What are tulou, the round houses from Disney’s ‘Mulan’ trailer?

Jul 06, 2020

Sorry, Disney, Mulan probably didn’t live in a tulou. But these round houses a rich history of their own.

When the teaser for Disney’s latest Mulan came out last year, people noticed the mysterious round structures that the main character apparently calls home.

The houses are known as tulou 土楼, literally “earthen buildings,” and while they’re a unique example of Hakka Chinese architecture, Mulan likely did not live in one.

That’s because most tulou were built in the 11th century, around 700 years after “The Ballad of Mulan,” on which Disney’s movie is based, was written.

Chengqi Lou, an example of a tulou, in Fujian Province.
Chengqi Lou, an example of a tulou, in Fujian Province. / Photo: Zhang Yiqian

There are over 3,000 tulou spread across Fujian, Guangdong, and Jiangxi provinces in China’s southeast.

(Read more: Inside the walled villages of Shenzhen)

Most of them are round, though some are square, borrowing from ancient Chinese divination texts that represent heaven with a circle and earth with a square.

All of them are made with rammed earth to protect its inhabitants from invaders.

An aerial view of Chengqi Lou.
An aerial view of Chengqi Lou. / Photo: Zhang Yiqian

The most famous tulou are in Yongding, an area in Fujian Province. They were built by Hakka people, a Chinese minority that started migrating south from northern China in the 11th century to escape invasions by Jurchens and later the Mongols.

“At the time, they were fleeing persecution,” says Jiang Enqing, an 85-year-old resident of Chengqi Lou, a tulou in Yongding. “They went to Jiangxi Province, then here, and couldn’t go any further. There weren’t so many attackers anymore, so when they reached Yongding, they decided to stay.”

The interior of Chengqi Lou.
The interior of Chengqi Lou. / Photo: Zhang Yiqian

Jiang’s tulou still contains a functioning community. Residents are usually part of one clan and share the same surname. There are restaurants, shops, and even schools.

(Read more: 5 essential Hakka dishes, illustrated)

At its height, 80 families, comprising 600 people, lived in Chengqi Lou. Everyone gets an identical room, regardless of age or standing in the clan.

“The tulou is like one big family, a small society,” says Jiang, who rarely leaves the tulou. “It’s a model for getting along harmoniously.”

In 2008, Unesco recognized the tulou as a World Heritage site and gave 46 buildings the designation. Yongding has 21 of them.

ExplainerArchitecture and designMulanHakka


Producer: Jessica Novia

Narrator: Victoria Ho

Videographer: Zhang Yiqian

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Animation: Ray Ngan and Victor Peña

Mastering: Joel Roche