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Watchtowers of history

ByHuo Yan (China Daily) Update:2016-09-23

KAIPING, Guangdong: When a friend talked about the diaolou (watchtower house) of Kaiping, Guangdong Province, I thought they were just residential buildings in the countryside, or old-style houses like the Qiao's courtyard in North China's Shanxi Province.

However, when I saw the diaolou of Kaiping, I was really taken aback by their history and culture. As a northerner interested in the formation and development of Guangdong's culture, I did not expect to find any answers here.

We drove westwards on the Guangzhou-Zhanjiang highway.

After about an hour, besides paddyfields, there began to appear groups of buildings that looked like castles, different in sizes and styles.

"They are the diaolou of Kaiping and that is where we are going," said Kuang Jikang, an official of Kaiping city government.

"Nowadays, there are probably more people who know about the diaolou than those who know about Kaiping. Actually, we are applying to the United Nations to get the diaolou listed as World Cultural Heritage sites."

Kuang had done much research into the history and culture of the diaolou and was lobbying the UN.

Practical functions

The construction of diaolou started during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The appearance of the diaolou can be ascribed to the geography and security situations of Kaiping at that time.

Kaiping was a low-lying place which often suffered from floods. Located at the joint of the four counties of Xinhui, Taishan, Enping and Xinxing, it was also frequented by bandits. Villagers built the diaolou to prevent both floods and bandits.

Since 1840, the United States and Canada recruited a huge number of Chinese workers to dig gold mines and build railways. Many people from Kaiping left their homes to make a living abroad. Thus today Kaiping is the hometown of some 750,000 overseas Chinese, who live in 67 countries and regions.

Kuang said though overseas Chinese lived hard lives at that time, most of them sent money home to do the three important things in life: buying land, building houses and getting married.

The 1920s and 1930s were the peak of diaolou building, Kuang said. According to historical records, from 1920 to 1930, there were more than 70 serious robberies in Kaiping.

The county annals reported that one night in December 1922, a group of bandits kidnapped the headmaster and 17 students of Kaiping middle school.

Learning the news, local security troops came to the rescue. The troops finally found and rescued them with the help of search lights from a diaolou in Yingcun Village.

This incident caused a sensation in the whole county. The overseas Chinese from Kaiping not only were happy about the result, but realized the significance of the diaolous in fighting the bandits. To protect their families and properties, some of them began to send back money to build more.

When the overseas Chinese returned home, they designed their diaolous according to their own purposes and aesthetic values, which resulted in a variety of styles. They also equipped them with weapons.