A discussion formed in Yongding county, southwest Fujian province, China.
By Mark Ikin
It has become apparent that our lives are dictated by convenience, and furthermore by the want of yet more. Indeed many, if not most, companies in development depend on our desires to continue their growth by producing more convenient products. Perhaps the companies themselves, via media, are responsible for our yearning of anything that promises to make our lives easier, faster, more comfortable… more convenient.
But are our lives becoming better with each new convenience bestowed upon us? Are the gadgets, the machines, even the availability of seasonal fruit at any time of the year, the low cost of subsidised or processed foods, the ability to travel long distances quickly (actually I do love the convenience of planes) making our lives better? In some respects of course; for example, life expectancy is longer – at least in the developed world, and that’s the important thing, right? (If you agree with that statement, you are the problem). Yet is that longer life better, or still full of suffering as the Buddhist might have you believe? And this is not about the stuff we can afford now, in the developed world everything and anything can be squeezed into the living spaces of the masses. We fill our houses with the latest appliances, furniture, ornaments – most definitely a flat screen TV, whether it’s LCD or plasma. Do you ever look around at all the stuff you’ve accumulated? If you do, does it make you happy, is life better with all that stuff?
In 1987 the Dead Kennedys – a punk rock group from California – named one of their albums ‘Give me convenience, or give me death’, ironically it was somewhat a best of album and so convenient because all the best songs now came packaged together. America is, of course, the leader in convenient lifestyles – anyone who has visited a suburban shopping mall has witnessed the effect of the available conveniences. Liberty for Americans was no longer a concern (as perhaps the media has made it again since 9/11), and most people at the time wanted a more convenient life, indeed believed they deserved it. However, one cannot pigeonhole the Americans and the convenient way of life, we have all rushed to embrace it. [Recently I read a story from Hong Kong where a 10 year-old girl came home to find the dinner her mother had cooked was not to her satisfaction, it was an inconvenience. She threatened to jump out the window to her death, if her mother didn’t cook something else. Extreme, yes, but our idea of perceived convenience, or our own seemingly inconvenient lives are driving us to absurd, if not too dissimilar, actions].
Oil is the backbone of one of man’s great conveniences, the motorcar. Coal is another, firing the power stations that enables us to burn bulbs and type preachy little articles on our computers. Mobile phones that incorporate just about everything from cameras to bar code readers (what are they for anyway, can you check the price of things at the grocery store – yes I am possibly an ignoramus, but do you know?) and miniature televisions are currently the ultimate convenience. Seemingly each time a new model arrives, which is often, they have something else that will make our lives complete – a GPS, for God’s sake who uses a GPS in their daily lives. Of course we’ve almost used all the oil, causing massive pollution in doing so. We’re burning through the coal too, billowing carbon into the atmosphere and, if we believe anything we read, causing irreparable damage to our atmosphere that will change the world as we know it; or not, but in many places the air is absolutely horrible to breathe, the sky is less blue (if it’s blue at all), and people get sick. [There are people that believe the effects of burning of fossil fuels is blown out of proportion, I implore you, if you are one, to visit China, particularly Shanghai or Beijing.] But we couldn’t live without it all, could we? We may find out sooner rather than later – but that’s something else entirely.
[By the way, do mobile phones still cause cancer? We don’t hear about that much anymore, if at all. At one time, when only rich people had them, we heard about the hazards of mobile phone use all the time. I had an uncle who had a mobile phone, years before they were common - the big chunky shoe kind I guess. He carried it around on his belt just near his hip. It was the same spot that the first tumour was removed from. Of course the cancer, like most not detected early, spread. It spread and he died of a brain tumour. But no one seems to ask the question anymore, “Is this safe?” The perceived, and actual convenience of the mobile phone is undeniable, even if just to hook up with friends at the shopping mall, but is that convenience causing us harm? And doesn’t it seem that people have a lot to say these days, but again I digress.]
In southwest Fujian province is Yongding County. In this and surrounding areas, there are many (20 -30, 000 I’ve read) beautiful buildings called tulou. Tulou are dwellings built by the Hakka people that can accommodate whole communities. The Hakka are themselves a branch of the Han (the majority of Chinese), however with their own distinct language and culture, who came to this southern part of China over 1000 years ago. Hakka, which means ‘guest people’, must not have felt too welcome, because they built the tulou; which resemble a fortress, and were definitely meant to keep others out. The tulou have thick outer walls, which are packed with earth, wood, bamboo and apparently even rice, and are most commonly built in circular or rectangular shapes. Inside, a central courtyard is surrounded by wooden flooring, up to 5 stories high. There can be literally hundreds of rooms, and up to 800 people can be accommodated in just one tulou. There is often only one entrance, and with a well for water and livestock enclosed in the tulou, it was possible to shut the gate for long periods if the unwelcome feeling prevailed.
Recently I stayed overnight in a tulou. It seemed authentic too. Upon entering I realized what a large structure they really are – indeed the pentagon thought they’d found missile silos more than 30 years ago when looking at satellite photos of the area. Unfortunately not many Hakka were living in the tulou anymore, only a handful of people in what could accommodate hundreds. Interestingly one of the inhabitants was Japanese; a student from Tokyo named Hiroshi who was studying the Hakka. He told me that the tulou was over 500 years old, before pointing out how each level had a different use; the first was for cooking and eating; the second for storage of food; the third and higher for living and sleeping.
This tulou had 4 floors. My room, on the top floor, was basic, and I don’t mean it only had one shower and an old style box television! Inside were two beds – hard as rock, or wood actually, because that is exactly what they were – a small table and 2 stools. Fortunately electricity had been hooked up and thus a bare light bulb hung from exposed wire. It was, actually, enough. Outside the room was a large pot half full of liquid, which didn’t smell. I say didn’t smell because this was were I could urinate during the night should I need to, so that liquid was…
When I asked Hiroshi why the tulou was so empty, he explained that people were moving out – not just this one but many tulou – because the tulou weren’t modern and lacked modern conveniences. I asked where they have moved, if it was to the cities to make money. “No”, he said, “across the road”. Across the road were what could be described as modern buildings in China – concrete and tile – that had showers, toilets and electricity for appliances. They are ugly, but convenient – the type of building springing up all over the country. The electricity in our room was recent, installed in the past 6 months, since Hiroshi had arrived; and quite low wattage I found out during the evening when I thought about reading.
I asked Hiroshi about a missing section of the building. He explained that the tulou were sectioned, and each family would live in one section. Between sections were firewalls, to contain a fire should one start. The missing section had burnt down and never been rebuilt. The fire was a small worry for Hiroshi; the entire flooring was wooden, and our rooms – Hiroshi was living in the room next to the one I was occupying – were about as far from the gate, the one and only gate, as was possible inside the tulou. A fire exit, now that would be convenient, I thought.
Many of the tulou I saw had indeed connected up to the electricity grid. In one tulou, as I wandered around sticking my nose into peoples lives, I peered into an open doorway to see a young girl and her grandmother watching television together. Hiroshi’s concern about the potential fire hazard was highlighted one evening as I left my room. Once I turned off my light it was pitch black. No light, not in the rickety stairwell, or along the path to the designated exit. A roaring fire may offer some light, however even my torch didn’t prevent my missing the first step. I stopped myself from tumbling down the steps by digging my knuckles into the earthen wall, which eroded a piece of history but continued my own. It wasn’t as though I was in a hurry, however, although still relatively early I needed to take care of a few things across the road, and quickly, because another notable fact of tulou life was that the gate, was shut and locked at 8pm.
The reason I needed to go across the road was because of another particularity of the tulou. There was no toilet as such, and no shower. To use either I would need to leave the tulou and walk down a dirt path, cross a bridge, up a dirt path on the other side before crossing the road and entering the building 4 shops up. Once I was through the quasi-restaurant I would hope that the one facility on offer wasn’t occupied. In truth it wasn’t that far away (unless you needed to poo!), but it certainly wasn’t convenient. Before the convenient buildings across the road went up I presume the farmland and surrounding countryside was the toilet. The small bridge I crossed was above a stream which, although now full of trash, was probably once a clean place to wash. Indeed women still washed clothing there; I watched them briefly pounding the clothing on the rocks before rinsing the suds directly in the running water. I watched, not because it was quaint or sentimental to good times gone by – the water must’ve been freezing as it was winter and the air was frigid – but because earlier as I’d squatted at the hotel toilet a washing machine sloshed and churned just 2 feet away. This contrast made me appreciate the idea of convenience for many of those that have moved across the road. Nonetheless, many tulou now offered accommodation to the growing number of local tourists visiting the region, so not only electricity but bathrooms, at least toilets, must be adopted by the tulou.
Living ‘across the road’ is convenient for other reasons as well. Virtually every building here was a restaurant, or a shopfront; usually offering rooms above, with attached facilities I guessed. Stepping outside meant standing on the curb, where the buses passed, and stopped, it was easy for the owners to solicit hungry visitors. A short walk from the village was the must-see cluster of buildings called Hongkeng. The famous Zhencheng tulou was located here, as were many other tulou and two waterwheels – which were pretty even though it was hard to ascertain if they were added when the village was revamped. Around lunchtime it seemed that every tourist bus in Fujian province had to make a lunch stop on this road, just barely wide enough for two buses to pass one another, when hungry hordes would descend before or after visiting to the cluster.
At the particularly attractive, and possibly most visited, cluster known as Tianluokeng however food, drinks, and souvenirs are offered whilst tourists look around and inside the tulou. This cluster has 4 circular (one of which is oval shaped) tulou surrounding a rectangular tulou, and rather than leave their home, the Hakka that live here have conveniently set up businesses in the courtyards. And far from being kitsch, it was enjoyable to sit and drink local cha (green tea) whilst watching children playing, locals chatting over a smoke and the community of the tulou living. No one could deny those living in the tulou a right to set up a stall; when thousands visit daily it just makes good sense.
The area where the tulou are scattered is big. I was conveniently shown the main sites by a friendly motorbike driver. Sitting on the back of his bike, the country air blowing through my unrestrained hair, his straw helmet (and hence my lack of one) perched directly in front of me I thought of all the conveniences that tourism would bring. The lives of the Hakka would definitely benefit; it has already changed dramatically for many, and quickly. However it may be a shame when the fast food outlets and convenience stores that plague so many places invade and deny the Hakka their customer base. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tulou now empty or below capacity, began to fill up again. Many have stood for hundreds of years, outlasting earthquakes and attacks, and will last well beyond the buildings ‘across the road’. In China many buildings have been and are being demolished to make way for modern, convenient, ignoble buildings; the hutong of Beijing, the old mud-brick city in Kashgar are but two examples. The tulou were built to last, and the addition of a few modern conveniences would mesh past and present perfectly.
Convenience is good, however we need to be pragmatic in our demand for it. The allure of more convenience needs to be assessed in order to determine what we could lose, what may be destroyed, and where ultimately we, as a race, are going. It would be a shame if the tulou were deserted and left to rot in exchange for imagined modernization; better to merge the two, for we cannot deny convenience to the developing world. Likewise it would be a shame to keep pressing for more, for better, for easier, and to let the very air we breathe be polluted, the plants and animals we share this planet with perish, leaving a legacy that nothing can live with. We all need to find a way to unite the so called antiquated and modern to ensure continued existence for all. Give me convenience, but not in lieu of life.