China Underground > Travel to Yunnan > Travel to Lijiang > Travel to Lijiang Ancient Town

Travel to Lijiang Ancient Town

Last Updated on 2020/11/03

For centuries Lijiang was the center of Naxi culture, today it is a tourist capital.

Lijiang Ancient City is located in the Lijiang Municipality of Yunnan province in southwest China. It sits in the middle of Lijiang flatland on Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. It covers an area of 3.8 square kilometers and with an elevation of 2,400 meters.

Lijiang Ancient City Basic Information

Geographic location: in Lijiang City (administrative city)
Scenic status: a national historical and cultural city; a world cultural heritage
Tour time: 1 day

Travel Tips

  1. As a plateau region, Lijiang has a high daily range of temperature. One needs to have warm clothes for early morning and night.
  2. Be fully prepared for high altitude reaction and strong ultraviolet rays.
  3. The Best season for travel is autumn.

Map of Lijiang old town

Recommended Tour Route

The entrance of Lijiang Ancient Town → Square Market → Ke-Gong Archway → Residential House of Naxi People → The Mansion of Magistrate Mu → Naxi Ancient Music Hall → the Black Dragon Pool

Key Points

bridges and rivers, Square Market, Ke-gong Archway, a residential house of Naxi people, Dongba culture, Naxi ancient music.

Overview of Lijiang Ancient City

Built in the late Song Dynasty and the early Yuan Dynasty (about 13th century), Lijiang Ancient City has no city walls, thus it is the only Ancient city of this kind. It rests its head on the Lion Mountain in the west and borders on the Elephant Mountain in the north. Surrounded by green hills, the city looks like a jade ink slab, so it is also called Dayan (Big Ink Slab) Town. In the past, Lijiang was a trading center and an important market in the district. People lived in this ancient city were mostly of Naxi nationality.

travel to lijiang - Naxi people

The city is well-known for its layout, too. Square Market is the center of the city and five main streets (Xinhua Street, Wuyi Street, Qiyi Street, Xinyi Street, and Guangyi Street) lead into all directions. Alleys and paths run through the whole city forming a road web.

The water from the Black Dragon Pool is utilized well. The crystal clear water flows through the buildings in three major separate channels (the East River, the Middle River, and the West River) and many other minor rivers. Thus, the view was described as “rivers surrounding every house and willows in front of every family”, a best-known scene of south China. Rivers and bridges can be seen everywhere in the city. There are 93 bridges in each square kilometer. The best-known bridges built in Ming and Qing Dynasties (14 -19th century) are Suocui Bridge, Dashi Bridge, Wanzi Bridge, Nanmen Bridge, Ma’an Bridge, and Renshou Bridge. For this reason, Lijiang Ancient City is called “Gaoyuan Gusu” (the Plateau Suzhou).
The roads in the city are paved with mottled slabs, easy for walking and cleaning.

The common dwellings in the ancient city are mostly two-storied wooden buildings designed in a courtyard with houses on three sides and a screen wall on one side forming five patios. They integrate the architectural styles of the Han, the Bai, the Tibetan and other nationalities. The system of wooden brackets in Naxi building is so special that the houses wouldn’t fall if the wall collapsed. This means that many buildings withstood earthquakes and the ancient city was not destroyed by earthquakes.

The Mu’s Mansion (the mansion of a ruler of Naxi nationality) was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1996. Xu Xiake praised the original mansion as: “the magnificence of the mansion can be compared to that of a prince’s residence.” The mansion’s majesty, grandness and spectacular appearance remind people of the cultural prosperity and the special power of chieftain Mu among other chieftains in southwest China for the 470 years and 22 generations of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Lijiang Ancient City became a famous historical and cultural city for its centuries-old history, rich cultural relics and historic sites, and brilliant ethnic cultures. In 1997, the city was declared a UNESCO World Culture Heritage Site.

In Yuquan (Jade Spring) Park at the edge of the city, there are still architectural complexes of the Ming and the Qing dynasties, namely, Wufeng Pavilion (Five Phoenix Pavilion), Guangbi Pavilion, Xietuoling Gate Tower, and the Deyue Pavilion. At the side of the park is the Lijiang Museum of Dongba Culture, and the Institute of Dongba Culture where the artistic charm of the living hieroglyph —— the Dongba Hieroglyph, appeals to visitors. In August 2003, Dongba ancient books and literature were declared the World Written Record Heritage. Roaming in the city, couplets written in Dongba Hieroglyph catch one’s eyes, the plain and elegant Naxi Music can be heard making one feel like walking in the past.

In Baisha Village, 8 kilometers north of Dayan Ancient City, and the Suhe Town, 4 kilometers northwest of Dayan Ancient City, there are two ancient residential complexes, which is part of Lijiang Ancient City. The Dabaoji Palace and the Liuli Palace still reserve the famous Baisha Wall Painting. Both palaces are the national cultural relic protection units.

Entrance of the Ancient Town of Lijiang

As there are no city walls, the ancient town of Lijiang is accessible in all directions. The main entrance visitors often take now is in the north. A square has been opened at this entrance. On the right side, there is a screen wall imitating the wall of the residential house of Lijiang with China’s former chairman Jiang Zeming’s handwriting. A dragon water pole was built further to the screen wall to fulfill people’s desire for preventing fire. This is because most houses in the town are wooden structures and people believe that water overcomes fire while dragon controls water.

In front of the screen wall, a big waterwheel is turning round and round constantly pushing the water from the Black Dragon Pool. In the past, waterwheels scattered here and there in the ancient city. Now people in remote areas of Lijiang are still using them.

Nearby stands the statue of the world heritage logo. The circle represents the earth and nature; the square symbolizes the civilization created by human beings. The connection of the circle and the square expresses people’s wish for harmony between man and nature. The relief wall on its right side shows the daily life of people in the Ancient Town of Baisha, Suhe, and Dayan. On the wall, the scenes demonstrating culture and life of Lijiang such as Baisha Wall Painting, Square Market of Suhe and Dayan towns, the Big Stone Bridge (Dashiqiao), Dongba Pictographs, Naxi Music Performance, farming, residential houses are all carved.

On the ground is the Bage Diagram, which is also named Frog Diagram. On the basis of the theory of Five Elements, Naxi people created this diagram for the purpose of divination. The frog in the middle, with an arrow thrusting through it, symbolizes five directions, elements, and colors. Scriptures for divination are carved on the back of the frog, around the frog, there are twelve animals arranged in accordance with the five elements. Naxi people use this special divination diagram to explain nature and predict the future.

The design of the ancient city

The construction of the ancient town is based on the river system in its natural way. The river Yuhe separates from here into west, middle, and east branches and these run through the town. Unlike traditional towns in China that are complete and square in the form of a chessboard, all the streets and houses in Lijiang ancient town are built along rivers and hills and extend naturally. The beauty of this special structure lies in its integrity of man and nature. If you get lost in the town, just go against the stream. You will find your way out. Bridges, rivers, and households are the special attraction of the ancient town of Lijiang.
Bridges, rivers, and households depend on each other to give life to the ancient town of Lijiang. The essence of the town is the local residents, the Naxi people. Walking along the road of mottled slabs in the town, Naxi women wearing their loose gowns with dark-colored vest, a plaited apron in front and goatskin cape on their backs are the common eye-catching scenes. Some of them are doing business, some are embroidering and others are playing cards. They are enjoying their time after many years of backbreaking hard work. Staying in groups, these stout Naxi women in their costumes are a unique sight in the ancient town of Lijiang.

Square Market (actually a Square leading to all directions)

Though named Square Market, it is actually a square leading to all directions. It is the heart of the ancient town, the trading center and cultural center for the Naxi people. In the past, merchants from nearby counties like Heqing, Jianchuan, and Dali come here to do business during the day. At night, Naxi people would get together on this square to dance and sing. It used to be one of the most important towns on the Old Tea-horse Caravan Road. The remains from the bustling business are still to be found in the names of the trading sections. For example, the bridge in front of the Kegong Archway is called “Bean Trading Bridge” and the bridge in the southwest of the square is called “Egg Trading Bridge”.

Now, the Square Market is still a busy trading center with tourism booming in this small town. One could buy souvenirs of many kinds, such as minority costumes, fur products, tea, brass, silver vessels, and Dongba paintings.

Lijiang old town

Kegong Archway

This archway is built with a donation from people to commemorate the Yang family living in the small lane for having three successful candidates in the imperial civil service examination. Since 1723, the Qing Court adopted the policy of sending officials to the minority areas instead of employing local chieftains. This had greatly encouraged people in minority areas to take part in the civil service examination. Within 180 years from 1723 to the abolition of the civil service examination system in the late Qing Dynasty, Lijiang had had more than 60 successful candidates at the provincial level and 6 at the highest level. Three successful candidates from one family were common in central China but an important event in Lijiang, a minority area that had long been ruled by chieftains. To celebrate this, the local government and people together built a two-storied archway. One more story was added to it when Mr. He Genji became the last successful candidate in the highest imperial civil service examination. This archway is an evidence of Naxi people’s reverence for culture and knowledge.

Residential House of Naxi People

The ancient town of Lijiang is an exhibit of classic Chinese urban architecture — wood and stone, tile roofs, sliding doors, small walled compounds with ornate gate and interior garden. Most of the Naxi houses are two-storied wood-and-stone structures. The houses are typically laid out either in the form of Sanfang Yi Zhaobi (a courtyard with rooms on three sides and a screen wall in the front) or Sihe Wu Tianjin (a big courtyard encircled by rooms and four smaller courtyards).

Naxi houses always have protruding rafters and exposed beams, which are covered at both ends with a “wind-and-fire board” for the sake of protecting and decorating the beams. At each apex of the roof a carved, often painted, and symbolic pair of fish hangs down. Some are stylized shapes while some are quite detailed. The fish represents water and is supposed to magically protect the house from the fire of the lightning demon. It is also supposed to be a pun in Chinese for “felicity and surplus every year”.

Special attention is given to the decoration of each particular part of the house. For example, windows are decorated with wood carvings, screen walls are inlaid with marbles or painted with Chinese paintings, the beam-ends is carved into animal heads, and the grounds of the courtyard center are paved with pebbles in traditional designs. The houses integrate function and arts with typical ethnic styles.

To build a house of one’s own is one of the important goals for Naxi people. They spend all their savings on houses so that the houses become something to be proud of. Visiting Naxi people’s house and finding out the particular beauty is always appreciated and it is a pleasant experience for visitors.

Both government and people have made a great effort in protecting Naxi dwellings. To prevent this valuable legacy of Naxi culture from disappearing, 32 Naxi compounds are under national protection at present.

Mu’s Mansion (The Mansion of Magistrate Mu)

The Mansion of chieftain Mu in the Ming Dynasty (1368—1644) is a cultural showcase of Lijiang ancient city. Situated in the southwest of the town, it is a grand architectural complex in the style of the Forbidden City of the Northern Song Dynasty (960~1120).
In the history of Lijiang, magistrate Mu had reigned for more than four hundred years. During his reign, he built a magnificent palace at the foot of the Lion Mountain, which is supposed to be an auspicious place. The Palace is called Mu’s Mansion after the surname of the magistrate “Mu”. It is surrounded on three sides by three rivers, the north river, east river and south river.

Before entering the Palace, one comes to a wooden archway on which four Chinese characters, “tian yu liu fang” are written. Magistrate Mugong of the Ming Dynasty originally wrote the words. The present handwriting is of Mr. Li Qunjie, a Naxi calligrapher and Chairman of Calligraphy Association of Yunnan. This expression can be interpreted differently in Mandarin and in Naxi language. In Mandarin, it means “emperor’s kindness is so great that it moistens the whole land of the country like spring rain”. In Naxi Language, it means, “go ahead on reading books”. It is a cleverly made pun with two languages which shows Naxi people’s respect for knowledge.

The first construction to come across after entering the Mu’s Mansion is a stone archway called “zhongyi archway” (the archway of loyalty and righteousness). It is delicate in carving and magnificent in a structure in the form of traditional Chinese archway. It was built under the order of Emperor in the Ming Dynasty in praise for Magistrate Mu’s great tribute and his loyalty to the court. Local people compare it to the Three Pagodas in Dali for its great design and workmanship. The archway was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and the present one was rebuilt in 1998.

Along the axis lie 162 archways, gates, halls, and pavilions. The whole mansion is divided into a frontcourt and a backcourt. The frontcourt includes the Meeting Hall, Scripture Hall, and Hufa Hall (Family Meeting Hall). The backcourt is made up of Guangbi Tower, Yuyin Tower, and Saqin Pavilion that leads all the way to the Lion Mountain. The Meeting Hall is the place for magistrate to handle administration; the Scripture Hall reserves thousands of Dongba Scriptures and hundreds of Buddhist Scriptures; the Hufa Hall is the hall for Mu’s family meetings; Guangbi Tower is the back garden gate tower; Yuyin Tower is the place for receiving emperor’s order and holding parties, Sanqing Pavilion, a Daoist temple, reflects Magistrate Mu’s respect to Daoism.

On the Lion Mountain, there are old cypresses among which magistrate Mu worshiped heaven, ancestor, and nature. The palace is the embodiment of the Ming architectural style, the Tang and Song architectural style, and the Naxi traditional culture. It fully reflects the toleration of Naxi culture to other cultures.

Dongba Culture

Culture is the soul of Lijiang ancient town. Dongba culture is an integral part of the Naxi culture, referred to as the ancient culture of Naxi people. It is called so because it is mostly found in the Dongba religion, which is believed to be one thousand years old. It chiefly consists of scriptures, paintings, music, dances, ritual implements and religious services.
Dongba script, a kind of pictograph, possessing more than 1,400 characters, is believed to be the only well-preserved living pictographic language in the world. It is a precious cultural heritage of mankind. About 40,000 volumes of Dongba scriptures have been found today, all written in Dongba pictographic characters. These scriptures are kept in the libraries or museums in Lijiang, Kunming, Nanjing, Beijing, Taiwan, the United States, Britain, Germany, and France respectively.

Dongba scriptures have covered a wide range of knowledge. They are precious references of the study of the ancient philosophy, religion, folklore, history, art and literature of the Naxi nationality.

The Dongba Dance chart, recorded in Dongba pictographs, is among the earliest of its kind in the world. Dongba paintings are chiefly of three kinds: wood board painting, paperboard painting, and scroll painting. Among them, the scroll painting is best known with its representative work “the Sacred Journey”.

Ancient Naxi Music

The Naxi nationality, since ancient time, has created its own music and preserved part of the Han classical music already lost in the inland China.

Naxi Music is an art crystallized from the integration of different cultures. It constitutes Baisha Xiyue and Dongjing music in Lijiang. One theory holds that Baisha Xiyue is the indigenous Naxi music possessing pieces named du, a letter, and sanjisi. The tunes are slow, relaxed, deep and exceedingly sentimental, which are often played on funeral occasions. While Dongjing music is the integration of the court music of the Tang dynasty and Daoist music introduced to Lijiang in the Ming Dynasty from central China. It has music pieces such as Wind Rushing along the River, the Sheep on the Hill, and Song of Water and Dragon.
Because of the special geographical location and people’s love for music, the long lost Chinese music is well preserved in this remote area, Lijiang. The music is honored as “the living fossil of Chinese music” and known far and wide. The characteristics of Naxi music is summarized in “three treasures”, the ancient music pieces, the ancient musical instruments, and the highly aged players.

There are dozens of troupes of Naxi Music in the ancient town of Lijiang and around. The places one could go to attend Naxi Music concert in the ancient town are Dayan Naxi Music Committee and Dongba Palace.

Words and Expressions

altitude reaction 高原反应
ultraviolet rays 紫外线
pictograph n. 象形文字
hieroglyph n. 象形文字
matriarchal n. 女家长的
dwelling n. 住处
patio n. 天井
waterwheel n. 水车
Bage Diagram 八格图
Frog Diagram 蛙格图
the theory of Five Elements 五行说
eye-catching adj. 引人注目的
souvenir n. 纪念品
rafter n. 椽子
mansion n. 大厦,宫邸
Dabaoji Palace 大宝积宫
Kegong Archway 科贡坊
“tian yu liu fang” 天雨流芳
Baisha Xiyue 白沙细乐
Wind Rushing Along the River 浪淘沙
the Sheep on the Hill 山坡羊
Song of Water and Dragon 水龙吟
Dayan Naxi Music Committee 大研纳西古乐会
“the Sacred Journey” 东巴神路图

Photos: Matteo Damiani, Oliver Huang, Dominique Musorrafiti

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Lifestyle and Entertainment in Yangzhou


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