China is so much more than the hustle and bustle of big cities that flaunt their sky-scrappers into the night with flashing neon lights. South of the clouds in Yunnan province, nestled under the snow-capped Hengduan Mountain Range, lies Lijiang, an ancient traditional Chinese city with narrow weaving cobblestone streets. Since its old town was deemed a Unesco world heritage site, it’s become a popular tourist destination, drawn by the beauty of cherry blossoms, temples, and mountains, this town as a place to reflect, and breathe the mountain air along a leisurely stroll.
Lijiang (丽江), which means “beautiful river,” is in the northwest of Yunnan province, neighboring the Tibetan plateau, halfway between the borders of Shenzhen province and Myanmar, nestled beneath the thirteen peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range. Yunnan province is home to many different peoples, and Lijiang has been the political, commercial and cultural center for the Naxi people since the 7th century. The majority of China’s Naxi people still live in and around Lijiang, and while the official language across mainland China is Mandarin, around one third of people in Lijiang speak Naxi, a Sino-Tibetean language.
At the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Lijiang began to grow in importance as a trading town along the Ancient Tea Horse Road that traced a network of caravan roads along the Hengduan Mountain Ranges, through the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet. Tea and silk were the main goods traded. But even before the Yuan Dynasty, dating all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Lijiang area held a special place in the textile market–the Baisha old town, 8km north of Lijiang, used to be a central place in Southwest China for silk embroidery.
Lijiang was once a major hub of the southern silk, tea, and horse trading routes that started in Burma and passed through Lijiang onwards to Tibet, Iran, and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Nowadays, Lijiang’s population is tiny compared to other Chinese cities (only 1.2 million people), the city limits are vast and encompass mostly rural land. Agriculture and tourism are the largest industries in the area, with several beautiful, small “Old Towns” built around canals becoming increasingly commodified over the past decade as tourist attractions for Chinese and international visitors. The Old Town of Lijiang was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, attracting hotels, hostels, bars, shops, and businesses catering to tourists that displaced local residents. To the north, the Baisha Old Town was the central trading hub on the Tea-Horse route, and is slightly less tourist-filled than the Lijiang Old Town, while the Shuhe (束河) Ancient Town is the smallest and less-visited of the three old towns, famous for its ancient stone bridges.
The area surrounding Lijiang is renowned for textile dyeing and weaving, costumes and clothing design, jewellery and woodcraft, architecture, and a myriad of music and dance traditions, and while these arts are hard to preserve, collaborative artists studios and new creative practices are taking part in documenting and revitalizing these nearly-lost arts. The Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute is a school for traditional Naxi silk embroidery that was established 800 years ago and still trains artisans today, and Yunnan is one of the richest regions when it comes to preserving intricate cultural heritage through craft.
In Lijiang, the Dongba Culture Museum documents the ancient and living Dongba culture of the Naxi people, including a complex oral traditions and the world’s last living pictographic script. Artist Frog Wing became an apprentice to Dongba shamans to learn to intricate scroll painting, Dongba script and rituals. Frog is one of the dedicated facilitators at Lijiang Studio, a residency run in close partnership with three generations of the He family on their farm in a village in the Lashihai valley. Over the past 15 years, Lijiang Studio continuously connects creative people of all practices in collaborations. Composers, puppeteers, filmmakers, farmers, anthropologists and pickle-makers all find space to experiment and learn from their surroundings.
At such a high altitude, the air is rarefied and dry, with warm, rainy summers and cold winters. The surrounding landscapes are stunning, and a short drive, bike ride or horse trek up in the mountains leads to temples. Though tourism industries are encroaching on all sides as more and more visitors from all over China and beyond for brief visits and vacations to the commercialized Old Towns, the villages just beyond remain one of the last places to learn centuries-old ways of creating from the elders.
This video was directed and filmed by Nathaniel Brown & An Xiao Mina, edited by AJ Sinker, produced by Kira Simon-Kennedy, with additional camera work by . This guide is written by Kira Simon-Kennedy & Shahong Lee.