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    The Man Restoring Eastern China’s Iconic Circular Homes

    In the face of government inaction, one individual is empowering locals to return their ‘tulou’ homes to former glory.

    In Lin Lusheng’s childhood years, the expansive courtyard in the middle of his towering circular home was a world in itself, a place where he whiled away the hours playing with the children next door and swimming in the pond. 

    Now 34 years old, Lin has returned to his childhood home in eastern China’s Fujian province to restore it to its former glory. The building is one of the province’s legendary tulou, round structures built with clay and soil that encircle a central courtyard. The unique doughnut-like buildings, which house multiple homes, were the structures of choice for the Hakka people — ethnic Han people who speak the Hakka language — when they fled northern China over a millennium ago, and the buildings have been intimately associated with the region’s architecture ever since. 

    However, generations of wind and rain have left many tulou around Fujian with collapsed roofs and buckling walls. The situation has been compounded by the lack of attention from local authorities, despite the fact that the centuries-old tulou are a significant draw for tourists to the area. 

    Since the 1990s, the dilapidation of tulou has caused an exodus of residents, who have either moved to other homes or built their own properties from scratch. According to Lin’s own estimates, more than half of the homes within his tulou — known locally as the Taoshu Building — in Neilong Village now lie empty. Those who choose to stay are mostly the financially limited elderly and young children — a phenomenon ubiquitous among rural communities around the country. 

    Lin is seeking to halt, and even reverse, the exodus of tulou residents. Having raised money for the project through crowdfunding, he has begun restoring Taoshu Building, ultimately aiming to reinvigorate the sense of community by hosting educational programs for locals inside.

    Lin is in a good position to take on such a project, having been involved for more than a decade in philanthropic efforts that took him from his base in Beijing to villages around the country, working on educational programs for children. Not long ago, he decided that his childhood village demanded his attention. “My heart belongs to the countryside, especially to the Fujian tulou where I grew up,” he says as he makes his way to the Taoshu Building to join the lunar new year festivities. 

    Out of Fujian’s more than 3,000 tulou, only a few dozen have been awarded the status of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Along with that status, the 46 buildings chosen for the award — mostly larger tulou located in Nanjing and Yongding counties in the south of Fujian — promptly won the attention of local authorities and were restored and developed into top tourism attractions. 

    For the region’s less imposing tulou, however, preservation has fallen to individuals like Lin. Lin’s childhood tulou may be the largest in his village, but with just 30 households inside, it is still a dwarf compared to the 800-person tulou that enjoy UNESCO protection. 

    In late 2015, after raising 100,000 yuan ($14,527) through donations on mobile payment platform Alipay, grants from nonprofit organization Raleigh China, and villagers themselves, Lin initiated a project he’s called “Hao Cuobian” — a local Hokkien dialect word meaning “good neighbors.” Beginning with the restoration of the Taoshu Building, the project aims to expand to other tulou in the region, eliciting the support and participation of locals in each village.

    When Lin first approached his fellow villagers at the end of 2015, not all were convinced that he was financially able to repair their broken houses — after all, not even the government seemed to have the capacity to help. It wasn’t until he shipped all of the construction materials to the village that residents began to change their minds. “We realized he wasn’t joking,” remembers 25-year-old villager Lin Yulin, who lives in a conventional house in Neilong, where — like in many Chinese villages — almost all locals share the same surname, though they are not necessarily related by blood.  

    Having raised the necessary funds, Lin Lusheng mined his personal networks to find architects who could design renovation plans for the Taoshu Building. Restoration of the roof and walls began at the end of 2015 and was completed in June 2016; Lin Lusheng estimates that the building won’t need further renovations for another 50 years. 

    But the physical repairs are just the beginning of the “good neighbors” project. Lin Lusheng’s ultimate aim is to return the tulou to their former status as cultural and social hubs within each village. 

    Faced with waning student attendance and faculty numbers, China began shutting down village schools in 2001 and redirecting students and staff to larger schools. Neilong Primary School, which Lin Lusheng attended as a child, has faced the same attendance issues: It currently has only seven students and one teacher, who gives lessons in Chinese and mathematics.

    “Without the preservation of cultural education, cultural life in the countryside is becoming increasingly barren,” says Lin Lusheng, who believes that a lack of educational resources has fueled problems like gambling and smoking among the village’s young residents. 

    To counter this behavior, Lin Lusheng is building an extracurricular private school within the Taoshu Building. He is calling the new institution a shuyuan — a type of academy popular in ancient China, at which scholars taught and studied literary classics. 

    Lin Lusheng has managed to raise 120,000 yuan online for the Taoshu Building shuyuan. After its completion in April, volunteers will give lessons on various subjects including architecture, art, and filmmaking — all grounded in the region’s local culture which has seen waning interest and pride among villagers, says Lin: “I hope the shuyuan can provide a cultural atmosphere in which villagers can study their own culture and eventually be proud of it.” 

    While construction of the shuyuan — which will use the building’s vacant homes as classrooms, student dormitories, and cafeterias — is underway, Lin Lusheng is turning his attention to other areas of Fujian. Earlier this year, he was invited by officials in Nanjing County, where many of the province’s flagship UNESCO-protected tulou are located, to discuss the possibility of replicating the project. 

    Lin Lusheng is more than happy to spread the model around Fujian, but he thinks it’s unlikely that the government’s interest will translate into hard cash. “We don’t want to rely on the government anyway,” he says. “Residents should be the essential protectors of the tulou.”

    The project’s successes so far suggest that there is sufficient interest among villagers to self-organize, with one chat group set up by Lin Lusheng on messaging app WeChat providing a platform for some 175 members to discuss their own tulou renovation projects inspired by the “good neighbors” initiative. 

    Lin Lusheng has divided the enthusiastic villagers into two groups: One consists of senior villagers who handle the finances of each project, while the other mainly comprises younger villagers who are responsible for hosting volunteers and coordinating the shuyuan’s educational programs.

    The project has been a blessing for those who have chosen to remain in the Taoshu Building. Lin Yaokun has lived there all his life, tolerating the incessant leaking with his wife while his neighbors packed up in search of better housing. “It’s a priceless treasure in my eyes,” the 60-year-old says, adding that his home has been handed down from generation to generation.

    “I’m so grateful that the child I watched grow up has now come forward and taken action to repair and protect the tulou,” the elderly man says, referring to Lin Lusheng. “Tulou are a rare relic. They’ll never be built again.”

    (Header image: Sino Images/VCG)