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Diaolou of Kaiping

With new found wealth earned in Europe, returning expat Chinese built Diaolou as romanticized medieval towers over the warlord-stricken countryside of early 20th century Kaiping. The fortified Diaolou display of wealth and force served as rallying point for the larger ancestral community.

Series of Dialou towers in a vegetated landscape.
Diaolou were funded by expat Chinese looking to protect their families and villages in a period of unrest called the Warlord Era, in the 1920s and 1930s. Photo courtesy of Xiquinho Silva via Flickr

The Pearl River Delta, which runs from the then British colony of Hong Kong to the Portuguese colony of Macau, was the access point for Europeans into mainland China. Starting in the late seventeenth century, trade with Imperial China was centralized through Canton, later renamed Guangzhou, a port city on the Pearl River. Kaiping, west of the Pearl River Delta, was affected by this influx of trade with many rural villagers moving either to the city or abroad for economic opportunity. Some of the earliest Diaolou were plain, multi-storied towers, built as places of refuge from both bandits and the frequent heavy floods brought on by typhoon rains. Widespread construction of Diaolou in the 1920s and 1930s explored more eccentric styles and were funded by expat Chinese looking to protect their families and villages in a period of unrest called the Warlord Era. More than 3,000 Diaolou were built, many incorporating both Chinese and Western architectural features.

Overview map of Diaolou distribution throughout Southern China.

There is a great deal of variety in construction of the Diaolou with many of the earliest having been built of stone, pounded earth, or brick. The vast majority of those built in the 20s and 30s are made of reinforced concrete which helped popularize the construction method. The base of the towers tends to have strong, thick walls with residential floors above. Windows are orderly spaced, but smaller than normal and outfitted with iron bars or shutters in case of attack. Some of the more fortified Diaolou have turrets, locally called “Swallows’ Nests,” with arrow slits facing downwards on the corners of the roof. The more decorative Diaolou adopt Western construction elements like Ionic columns, colored glass, and stucco decorative schemes that fuse Western wild flowers with traditional Chinese inscriptions.

Series of Dialou towers in a rice field.
Incorporating both Chinese and Western architectural elements, more than 3,000 Diaolou were built across Kaiping, Photo courtesy of Tomoaki INABA via Flickr

Of the buildings that are considered Diaolou there are three tower types, Communal, Residential, and Watch Towers. Some of the oldest Diaolou are Communal Towers. Built near the rear of the village it served, the Communal Towers would be funded by several families within the village. Communal Towers are defensive structures with few decorations and include rooms within for families to hide. The most common Diaolou are Residential Towers, which maintain their fortified shell but include living amenities for a single family. Residential Towers were built by the rich with owners opting for eclectic decoration, such as Byzantine and Neoclassical elements. Built at key vantage points at the entrances of villages, the slenderer Watch Towers are an additional defensive mechanism to protect villages. More advanced Watch Towers even operated searchlights and warning siren systems.

Zili Village

Zili Village Diaolou Distribution Map

Farmland and lakes condense around Zili Village, a tightly packed community and the largest cluster of Diaolou in Kaiping. The 15 towers stationed throughout the rice fields offer a strong defense position and are the ancestral home to the Fang clan. Diaolou construction began in 1919 with the Communal Tower Longshenglou or Worthy of Dragons Tower. Each Diaolou is enshrined with its own name including the Yunhuan Lou or Illusory Clouds Tower, the Zhulinlou or Bamboo Forest Tower, the Yinonglou or Leisurely Farming Tower, and the Qiuanjulou or The World Lives in Peace Tower.

Series of Dialou towers in a vegetated landscape.
The largest cluster of Diaolou in Kaiping, Zili Village includes 15 towers throughout the rice fields. Photo courtesy of Xiquinho Silva via Flickr

Majianglong Village Cluster

Majianglong Village Diaolou Distribution Map

Five separate villages string along the jungle to form the Majianglong Village Cluster: Yong’an, Nan’an, Hedong, Qinglin, and Longjiang. The villages were built in a grid layout, preserving cultural heritage while maximizing their defensive position. After passing under a gatehouse, the village opens up with a place for community activities and broad views over a fish pond and the Tanjiang River. The single-story village houses were made of blue-brick with tiled roofs and are the ancestral home the Huang and Guan clans. Lanes between the houses were narrow to impede incoming combatants to the Diaolou at the back of the village. The height of the Diaolou would provide a strategic vista over the town and bamboo groves.

Fortified village with rear Diaolou, Majianglon Village Cluster
Diaolou of the Majianglong Village Cluster were built at the back with narrow lanes to impede incoming combatants. Photo courtesy of Xiquinho Silva via Flickr

Jinjiangli Village

On a tributary upstream from the Tanjiang River, the Jinjiangli Village features the tallest Diaolou in Kaiping, Ruishi Diaolou. At nine stories, the Ruishi Diaolou exhibits the more eclectic decorating characteristics of the statelier Diaolou with a Roman dome and Byzantine ornamentation. The Jinjiangli Village and the cluster of three Diaolou were the ancestral home of the Huang family.

Jinjiangli Village with rear Diaolou.
Hovering over the Jinjiangli Village, Ruishi Diaolou is tallest Dialou in Kaiping at nine stories. Photo courtesy of Xiquinho Silva via Flickr

Sanmenli Village

Sanmenli Village was built during the Ming Dynasty and has been inhabited by the Guan clan for more than 450 years. At its center is Yinglong Lou, the oldest surviving Diaolou. A Communal Tower, it was originally two stories. A third floor was added in 1920, which contrasts the reddish brick with blue that gives the tower its memorable façade.

Diaolou distribution maps for Jinjiangli Village and Sanmenli will be developed at a later date.

Diaolou of Kaiping building facts.


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