Old Town of Lijiang is one of the last surviving ancient towns in China

The Old Town of Lijiang, located in the Lijiang autonomous county of Yunnan province, is one of the last surviving ancient towns in China. The architecture of the Old Town of Lijiang is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures, and its ancient water-supply system of great complexity and ingenuity still functions effectively today. The Old Town of Lijiang was added to the list in December, 1997.

The Old Town of Lijiang, originally a village, is located on the outskirts of the present-day city of Lijiang. 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 Black Dragon Pool, a natural spring from which arises 3 small rivers, denoted simply as the East, West, and Middle rivers.

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. 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 Naxi people there.

The Naxi 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, Naxi 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 Naxi culture.

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).

Layout and Buildings
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".

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.

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