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Lijiang Ancient Town

An Introduction to Lijiang Ancient Town

Established in the late song dynasty and the early Yuan dynasty, Lijiang ancient town was entitled by the UNESCO on the list of the world's major cultural heritages in 1997. It was settled on the “Chama Road” trails also called “Tea-Horse Road” as a stop for the traders. The town is reputed by the blending of elements from several cultures which have come together over many centuries, the ancient ingenuity of the water supply system and the unique spectacular Naxi art, custom and culture. The famous three ancient districts- Baisha Quarter, Shuhe Ancient Town area, and Shuhe Town, all remaine a special character of Naxi and Han construction and Naxi customs, arts and culture. With the help of the Jade River, a complex water system was built, which is a part of its attractiveness. What’s more, you may feel the mysterious and wonderful Naxi culture such as its special writing system, music style, and the different religion. It is a great place to enjoy the ancient and exquisite feast.

Lijiang Old Town, originally a village, is located on the outskirts of present-day Lijiang City, Yunnan  Province. The old, original village is built around the concept of a network of canals that were intended to provide water to each and every household. The source of the water is Hei Long Tan (Black Dragon Pool), a natural spring, from which arise three small rivers, denoted simply as the East, West and Middle rivers. From these three rivers, a clever network of walled canals were dug, with the walls of the canals forming one side of the foundation of the canalside houses. Many of the canals are rather narrow - not more than 8-10 meters wide. In fact, most of the Old Town's houses stand so close together and in such an orderly fashion that it is said that their roofs, seen from above and at a slight angle, form neat rows that suggest the teeth of a comb.

There are dozens if not hundreds of arched stone bridges that cross the canals, adding to the charm of the town. Today, there are wells that pump water from deep beneath the surface of the ground in order to supplement the natural springs that still serve as the main water source of the canals. Lijiang Old Town is backed by three tree-clad mountains in the background, with trees flanking the village on three sides and with the mighty Yangtze River (called the Jinsha River here) running in front of the town. The village's etnic-minority inhabitants - who of course still comprise the majority of the present-day inhabitants of the village - belong to the Mu clan of the Naxi (alternatively Nakhi, but pronounced Na-shi regardless of the spelling) ethnic minority.

The original old village is so picturesquely tucked in between mountains, woods and the big river - and crisscrossed with a spider-web of waterways - that it has for ages been compared to an inkstone, with its archtypical village-surrounded-by-trees-and-mountains motif, that the village is often referred to as Oversized Jade Inkstone Village (inkstones, or ink slabs (i.e., inkwells, used most commonly by calligraphers), were typically carved of jade, with a pond in the center (the inkwell itself) - or sometimes with two or more ponds/inkwells, if different colors of ink were to be used, red and black being the most common colors - surrounded by trees and houses, pavilions, etc.). Even today, Lijiang Old Town is said to be too pretty to be true, like something out of a fairytale. It is also one of the oldest, most well-preserved examples of a highly developed village that is as inhabited today as it ever was - which, in a sense, makes Lijiang Old Town a living museum.

Lijiang Old Town covers an area of about 4 square kilometers (about 900 acres), and lies 2400 meters (7874 feet) above sea level.  It was built during the late Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, making the village some 800 years old. There are 4200 original families living in Lijiang Old Town. The village's layout is unique, being a perfect blend of Han Chinese, Bai, and Tibetan styles (or perhaps "fusion" is a more appropriate word than "blend", since the net result is utter harmony). In fact, UNESCO's World Heritage Foundation, in placing Lijiang Old Town on the World Heritage List in 1997, cited precisely this unique architectural-cultural fusion that has become the hallmark of the Nakhi people of Lijiang Old Town.

The layout of Lijiang Old Town is unusual in Chinese terms, and this springs partly from the necessity of having the streets and alleyways conform to the special waterways, but also partly due to the fusion in architectural styles, where no single style, with its otherwise characteristic layout, would dominate - each of the three styles of architecture and layout is adjusted to accommodate the other two, with the result that a genuine fusion is achieved. One of the most striking things about Lijiang Old Town is that it has no protective city walls, the reason resting on the following explanation, involving semantics, superstition, and image.

The surname of the original village's hereditary chieftain was Mu, after the clan name, which is rendered in a single character in Chinese. If, to the Chinese character "mu", is added a squarish outer frame, then the character "mu" is transformed into the character "kun", which, unluckily, signifies "besieged" or "in a predicament". Therefore, by semantic extension, were the clan chief Mu and his village to be surrounded by a city wall, it would convey the impression of the village as being under seige, and of course the village chieftain did not wish to encumber his village with such a stigmatic image, therefore it was forbidden to build a wall around the city. This reluctance to associate the village with the notion of being under seige continued after the demise of the heriditary chieftain, because in ancient Chinese culture, both superstition and filial piety (respect for one's ancestors) abounded, and some would say that modern-day Chinese people are still as superstitious as were their ancestors, even if the bonds of filial piety have weakened.

The Nahki people who inhabit the old village did not always live here - they were brought in to occupy the area for the sake of expediency; Kublai Khan stationed troops in Lijiang on his southward march to to do battle with the State of Dali, and after the successful completion of that campaign, Nahki tribesmen of the Mu clan who were loyal to the Mongol chieftain were relocated to Lijiang, and thus the old village was built and came to be inhabited by the Mu clan of the Nahki culture (to learn more about the Nahki/ Naxi culture, click here).

Lijiang Old Town has an interesting history as a stopping-off point on the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, aka the "Silk Road of Southwest China". Though less well known than the famous Silk Road of the silk trade, the ancient route that transported tea and horses (tea from China to points southward and horses from Tibet, especially, to points northward, i.e., into the rest of China) across treacherous mountain terrain was much more daunting a challenge to those whose livelihoods depended on it than the more accessible, and more heavily trafficked silk road routes (there was both a northern and a southern silk road, as well as a later "silk road" route by sea). To learn more about the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, click here.

The houses of Lijiang Old Town are for the most part of stone and mud, braced with wood, and with tiled roofs and artful engravings that adorn certain parts of the woodwork, especially door and window frames. These engravings include representations of humans and animals, trees and flowers, and enrich the simple beauty of the houses. The streets of the village are paved with a special reddish stone (breccia) that is impervious to both mud and dust - its special surface prevents foreign substances from adhering to it.

Lijiang Old Town is a beautiful old village that is worthy of protection, although there have been some recent issues with some of the merchants especially, outsiders who have arrived to Lijiang Old Town seemingly for the express purpose of exploiting the commercial potential of the ancient city. Since their activity is not illegal, it has not been easy for the state to take action against them, though there is a growing sentiment for some kind of action in order to prevent degradation to the village by over-exploitation. This does not mean that tourists should abandon Lijiang Old Town in order to punish the outsiders who may or may not be exploiting the town for their own narrow commerical interests, as that would punish all of the residents of the town! There have also been complaints of rowdiness on the part of certain tourist types in the recent past, and reports of behavior which in general is not conducive to the sustainability of the village as an ancient, preservation-worthy example of Chinese cultural fusion. Lijiang Old Town need friends - it needs its tourist friends too. To paraphrase a famous but unnamed resident of the city of San Francisco in California, Lijiang Old Town doesn't need every type of tourist, it just needs the right type of tourist!  

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