The Watchtowers of Kaiping: Zili Village

The Kaiping Diaolou are fortified multi-story watchtowers built to protect rural villages from ethnic warfare, bandits, and warlords. Most were built from the late 19th century to the early 20th century with a fusion of Chinese and Western architectural styles by returning immigrants with wealth acquired overseas.

The earliest diaolou were built in the Ming Dynasty as a response to banditry and floods. Building reached a peak during the Warlord Era of the 1920s and 30s. Of the more than three thousand diaolou built, approximately 1800 remain in the Kaiping countryside, another 500 in Taishan and other areas nearby. Most were abandoned after the Communist Revolution. Some are being maintained by families of the original owners who live in other countries.

There are three kinds of diaolou: watchtowers, communal towers built by several families as temporary shelter in an emergency, and residential towers built by rich families as fortified residences. Residences became a way for owners to showcase their wealth. Families and clans competed to build the tallest and grandest towers with modern materials and features at the time. Building was financed by Chinese immigrants returning from the West, Hong Kong and Malaysia, who incorporated Western architectural features, like domes, arches, and Roman columns into the structures. Local builders sometimes worked from postcards sent from abroad.

UNESCO designated the Kaiping Diaolou and Villages a World Heritage Site in 2007. The designation covers four separate areas: Sanmenli, Zilicun, Jinjiangli, and Majianglong village cluster.

My partner and I took a day trip to Kaiping from Guangzhou, visiting Zilicun, Liyuan Garden, Majianglong, and Jinjiangli. Li Garden is not a designated World Heritage Site, but was nearby. Our first stop was Zili Village, or Zilicun.

With nine towers, Zilicun has the largest number of diaolou among the four Kaiping villages designated by UNESCO. The drive to Zilicun was surreal. We could see dozens of diaolou rising from the countryside in the distance from the highway, but we were not allowed to get a closer look at any of them, and didn’t have time to stop for roadside photos.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zili Village

Like most tourist spots in China, there’s a long walk from the parking and ticket areas to the village, which is mostly interconnected and tightly packed low-rise buildings with reinforced windows and doors with bars. They were built this way as a defense against attacks.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Reinforced Door
Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Door and molding details

From a distance the buildings looked fairly drab. On closer examination many of the roof edges have moldings and painted bas-reliefs of flowers, birds, and mythological creatures. Many of the doors have paintings and Chinese writing above them.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zili Village - Village resident sitting against a wall

We passed this lady taking a break from morning chores outside her house.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Diaolou at back of village

We had almost walked the entire length of Zili Village before seeing any of the diaolou, three of which rose up over the large pond at the edge of the village. We were surprised to find that most of Zilicun’s diaolou are actually scattered throughout the rice paddies behind the village.

Some of the diaolou look like more traditional watchtowers, while others look more like fortified residences.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Diaolou in the rice fields

The towers somehow managed to stand out from, and at the same time blend harmoniously with the countryside.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Yunhuan Lou Residential Tower

Yunhuan Lou is a residential tower built in 1921 by Fang Wenchen who earned his fortune in Malaysia. One of it’s defenses was a water cannon.

Unfortunately it was not open during our visit.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Watchtower next-door to a residential diaolou

Yunhuan Lou’s closest neighbor is a three story watchtower with small shuttered windows.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village
Ju’an Lou and Anlu Villa were built so close together that they share the same foundation. We assumed they were probably built by members of the same clan.
Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village

Photo by Kathryn Foster

Ju’an Lou is a traditional watchtower with Western design elements, while Anlu Villa looks more like an early 20th Century apartment block from the west.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village

We ran into this lady in the back of the two towers picking wild herbs near the irrigation trench running between fields.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village

Looking back towards Zilicun, at one of the towers watching over the fields.

Sitting room on upper floor of The Mingshilou Tower

Only two of the towers were on open during our visit. Before heading back to the village, we explored Mingshi Lou (above), a five story residential diaolou which was built by Runwen Fang in 1925 after his return from Chicago, in the United States. In addition to the main building, there is a kitchen building on the other side of the courtyard. It has a veranda with ionic columns on the 5th floor, four towers known as swallow nests, and a hexagonal pavilion on it’s roof. Mingshi Lou appeared in the 2010 Chow Yun-Fat film Let the Bullets Fly.

Mingshilou Tower entry room

With most of the original furniture, family portraits, foreign newspapers and magazines, and other common items, Mingshi Lou is a mini museum chronicling the lives of overseas Chinese who had returned home in the early 20th Century.

Sitting room on upper floor of The Mingshilou Tower
The Mingshilou Tower Family Shrine

A phonograph sits in a corner of a sitting room with Western and Chinese furniture on one of the upper floors. As with most diaolou, the family shrine is on the top floor.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village

The rooftop terrace of Mingshi Lou offered great views of Zili Village, the diaolou in the fields behind the village, and the surrounding countryside. This was taken from one of the swallows nests.

View from the rooftop terrace of Mingshi Lou

Looking down at two other diaolou from Mingshi Lou

Looking over Zili Village from Mingshi Lou

The view of Zili Village from Mingshi Lou.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Chinese ladies posing and taking photos of each other outside a diaolou

We lucked out and beat the tour bus crowds who were taking selfies and photos of diaolou and each other around the pond.

Next stop… Liyuan Garden.

Some of the information in this post was referenced from Wikipedia, CNN Travel, Travel China Guide and other sources.

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