The Old Town of Lijiang, which is perfectly adapted to the uneven topography of this key commercial and strategic site, has retained a historic townscape of high quality and authenticity. Its architecture is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures that have come together over many centuries. Lijiang also possesses an ancient water-supply system of great complexity and ingenuity that still functions effectively today.
The town (including Dayan, Baisha and Shuhe) was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List on December 4, 1997. Since then, the local government has taken more responsibility for the development and protection of the old city. Lijiang's tourism also boomed, and travellers from around the world flooded in; although many locals fear that due to much of the development, the old town of Lijiang will lose its appeal.
Recently, the government has started to develop additional "old city" sections adjacent to the site of the original old city. This is to accommodate the large number of tourists who walk the cobblestone streets (cars are not allowed in the old city), typically as part of package tours. Evenings in the old city can be particularly rowdy, not least due to the many outdoor bars, where boisterous groups of tourists try ousting other groups.
Lijiang is also home to the Jade Water Village, a Dongba cultural centre and Lugu Lake, a lake which is a tourist attraction.
Description by UNESCO
Lijiang is an exceptional ancient town set in a dramatic landscape which represents the harmonious fusion of different cultural traditions to produce an urban landscape of outstanding quality.
In the 13th century AD, during the later Southern Song dynasty, the ancestors of the ruling Mu family moved their main centre from Baisha to the foot of the Shizi Mountains to a new town known as Dayechang (later Dayan), where they began building houses surrounded by a city wall and moat. After Azong Aliang submitted in the 1250s to the authority of the Yuan Emperor Hubilie, Dayechang became an administrative centre. The Lijiang Junmin prefecture was established when the region came under Ming rule in 1382.
In 1724 the first non-native prefect began building prefectural offices, barracks and educational facilities at the foot of the Jinhong Mountain. Lijiang County was created as part of Lijiang Junmin Prefecture in 1770. The old town of Lijiang is built on a mountain slope running from north-west to south-east, facing a deep river.
The northern part of the city was a commercial district. The main streets in this part of the old town radiate from the broad street known as Sifangjie, which has traditionally been the commercial and trading centre of the north-western part of Yunnan Province. On the west side of the Sifangjie is the imposing three-storeyed Kegongfang (Imperial Examination Archway), which is flanked by the Western and Central rivers.
A sluice on the former uses the different levels of the two waterways to wash the streets, a unique form of municipal sanitation. The streets are paved with slabs of a fine-grained red breccia. Water flows from here to the Shuangshi Bridge, where it branches into three tributaries. These subdivide into a network of channels and culverts to supply every house in the town. This water supply is supplemented by many springs and wells within the town itself. A system of watercourses of this complexity necessitates a large number of bridges of varying sizes. There are 354 bridges altogether; they take several forms. It is from these structures that Lijiang derives its name, the 'City of Bridges'. The feature of Lijiang that is most representative of the Naxi minority culture is its wealth of domestic dwellings. The basic timber-framed structure developed into a unique architectural style with the absorption of elements of Han and Zang architecture. Most of the houses are two-storeyed. The chuandoushi wooden frames are walled with adobe on the ground floor and planks on the upper floors; the walls have stone foundation courses. The exteriors of the walls are plastered and lime-washed, and there are often brick panels at the corners. The houses have tiled roofs and an external corridor or veranda.
Special attention is paid to the decoration of the houses, especially in the arches over gateways, the screen walls, the external corridors, the doors and windows, the courtyards and the roof beams. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements - pottery, musical instruments, flowers, birds, etc. - and gate arches take several elegant forms.
The Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office and Mujia Compound were established in 1368, during the Ming dynasty, in the eastern part of the city. The 286 m long government office was a complex of halls, towers, bridges, terraces, pavilions and palaces. To the north was the official residence, known as the Mujia Compound. It was largely destroyed by war during the Qing dynasty and only the Yizi Pavilion, the Guagbi Tower, and a stone archway survive. The group known as the Yuquan architectural structures is in the Heilongtan Park and date from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Most notable is the Wufeng Tower (1601), moved from the Fugue Temple, of which it formed part, and now designated as one of the major historical sites in Yunnan Province. In addition to the Dayan old town, established in the Ming dynasty, the earlier Baisha quarter, the centre during the preceding Song and Yuan dynasties, survives 8 km to the north.
Features of Lijiang Old Town
The Old Town of Lijiang, a well-preserved old city of ethnic minorities with brilliant culture, is a central town of the Lijiang Autonomous County of the Naxi Ethnic Minority in Yunnan Province. Located on the plateau which is 2,400 meters (7,874 feet) above the sea level and embraced by the tree-covered Lion Mountain in the west, Elephant and Golden Row Mountains in the north, vast fertile fields in the southeast and crystal clear water running through, the old town looks like a big jade ink slab, therefore got the alias the Town of Big Ink Slab (Dayanzhen).
The Old Town which occupies an area of three point eight square kilometers (912 acres) was firstly built in the late Song Dynasty and the early Yuan Dynasty and has a history of more than 800 years. Since Kubla Khan who is the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty set his reign here, Lijiang was on a fast developmental way and became the political, cultural, and educational center in this area, playing a very important role in the trading activities among Yunnan, China hinterland, Tibet, India and many other Asian countries. Till now, when walking on the streets of the Old Town, one can feel the prosperity and flourish from the shops with fancy and superb collections of handicrafts.
The Old Town is built along the lie of mountains and the flow of rivers, providing a very precious sample of the research on the old-time architecture. The unique geographical location, historical background and multiracial inhabitants make it one of the most special.
The Old Town is the only old city built without a city wall and there is an interesting story telling the reason. Lijiang had been under the reign of the hereditary Mu family for more than 500 years. If the Chinese character 'Mu' (represents the governor of Lijiang) is put into a frame (represents the city wall), you have the character 'Kun' which means 'siege' or 'predicament'. This would mean that the governing Mu family and their descendants would always be trapped like a rat in a hole. Because of this symbolism, the Old Town was never given a city wall.
As a result of the combination of the multinational culture and the progress of Naxi ethnic minority, the buildings here incorporate the best parts of the architectural traits of Han, Bai, and Tibet into a unique Naxi style. The layout of the town is free-style and flexible, the houses are close and diverse, and the lanes are narrow and meandering. Naxi people pay much attention to the decoration, the commodious and applied houses are mostly timber and tile structure compound with a garden, each has engraved vivid figures of people and animals on doors and windows, beautiful flowers and trees in the garden.Living in such a beautiful and comfortable environment is a real pleasant thing.
The old Town of Lijiang is a city depends on water for existence and water is just like its blood. Black Dragon Pool (Heilongtan) is its main water source and subdivides into many streams which can reach every family and every street there. Due to the reticular aqueducts, willow trees grow everywhere and there are almost 350 varied and inimitable bridges in the little town, some of which were built in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The usage of the water created by the local people is very scientific. They build three mouths every well from the upriver to the downriver. The water in the first mouth is for edibility, the second one is for cleaning of the vegetables and fruits, and the last one is used to wash the clothes. The water not only meets the need of the dweller, but also gives the town a beauty of gentle. The town reputed as the 'Oriental Venice' and 'Suzhou in Highland', but it is much, much more than this. Once you have visited this Old Town, it will capture your heart for the rest of your life.
The center of the Old Town is the Square Street (Sifangjie). Four main streets radiate from Square Street and extend to the four different directions. Countless lanes extending in all directions form a network and connect every corner of the town. Streets are paved by the local bluestones which are neither muddy in the rainy season nor dusty in the dry season. The massive and fine-grained stones add a sense of antiquity and mystery. The sluice at the center is opened late in the night and the resulting current of water flushes and washes all the streets to keep the town clean. This practical use of water is part of the daily life of the residents in Old Town.
On December 3rd, 1997, the Old Town of Lijiang was put in the list of the World's Relics by the World Cultural Heritage Commission of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). The charming Old Town is now a famous tourist attraction for its traditional ethnic culture and customs, inimitable buildings and the wonderful natural views.