Site History and Significance
Fortified Manor Complexes
The mountainous region of Yongtai, in China’s Fujian Province, preserves a large collection of fortified manors known as zhuangzhai. Each of them was built to house—and protect—the members of an extended community, most often sited along a river, typically climbing up a slope that was easy to defend. Behind thick earthen walls that often contained defensive towers, these complexes enclosed hundreds of rooms, arranged around a main hall where the memory of the clan’s ancestors could be honored. They are a built reflection of the need for collective defense and of the importance of family ties in social life, consistent with the principles of Neo-Confucianism.
Records of Local History Over Centuries
This highly forested region of southern China gave rise to an economy based on the exploitation of the products of the forest, which covers more than forty percent of Fujian’s land area. The family archives preserved in the fortified manors contain important evidence about local history over many centuries, including records of land transactions and clues to the functioning of local military institutions. But in recent decades, the decline of the forest economy has led to unprecedented social change, including a shift away from the clan system and a weakening of the traditional function of zhuangzhai. Nevertheless, even as people choose to live in single-family homes of modern construction, traditional attachments survive, as seen in the ceremonies and rituals that continue to take place in the ancestral halls of clan houses.
Exploring New Models for Sustainable Development
Today, 152 fortified manors have been identified across an expansive territory, and yet more may be abandoned or in ruins. Their family custodians have organized in an effort to revitalize local life by investing in local history and culture. Thanks to their efforts, five examples of zhuangzhai recently received national-level heritage designation, while an additional eighteen have been designated at the provincial level.
Now aided by heritage experts from Beijing’s Cultural Heritage Conservation Center, current efforts are focused on three structures of the Huang family, built between 1860 and 1905, seeking to explore new models for sustainable development in the region. The tulou typology that can be found in the southwest of Fujian Province, as well as in Guangdong and Jiangxi, provides both an example and a cautionary tale: the 2008 inscription of Fujian’s Tulou on the World Heritage List has brought rising visitor numbers and new revenue to their custodians, alongside concerns about the museumification of local life and culture.
2022 World Monuments Watch
The 2022 World Monuments Watch supports the efforts to recover the zhuangzhai heritage while seeking to revitalize the traditional forest economy, with new branding for local products, as way to diversify an economic model based only on tourism.
Through the World Monuments Watch, WMF collaborates with local partners to design and implement targeted conservation programs—including advocacy, planning, education, and physical interventions in the historic built environment—to improve human well-being through cultural heritage preservation.
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