Kaiping Diaolou and Villages - CNTO
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Kaiping Diaolou and Villages

Kaiping Diaolou and Villages

About Kaiping Diaolou

During the Ming Dynasty [1368-1643], the area now know as Kaiping, was badly ravaged by bandits and natural disasters, especially floods. Some villages decided to protect themselves against bandits and flood by building multi-storey towers, i.e. Diaolou. In more recent times, Diaolou became a truly standard architectural feature of the villages of Kaiping. It provided protection against bandits and flood. Although some were used as schools, or storerooms, the Diaolou’s primary purposes were housing and defence.

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The upper floors were used as residences, with the lower floors designed with defence in mind. The walls were much thicker and stronger than the walls of ordinary residences, making it impossible for bandits to break through, or set them on fire. The windows of Diaolou are, for similar reasons, smaller than those of ordinary residences, and are protected by grills of iron bars or by iron shutters. The main entrance is protected on the outside by an iron gate and on the inside by an iron door. The doors and windows could, at any moment, be shut, to make the entire Diaolou an enclosed and shut-in defensible space, able to resist any attack from the outside, even an attack with firearms. Diaolou tend to have, on the four corners of the roof terrace, constructions which jut out from the building, forming totally or partially enclosed corner turrets (note: these are called locally “Swallows’ Nests”).

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The turrets have loop-holes facing outwards and firing ports facing downwards, that could be used to fire-on enemies entering the village. In addition, further loop-holes were provided on each floor of the Diaolou, to increase the places from which those inside could attack those outside.

Some rich families, to avoid problems of bandits hiding out and waiting for the cover of darkness to attack, would go into the towers every evening. These families would improve the defence capability of the Diaolou, while at the same time, ensure that everything necessary for a convenient and comfortable life was for inside the tower. It made it suitable for everyday use.

Taking into account their facilities and use, the Kaiping Diaolou can be divided into three broad categories: communal, residential, and watch towers. 

39e1) Communal towers were built at the rear of the village they served. Every village family, or every family from a certain section of the village, would contribute funds towards the construction costs of the tower. Every contributing family would then get a tiny room inside, to use as a temporary refuge should there be a problem of bandits or flood. These towers were built defensible and strong, but simple, with few decorations. Of the three categories of Diaolou, the communal towers are the oldest. They comprise about 26% of the Kaiping Diaolou. 

2) Residential towers also tended to be built at the rear of the villages. They were built by a rich family acting on its own. They combine the two main purposes of the Diaolou - residential and defensive - in an excellent way. Such towers were spacious and lofty, with rooms that interconnect. They were fitted out in a comparatively luxurious fashion, to make them convenient as living spaces. Styles of construction of such towers are numerous, and they were built with an eye to beauty and effect with much exterior decoration. To a basic design with adequate defensibility, details are added to make a beautiful and eye-catching ensemble, making them landmarks in the village. Residential towers are the largest category of Diaolou, comprising about 62% of the Kaiping Dialou. 

3) Watch towers were mostly built at the entrances to villages or else outside the villages, on the summits of hills, or on river-banks. They were built high and slender with broad sight-lines over the adjacent countryside. Mostly they were fitted out with searchlights and warning siren systems, so that they could spot quickly and easily any irruption of bandits, and warn the nearby villages. They were a necessary defensive structure for these surrounding villages. Watch towers were the last type of tower to be built. They comprise about 12% of the Kaiping Diaolou.

39fTaking the construction materials and methods into consideration, the Kaiping Diaolou can be divided into four types: those built of stone, those built of pounded earth [pisé], those built of brick, and those built of reinforced concrete.

1) Stone towers are the least frequently found. Most were built on knolls in hilly regions. Their walls were mostly built of cut-stone laid in courses, although some were built with natural field-stones. The stones were fixed in place with lime mortar. The inner floors of such towers were made with wooden planking and timber beams with most of them having roofs of a traditional Chinese gabled form. They tend to be built in a rather crude fashion. Stone towers represent about 0.5% of the total.

2) Pounded earth [pisé] towers are found mostly in hilly areas. They are a development of the ancient Chinese construction technique using earth pounded within planked frameworks. They mostly use clay, ashes, and pebbles or gravel, with crude sugar, and glutinous rice paste, mixed together to form the construction material. All these ingredients were mixed together, to form a material which could then be used for the construction. Pounded earth towers comprise about 5.6% of the Diaolou.

3) Brick towers are found in both hilly and flat-land areas. They use three types of brick: red bricks fired from local earths in the Ming period, blue bricks fired from local earths in the Qing and early republican periods, and recently made and imported red bricks. Brick towers comprise about 13.6% of the Diaolou.

4) Reinforced concrete towers are the most common. The concrete-slabs of these Diaolou are usually reinforced with “H” shaped iron girders, or iron bars. Floors are mostly of reinforced-concrete. Kaiping Diaolou built of concrete are the most numerous, comprising 80.4% of the total. 

The early twentieth century was the peak period for construction of Kaiping Diaolou. During this period the upper parts of the Diaolou were built with rich and ostentatious decoration. People vied with each other to import construction materials from overseas to make ever more lofty towers, ever higher ceilings, ever more lavish and beautiful decorations, and ever more columns with embellished inscriptions. With every face of every tower – built different and with a careful eye to the effect produced. In the construction of the upper parts, we can find some built with verandahs, some with terraces, some with retiring-pavilions, some with domes, some again with arches or castellation – every form possible to be built in concrete can be seen.

In a few cases, the builder of a Kaiping Diaolou brought the designs back from overseas in the form of plans drawn up on paper, or they used professional architects practicing in Hong Kong or Guangzhou [Canton]. However, most of the Diaolou were designed by local builders in the villages. Overseas Chinese (see point 2.b) came home to their ancestral village with pictures, drawings, or photographs of architectural details or decorations which had caught their fancy, and these, combined with the local vernacular building traditions, formed the inspiration for the local designers. 

The building of the Kaiping Diaolou and village villas mark the earliest significant adoption of Western methods of construction, advanced constructional techniques, and building materials in Chinese farming communities.

Note: Text are cited from the Application Dossier of Kaiping Diaolou and Villages, which was presented to UNESCO's World Heritage Center in 2006