Lijiang Ancient Town

Last updated by david at 2014/7/31

Lijiang Old Town, originally a village, is located on the outskirts of the present-day city of Lijiang, 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 arises 3 small rivers, denoted simply as the East, West, and Middle rivers.

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From these 3 rivers, a clever network of walled canals was dug, with the walls of the canals forming one side of the foundation of the canal-side 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.

Lijiang Old Town covers an area of about 4 square kilometers and lies 2,400 meters above sea level. It was built during the late Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), making the village some 800 years old, and there are about 4,200 original families living in the old town today. The village's layout is unique, being a perfect fusion of Han Chinese, Bai, and Tibetan styles. In fact, UNESCO's World Heritage Foundation named Lijiang Old Town on its World Heritage List in 1997, cited precisely this unique architectural-cultural blend that has become the hallmark of the Nakhi people there.

The Nahki people who inhabit the old village today did not always live here. Originally, they were brought in to occupy the area for the sake of expediency. Kublai Khan stationed troops in Lijiang on his southward march to do battle with the Dali state, 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. It was thus that 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 Ancient Town

It also has an interesting history as a stopping-off point on the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, more famously known as 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 especially Tibet to points northward and into the rest of China) across treacherous mountain terrain was much more daunting a challenge to those whose livelihoods depended on it. On the other hand, the Silk Road of silk was far more accessible and its routes were more heavily trafficked (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.

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 3 tree-clad mountains in the background, with trees flanking the village on 3 sides and with the mighty Yangtze River (called the Jinsha River here) running in front of the town. The village's ethnic minority inhabitants, who of course still comprise the majority of the present-day citizens 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. Because of this, the village is often referred to as Oversized Jade Inkstone Village. Inkstones, or ink slabs, were typically carved of jade with a pond in the center (the inkwell itself), or sometimes with 2 or more ponds/inkwells if different colors of ink were to be used.


The most common floor for calligraphists was red and black, images that were then decorated with trees and houses, pavilions, and more around the principle drawing. Even today, many say that Lijiang Old Town is 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 inhabited today as it always was. In this sense, Lijiang Old Town is like a living museum.

The layout of Lijiang Old Town is unusual in Chinese terms, and this comes partly from the necessity of having the streets and alleyways conform to the special waterways. However, it is also partly due to the fusion in architectural styles where no single style, with its otherwise characteristic layout, would dominate. Each of the 3 styles of architecture and layout is adjusted to accommodate the other 2, with the result that a genuine fusion is achieved.

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.

One of the most striking things about Lijiang Old Town is that it has no protective city walls. Looking back into the city’s deep history, 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 square-ish 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 siege, 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 siege continued after the demise of the hereditary chieftain, because in ancient Chinese culture, both superstition and filial piety (respect for one's ancestors) abounded. Some would say that modern-day Chinese are still as superstitious as were their ancestors, even if the bonds of filial piety have weakened.

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 the 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.

There have also been complaints of rowdiness on the part of certain travelers 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. 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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How to Get There?

From the new city (Lijiang City), the only way to get to the Old Town is walk, or rent a bike (automobiles are not permitted in the village).

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This is a living city, so it never "closes", of course.

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There are 4 comments on this topic

posted by "cbonnal" at 3/27/2011 9:10:00 AM

Gorgeous architecture, fascinating culture, wonderful scenery, Lijiang has everything. However, it is way too touristic. Honestly, I think it's the most touristic city I've ever been too (together with Dali), and yet I thought nothing could be more touristic than Praha or Venice... No one lives in the old town of Lijiang. All the villagers now live in Lijiang new town, so don't expect to see the countryside life in Lijiang old town. Every single house is a souvenir shop, hotel, cafe or restaurant. Despite all this, I still enjoyed very much my stay there very much cause I enjoyed the beautiful architecture, the Naxi fascinating culture and the scenery. But if you're dreaming of a small village untouched by tourist industry - don't go.


posted by "Kathy L" at 11/14/2010 5:29:00 PM

Lijiang is a place of great charm, its architecture merged into elites of other nationalities. But it’s a little bit noisy because of bars on street. Lijiang is the paradise of Naxi people; most of those special local products sold are handmade by them.


posted by "hcf122" at 10/24/2008 4:06:00 AM

Nice but too touristy.


posted by "chinatravel" at 1/23/2008 8:24:00 PM

The city was built in Song Dynasty, which has more than eight centuries history.


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