Guardians of the past

They rise from the rice fields and bamboo groves of Kaiping County, eternal Monuments to the dynamic Cantonese spirit of home and abroad.

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Known as Diaolou, these multi-storied defensive structures were built by returning sojourners anxious to protect the wealth they earned abroad from the predations of local bandits and greedy officials. Constructed with stone, brick, concrete, and other materials, the Diaolou incorporated elements of both Cantonese and foreign architectural influence in a reflection of the cosmopolitan nature of the region.

UNESCO designated the Diaolou of Kaiping a World Heritage Site in 2007. The earliest structure recognized by UNESCO as a Diaolou is the Yinglonglou, a three-story rectangular fortress built in the mid-16th century.

Architecturally, each Diaolou is just a little bit different from the next. Some are fortified towers built to provide temporary shelter for a lineage group. Others, like the famous Li Yuan, feature extensive gardens in a large compound.

Stone buildings were seemingly dropped miraculously from some central European castle and set around classical Chinese gardens, which could rival anything found in Suzhou or Hangzhou.

Built in 1926, during the peak of the Diaolou building boom in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Li Yuan was the home of businessman Xie Weili. The son of a Cantonese emigre who had moved to California in the mid-19th century, Xie was born and grew up in the United States. The younger Xie made a considerable fortune running a chain of Chinese medicine clinics and in 1926 decided to return to his family’s ancestral home.

Like many prosperous returnees, Xie was concerned about protecting his wealth at a time when China, and Guangdong, was in a state of chaos, with local leaders unable to provide even the most basic protections for residents.

Xie used his resources to build a beautiful—and secure—home for his family. The result was an epic jumble of indigenous and international aesthetics. Stone buildings were seemingly dropped miraculously from some central European castle and set around classical Chinese gardens, which could rival anything found in Suzhou or Hangzhou.

Unfortunately, Xie Weili would not be able to enjoy his creation for very long. By the mid-1930s, the situation in China had turned from perilous to disastrous. Xie and his family fled Guangdong during the Japanese invasion of 1937, moving back to the United States where Xie remained until his death in 1973.

In addition to their role in the story of the Chinese diaspora, closer to home, the Diaolou represented the strong centripetal pull of the Cantonese family system. The organization of family groups into tight-knit and structured lineages, many with their own ancestral halls, lands, temples, and other community structures, made it possible for the construction of large-scale fortified homes and compounds.

During times of strife and turmoil, kinship groups would band together forming mutual aid societies, based on familial ties in defense of communal property. Unsurprising, then, that many of the surviving Diaolou can date their original construction to moments when the region was under well-known and specific threats, especially during the Opium Wars of 1840-1842, the Taiping War of 1851-1864, the Punti-Hakka Conflict of the mid-19th century, and the period of instability which followed the end of the imperial order in 1912.

The 20th century was also an era when many Cantonese sojourners—like Xie Weili—were returning to China laden with wealth earned abroad in places like the United States, Australia or Southeast Asia.

In the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, many of the areas where the Chinese had chosen to settle began enacting discriminatory laws against the Chinese communities in those countries. In some cases, Chinese faced restrictions on buying and owning property or were denied the right of citizenship. In other places, in particular communities in the Western United States, Chinese were forced to flee their homes and businesses to escape lynch mobs.

Coming back to China, the returnees’ wealth and international experience provided them with a certain level of social status and prestige in their lineages and communities. But that influence came with a price. Returnees were expected to make contributions to the family, and one way to do so was through the construction of Diaolou, for the protection of their kinfolk.

Today, the Diaolou are scattered throughout Kaiping County. The city of Chikan is an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding villages. It’s a typical Old Town (although most of the “ancient” structures are 20th and even 21st-century recreations). Many of the more famous and best preserved/restored Diaolou—including Xie Weili’s Li Yuan—are open to the public, administered by the local tourism board. A combination ticket costing 180 RMB will give you access to the three villages (Zili, Majianglong, and Jinjiangli), Chikan, as well as, Li Yuan.

Buses to Kaiping depart from the Guangzhou Bus Station every 30 minutes between 6:30 am – 7:30 pm and the trip takes approximately 90 minutes.