.

If you like abandoned villages, you can read my report about abandoned yaodong in Shanxi province.

  1. See Patricia R.S. Batto, « The Diaolou of Kaiping (1842-1937): buildings for dangerous times », China Perspectives, n°66, 2006.

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