Lijiang Ancient Town

Written by Ruru Zhou Updated May. 28, 2024

Lijiang Old Town, originally a village, is located in Western China's 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. 

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. Most of the Old Town's houses stand so close together and in such an orderly fashion. It is said that their roofs, seen from above and at a slight angle, form neat rows that suggest the teeth of a comb.

History and Culture

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.

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.

A Stop on the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road

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.

Why There Was no a City Wall around Lijiang Ancient Town

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 the Chinese character "mu," is added to a square-ish outer frame, then the character "mu" is transformed into the character "kun"

Unluckily, signifies "besieged" or "in a predicament." Therefore, by semantic extension, where 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 astigmatic 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.

Top Attractions to See in Lijiang Ancient Town

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 archetypical village-surrounded-by-trees-and-mountains motif. 

Explore Ancient Buildings and Streets

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 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.

Enjoy a Bird’s Eye View of Lijiang Ancient Town

The Lion Hill is the highest altitude to provide a good view of the panorama of Lijiang Ancient Town. Standing on the summit of the mountain, visitors can see a large scale of grey tile rooftops of Lijiang Ancient Town on one side and the modern flat rooftops of Lijiang New Town on the other side with the background of the Jade Snow Mountain in the distance. 

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