In southern China, west of the town of Kaiping between Guangzhou and Macau, history gave birth to dungeon-like fortified buildings : the Kaiping watchtowers.
Known in Chinese as the ‘Kaiping diaolou’, these fortified watchtowers demonstrate a unique blend between Western and Chinese architectural styles.
The first Kaiping watchtowers were built during the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Their purpose was to protect villagers against bandits who frequently raid the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, the construction of watchtowers reached a peak. Today, there are more than 1800 of these structures still standing.
In 2007, the four clusters of Kaiping watchtowers were inscribed on the UNSECO World Cultural Heritage list.
A blend between Western and Chinese architectural style
In 1839, a poor villager from Kaiping set off to the United States to seek fortune. Thousands of Kaiping villagers followed his example and left southern Guangdong province for the New World.
By the end of the 19th century, some of these Kaiping migrants traveled back to their hometown. They brought back their wealth and western influence.
The return of these rich compatriots attracted bandits and building watchtowers became the solution found by these overseas-Chinese-returned-home to the endemic problem of banditry in the region.
There are currently four clusters of Kaiping watchtowers that are listed by UNESCO as world cultural heritage. Liyuan, Zili, Majianglong and Jinjiangli. Each of these clusters feature not only small clusters of diaolou but also fortified villas built in the same architecture.
Visitors must pay a 180 RMB entrance fee that grants access to these four clusters.
Liyuan, Zili, Majianglong and Jinjiangli represent only a fraction of the 1800 Kaiping diaolou still standing. All the villages west of Kaiping have watchtowers and budget travelers can opt for a cheap bicycle village-hopping to visit them.