During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Chinese emigrants returned to find their country in a state of political disarray. In Guangdong, instability and corruption had led to widespread banditry throughout the province, particularly in rural areas like Kaiping. In order to protect themselves from attacks, returning Chinese used their wealth to build sturdy watchtowers to function not only as defense fortresses but also as private residences for their families. These multistory towers were built with thick walls, iron gates, and solid structures of stone, brick, and concrete. They can generally be divided into three main categories: communal towers built to provide refuge for the community, residential towers built by wealthy families, and watch towers intended for wide-ranging protection.
In addition to the meticulous defense designs of the buildings, the curious fusion of different architectural styles is equally impressive. At first sight, the towers look something similar to a medieval European castle. Blending both Western and Chinese decorative forms, each building displays a range of diverse architectural designs that, in a broader sense, represent the crossroad of ideas and trends brought back to China by the overseas Chinese. Pass the day by taking a stroll around the clusters or exploring each floor of the tower you’re visiting. The views of the rice fields and duck farms from the roofs of the buildings are spectacular. If you’re interested in a little history, Zili Village offers a fascinating exhibition that displays the lives of Chinese immigrants and how they influenced society in Asia. The Kaiping watchtowers are unique to the Guangdong area, and are well worth a day excursion out of Guangzhou. If not for your health, do it for your own peace of mind. When you get back to the city, your lungs will be refreshed, your nerves will be calmed, and you’ll have a new understanding of a fascinating chapter in China’s past.