I recall, as a young knee-high, listening to my grandma, stories about “very tall structures”. Not knowing what the heck she was talking about, I pictured skyscrapers in our village(!) Having forgotten about them until my first trip to my ancestral village in 2005, Grandma’s stories came flooding back into my mind when I arrived at our ancestral village.
On the drive there from Guangzhou, I kept seeing over and over again, variations of these tall grey structures like sore thumbs popping up amongst the rambling one and two storey village dwellings. I took thousands of photos of the many Diaolou (no plural form, as Diaolou is both a singular and plural form of the noun) I happened to view on the journey.
The word “Diaolou” comprises of two Chinese characters 碉 樓: “Diao” apparently derived from the word “to throw” + the radical for “stone”, and “Lou”, which means, “tower”.
The story behind the word “Diao” goes back a century where a mother threw herself off a tall building instead of disclosing the whereabouts of her husband and son to some bandits (who wanted to kidnap the men).
I’ve been discussing the “diao” reference to “throwing off” with some colleagues. This reference came from the book “Old Houses-diaolou and Folk dwellings in Kaiping” by Zhang Guoxiong in which he indicated that this reference originates from the story of a diaolou that was built in honor of a mother who had committed suicide. The legend goes that during the early reign of the Qing Dynasty, a man named Xu Long, in the Longtian village of Yueshan town, Kaiping, had a mother that jumped off a cliff rather than to surrender the information to bandits (who had wanted to kidnap the man and his son).
In addition, according to Ricci’s Dictionary, diao means a “house made of stone”, and diaolou is also a military term which could be translated as a watchtower or a fort with more than one storey (sheltering a small troop to guard a frontier).