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Discover Lijiang

Discover Lijiang

In The Shadow Of The Jade Dragon


By Jim Goodman

This world can boast of few places enjoyable on as many different levels as Lijiang. In the north-western part of China's Yunnan Province, at a comfortable altitude of 2400 metres, Lijiang sits on a broad plain, ringed by mountains. To the north tower the snowy peaks of Jade Dragon Mountain, 5596 metres tall, girdled with rich forests that yield over 400 kinds of trees, half the province's botanical species, dozens of azalea types and hundreds of medicinal plants. The city itself is really two, for the new sections have grown up around an old town that has retained its basic layout, lifestyle and architecture intact since its foundation in the 13th century. Other Chinese cities have old neighbourhoods, maybe even a gate and part of a wall; but nothing comparable to Lijiang. Chinese tourists, who number a million annually, come to see the kind of urban setting their grandparents grew up in, and which no longer exists as a complete entity anywhere else in the country.

Yet this old town, so evocative of traditional Chinese urban life, is inhabited not by Han but by Naxi, one of Yunnan's 24 minority nationalities. Han live in the new town, but the old town and the villages are all Naxi. These people have assimilated much of the Han ways and in many respects have preserved Chinese traditions more than the Han. But they have their own highly-evolved culture, speak a Tibeto-Burman language and possess a rich heritage in art, music and literature.

In the villages, both on the plain and in the mountains to the north, the Naxi may exhibit less of the artistic bent of their urban cousins, but they retain the basic politeness, composure and affability that have made Lijiang hosts so gracious. Naxis build their villages astride streams and sometimes engineer the flow to several neighbourhoods and out to their fields. Houses are sturdy, two or three story buildings of mud-brick on stone foundations with sloping tiled roofs. People live simple, frugal, hard-working lives, yet take time out for festivals, feasts and picnics. They are friendly to the guests who pop in from all over the world to stroll in the quiet countryside, breathe the pure mountain air and gaze at timeless vignettes of rural China.

Besides the fascination of its old town and the beauty of its scenery, Lijiang has other aspects, appealing to senses like taste, for example. Travellers can try the Western-style food at several tourist-oriented restaurants, eat excellent Chinese cuisine, order up a Mongolian-style hot pot of meat and vegetables, or sample a variety of Naxi specialities. The latter include local fish from Lashi Lake, baked rice with sausages, wheat flour buns, bean gelatine, curried frog, grilled pigeon, fried goat cheese and rice medallions cooked in pig blood (màbú). The city has its own beer now but the traditional Lijiang Naxi drink is a sherry-like liquor called yinjiu, made from barley, wheat, sorghum, yeast and spring water.

For those with more cerebral interests, Naxi art and music will draw their attention. Classical paintings, such as the frescoes of Baisha village, reveal a blend of Buddhist, Daoist and Tibetan influences in composition and colouring. Modern works reflect the contemporary revivalist trend, influenced by the traditional pictographs and themes of the ancient religious books. Naxi classical orchestras play tunes dating back to the Tang and Song Dynasties, while folk singers and dancers perform the numbers still popular in the countryside.

Besides its own inherent attraction, Lijiang is blessed with a location unique to Yunnan. In every direction the geography differs and the cultures of the peoples vary accordingly. To the south, on lower, long plains between rolling hills, live the Bai. Their history is tied in with the Kingdom of Dali in the past. Their reputation is that of industrious farmers, marble-quarriers, house-builders and woodcarvers. One branch lives east of Lijiang and their women, in blue and red jackets and bright caps, are often seen in the city.

To the north, in the mountains above Naxi villages, and north-east in Ninglang County, live the Yi. A semi-pastoral society, their traditional houses are simple log cabins, though the wealthier villages now have Yunnanese-style dwellings of rammed earth and tiled roofs. A conservative people, both sexes don felted or woven woollen capes, while the women wear long tri-coloured skirts and large hats. They keep lots of sheep, goats, pigs, ponies and, higher up, yaks, while raising maize, potatoes and buckwheat as staples.

North of the Yi, in the Yongning basin and around stunningly beautiful Lugu Lake, live the Mosuos. Their log cabins are more capacious than the Yi and at the lake every home has a simple boat, for fishing and transport. The Mosuo language is related to Naxi and although they are officially classified as a branch of the Naxi, they differ in two vital respects: their religion is Tibetan Buddhist and their social system is mainly matrilineal and matriarchal. The women inherit the property, run the households, take care of the guests and are far more self-confident, good-natured and relaxed than any other women in the region.

To the west of Lijiang the River of Golden Sand – the Jinshajiang (or Upper Yangtze) – makes a sharp turn north at Shigu and from here to the next major river valley – the Lancangjiang (Upper Mekong) – mountains predominate. The landscape is rougher, less settled and home more to bears, foxes, civets, rabbits and red pandas. It includes such gems as Ninety Nine Dragon Pools, on Laojun Mountain, which is a series of ponds that step down the slope, and the unique red rock formations around Liguang.

To Lijiang's north-west is the south-eastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau. Administratively part of Yunnan, at an average altitude of 3500 metres, Zhongdian County exhibits all the features of highland Tibetan life: barley cultivation, yaks and ponies, monks and monasteries, thick white-washed house walls with huge timber posts, yak cheese and buttered tea. And it's just a half-day's drive away. No other city is endowed with so much surrounding cultural diversity as Lijiang.

Even without the lures in other directions Lijiang alone could satisfy a traveller's ambitions. It has Dayan, the old town, a name which translates as "inkstand," for its mass of dark rooftops lying beside a wooded hill resembled one. The brush is the triangular peak of Wenbishan, which rises to the southwest. Dayan straddles three streams which originate in Black Dragon Pool Park, at the foot of Elephant Hill just north of the town. Nowadays the park holds a three-tiered pavilion and white arched bridge which, together with the peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain reflected in the pool, is the city's best-known image.

These streams run throughout the town and the Naxi use them to wash their vegetables, dishes and utensils. In between are the cobbled streets and connecting lanes, flanked by traditional-style walled compounds of stone, wood and tile, nearly always enclosing a small ornamental garden. A few large squares serve as markets. The residential area continues partway up the hill, providing views across the lower sections.

Motor traffic is largely banned in the old town and visitors find its quiet charm especially enchanting in the early morning and evening. Dayan is not so busy at these times, and the urban sounds at these hours are the songs of caged birds, footsteps on the cobblestones and the gurgling of the streams. The evenings are free of all vehicular noise, no one plays the TV or radio loud and the streams sound fuller. In mid-morning the streets fill up as women go to the markets as buyers, sellers and butchers, Bai souvenir merchants set up on the main square and Naxi gentlemen come here or one block over on the Old Stone Bridge to sit, chat and air their hunting hawks.

The town's location seems so ideal it's a wonder it's not the oldest settlement on the plain. But apparently the Naxi, who had been in control in the immediate vicinity for over a century, didn't live here until Kublai Khan camped on the streams in 1253. Having decided to invade Song China from the southwest, he had just led his army across the Jinshajiang north of Lijiang. The Naxi not only submitted, they helped him across in rafts made of bamboo and inflated goatskins. He appointed their chieftain to rule in his name and gave the Naxi a classical orchestra, with compositions that were currently played at the Song court.

The Naxi at that time were already a people with a fully developed tradition. They came to the Lijiang area in the 7th century and had occupied the whole plain by the early 12th century. Originating among the Qiang tribes of the grasslands of north-eastern Tibet, the Naxi developed their own religion, derived from Bön shamanism, in which the principal figure was the dongba. Every village of average size had at least one dongba, whose job was to carry out complex rituals for the worship of nature, propitiation of spirits, suppression of demons and the conducting of the soul after death. Dongbas chanted from manuscripts written in a unique pictographic form. These worked more as mnemonic devices than as true hieroglyphics, since the dongba supplied missing words by memory. Thousands of these manuscripts survive today as a rich source of traditional Naxi beliefs, mythology, rituals and ecology.

The Mu family which Kublai Khan assigned to govern Lijiang stayed in charge throughout the Ming and early Qing Dynasties. The Naxi made excellent frontier troops, hardy and courageous, and were employed both in the mountains of eastern Tibet and the jungles of tropical Burma. Meanwhile the Mu family patronised the religious and social concepts of the Naxis' Tibetan and Han neighbours. The Karmapa (Red Hat) sect from Tibet established several monasteries in the area and Daoists and Han Buddhists built temples in Dayan. The common folk absorbed the new tenets but remained basically true to the dongba tradition.

In 1723 the Qing government took direct control of Lijiang, appointing their own magistrates. This accelerated the assimilation process, as the Naxi adopted Confucian ethics, marriages by arrangement and burials. Naxi men were less conscripted for military service and became more refined, likely to compose poems, dabble in painting or calligraphy, or play an old tune on a traditional musical instrument.

Naxi life only began to change with the coming of World War II, when Lijiang was an important stop on the caravan supply route from India to western China. After 1949 arranged marriages were outlawed and women's lot improved so greatly that they are now the wheels of the economy, rather than its beasts of burden. Today's Naxi women still surprise visitors with their active, industrious lifestyle. Even the cape they wear, of black and white sheepskin with seven embroidered "stars," attests to this, for it symbolises the burden of Heaven, which the woman bears on her back.

The dongba tradition was officially discouraged after 1949, then proscribed along with the music and everything that smacked of ethnicity during the Cultural Revolution. But in 1979 the government reversed policy on its minorities, approving and even encouraging a return to traditions and customs. In Lijiang this led to the revival of the lilting, thousand-year-old music of the Naxi orchestras, always a treat for the ears of the city's guests. It also meant a new interest in the dongba legacy. Scholars worked with surviving old dongbas to translate the manuscripts. Painters took their themes from the dongba's tales and incorporated pictographs in their works. When Lijiang opened for foreigners in 1986, their guests' appreciation of the music and the pictographs was a spur to the general revivalism.

Today Lijiang's Naxis have become used to compliments on their culture and the beauty of their environment, and this has made them more conscious of their value. They encourage exploration, like the excursions to the high-altitude meadow of Yunshanping, above White Water Creek, or Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Jinshajiang becomes a slender torrent between Jade Dragon and Haba Mountains, or to Baoshan in the north, the walled, fortress-like town atop a huge boulder above the Jinshajiang.

With such a wealth of natural and manmade attractions and a friendly and hospitable population, Lijiang looks ahead to ever greater popularity. The horrible earthquake which racked the area last winter brought the city international attention. Aid came from all quarters and in six months the major damage had been repaired and tourism was thriving again. The publicity generated new interest, while outsiders' response to Lijiang's tragedy imbued its citizenry with a new sense of the city's worth. Not only were the damaged buildings repaired in traditional style, but all existing non-traditional buildings, built before the city was declared a national monument, were pulled down and rebuilt Naxi style. A row of concrete buildings which lined the new market street in the front of the old town blocked the view of the Naxi homes along the stream. The entire row was torn down, and not replaced by anything at all.

Emotionally, too, Lijiang has fully recovered from the earthquake. An even stronger sense of ethnic identity persists among the Naxi, a pride in their history and culture, which is infectious. It's a fine time to visit Lijiang now. It's so easy to be enthralled here you won't leave before promising, at least to yourself, to come again, stay longer, go further.


Text by Jim Goodman; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media