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Watchtowers of history

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

Cultural influence

A saying of that time goes that there is no village without a diaolou in Kaiping. The maximum number used to be over 3,000. Now there are 1,833 left.

Looking up at the gray buildings and their rusty old-style doors and windows, we felt we were facing an old man who was telling us about everything that happened around and inside the buildings.

Kuang said that after World War II, as overseas remittance decreased and finally stopped, the construction of diaolous also came to an end, and the last one in Kaiping was built in 1948.

However, the cultural influence of the diaolous carries on today.

"Up to now, the diaolou of Kaiping still maintain and affect the local social structure, clanship and lifestyle," said Zhang Guoxiong, a professor of Jiangmen Wuyi University. "Moreover, the diaolou also maintain the overseas Chinese tradition and affection for their homeland."

A few years ago, Zhang came from Beijing to work in Jiangmen, mainly for the purpose of studying them. Now he has become an expert.

"A perfect combination of Chinese and Western cultures in architecture, the diaolou of Kaiping illustrate Chinese people's active borrowing of Western culture as well as the preserving of traditional culture," said Zhang. "The diaolou not only showed off the owners' wealth and social status, but also reflected different personalities."

The local people adopted and combined various architectural styles, including Greek, Roman, Gothic, Islamic, Baroque and Rococo.

Elements of different styles co-exist in the diaolou of Kaiping, which manifest unique artistic charm as well as great inclusiveness.

We came to a place called Xia Village, which is better known as the Canada Village nowadays. It is because the diaolou here were all built in Canadian style, and all the villagers had emigrated to Canada, except a "village head."

As we drove into the village, we saw a "Canada Village" sign on a telegraph pole. Kuang pointed to an old man who was sifting in the paddyfield and told us that he was the "village head."

The 68-year-old "village head" Guan Xinsen stayed in the village to accompany his mother, who did not want to emigrate to Canada. Now he lives a self-sufficient life, raising some 500 chickens and planting rice.

Besides Guan's house, the whole village was left with about 10 diaolou, closed and hollow. Walking among these gray structures, one not only has the illusion of another time and space, but also feels an isolated somberness.

We asked the old man whether he felt lonely. Perhaps because of long-time isolation, he only waved his hands, not knowing what to say.

Zili Village

Kuang said that there were still some villages like this in Kaiping. To prevent the diaolou from man-made destruction, the government of Kaiping recently employed some locals to guard them, and carried out regular inspections. Guan is a volunteer guard.

Our last stop was Zili Village, which has the most diaolous. Our guide Wu Jiuliang used to be the chief editor of the county annals, and is now working for the Kaiping government for applying to the UN to list the diaolou of Kaiping as a site of the World Cultural Heritage.

According to Wu, there are now 63 households and 175 villagers living in Zili, 248 villagers living overseas, in the United States, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, the Philippines, Fiji, as well as the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions.