Spread throughout Sichuan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region, 250 stone towers rise above the trees of southwest China. These monumental structures were built from a combination of cut stone, brick, and timber, and appear in several forms: square, polygonal, and star-shaped (with 5, 6, 10, 12, or 13 points). There is no existing documentation of the creation or function of the towers, so their role in the region’s history remains a mystery. Chinese and Tibetan scholars have surmised that they were erected between A.D. 200 and 1400 and used as storage, defensive posts, status symbols, and beacons. The towers have survived mostly intact despite centuries of earthquakes because of an earthquake-proofing method employed in their construction: wood planks and beams were interspersed between the stones to absorb the force. This practice is unique to the region and can still be seen today. Through the decades, several of the towers have been subject to vandalism and insensitive reuse, while others have been neglected completely. Many are without roofs, allowing rainwater to enter and destabilize the soil surrounding the foundations.
2006 World Monuments Watch
The Stone Towers of Southwest China were placed on the 2006 Watch list. Prior to their nomination, the towers were largely unknown, even to experts within China. Although conservation appeared difficult because the towers are so spread out, it was hoped that Watch listing would bring support from the local authorities. WMF provided a grant for a pilot project: the repair and preservation of 14 towers, in Danba, Daofu, and Kanding counties. The plan included the reconstruction of the collapsed western side of Zi Mo Tower, the only star-shaped tower with 13 points. Local workers used traditional methods for the project, which was overseen by an architect from the area.
The stone towers are located in provinces that are home to several of China’s minority ethnic groups, many of whom do not have written histories. Because of the dearth of information about the region’s past, the physical presence of the stone towers is crucial evidence that a civilization thrived there. Examining these structures could provide otherwise unavailable clues to these cultures. The conservation of the towers will invite tourism, which will improve the region’s economy and support its current inhabitants.