Upon reaching Lijiang in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, one gets quite close to the legendary “Shangri-La”. In 1933, the word "Shangri-La" first appeared in the British novel, “Disappearing Horizon”. It refers to a place occupied by human beings and deities, where people live harmoniously with nature. Author James Hilton's inspirations came from the southwest of China.
The ancient town of Lijiang was initially the only bazaar on the Yunnan-Tibet trade route. Construction of the town began about 800 years ago. Consequently, shops and stores were set up through which the caravans passed through. Today, several people from the 6,000 or so households in the 3.8 square-meter town are still making bronze and silverware, curing fur, and managing inns and shops.
Walking through the town, one immediately feels its age-old splendor. The streets are paved with stone plates which have retained their natural texture. The stone pavements protected the streets from wear and tear, and also helped to reduce dust and prevent the formation of water puddles. However, the stone pavements are worn out now.
There is no city wall girdling Lijiang. Moreover, the town does not have the axis line around which residential and other buildings are arranged in symmetry. Instead, ancient roads and country trails converge onto the town from all directions and integrate into the branch alleys. These, in turn, converge onto four main streets, which then open into a 500-meter long square. Known as the Square Street, it is historically the most prosperous marketplace. The winding alleys and streets are lined with wooden structures or wooden-brick residential houses.
The most common layout of Lijiang's traditional courtyard is "three houses plus one screen wall" – the main house is in the center, facing two wing houses and a screen wall. Each house has two storeys with three rooms each. The main room, facing the south, is for senior family members. The two secondary houses in the east and west wings are for youngsters. Another popular layout comprises one main room, two wing rooms and one "lower room", altogether making a quadrangle courtyard. There are also four smaller yards at each corner of the courtyard, altogether called "quadrangle plus four yards." The floor is paved with pebbles or colorful stones which make up intricate patterns.
If the ancient roads and residential houses lend a simplistic beauty and a sense of remoteness to Lijiang, the surrounding snow-capped mountains and the gurgling creeks running through the town help bridge the distance between man and nature.
The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is clearly visible, standing majestically outside the town, with snow-capped peaks all year round. The melting snow flows down the mountain slope, picking up spring water on the way. Three main water flows divide into numerous branches running along the streets of the town. Some even flow past the courtyard walls, greeting the courtyard residents on the way. The streams vary in width from one to five meters. The crystal streams flow energetically, filling the banks. Pleasant gurgling is heard everywhere in Lijiang, especially at night, making the residents feel like they live by mountain springs. The water lends inspiring rhythm to the town and makes one feel purified.
The ancient streets, bridges and streams represent the exterior of Lijiang. The people, however, represent its inner soul. Most residents in Lijiang belong to the Naxi ethnic group. Their ancestors worshipped nature, and regarded many birds and animals as divine.
Legend has it that Man and the "Shu" deity were half-brothers. Shu was responsible for overseeing mountains, forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife. Initially the brothers got along well, but later, Man's greed led to the destruction of forests, contamination of river fountainheads and killing of animals. Shu was enraged and decided to punish Man, bringing illness, floods and earthquakes into the world. Therefore, the Naxi people hold rites every year, offering sacrifices to Shu and praying for good fortune.
It is believed that Shu lived near the fountainhead of rivers. Hence the Naxi people forbid the pollution of water sources and felling of trees. In Lijiang, stone tablets are inscribed with rules asking people to treat mountains, trees and water with reverence.
There are several wells in the ancient town; each one is often made up of three "sub-wells" for drinking, rinsing and washing purposes. Small bowls are arranged next to some wells to provide water for passersby. The locals habitually wash the streets. Previously, at the end of each day, people would dam the waterways, and water would naturally flow into nearby alleys. Although this kind of organized street-washing is no longer practiced, the locals still wash their streets. Hence, the streets in Lijiang always remain clean.
In Naxi families, women are in charge of family affairs and men spend their time in leisure. Women spend their youth constantly working. The embroidered capes over their shoulders are a symbol of “shouldering the heavy duties”. However, they are at peace with this lifestyle and do not regret it.
In contrast, men are well versed in poetry, calligraphy, painting and music. Naxi classical music is heard everywhere in Lijiang. Every village in the countryside has a traditional musical band. Traditional Naxi music is considered as a living fossil of ancient music, as it preserves the musical forms from thousands of years ago.
Men, however, do not monopolize the pleasant and gentle-paced life. A flower fair is organized annually, in which families display their best-potted flowers and artificial rockery. Many locals grow flowers in their courtyards as a hobby. Family members often get together in the flower-rich courtyards, drinking tea and chatting.
Feasting parties are also common. Relatives and friends organize feasting clubs, regularly arranging dinners in rotation to treat club members. Money is contributed by all members but cooking is done by one family at a time. Women often play a leading role in these activities. A foreign reporter once asked a local old man if the pace of life in Lijiang was too slow. The old man replied: "Why must one rush through life? One begins to head for the end of life the moment one is born."
The Naxi people have their own culture, called the Dongba Culture. It includes the Dongba writing system, scripts, paintings, music, dance, and sacrificial rites. Dongba in Naxi language means "the Sage" or "the Master". The Naxi sages and masters are the elite of the Dongba Culture. They inherit the ethnic group's ancient culture and hand it down to the younger generation, and are well-versed in Dongba pictography and scripts.
The Dongba characters are the only living pictography in the world today. Academicians unanimously agree that the Naxis are the only people in the world who have recorded their own history with volumes of picture-like characters across centuries. Today, more than 20,000 volumes of Dongba scripts are still present in Chinese and Western libraries. These classics are the encyclopedia of the ancient Naxi society.
American scholar Joseph Locke is called the "father of the Naxi studies". Starting from 1923, he lived in Lijiang for 27 years. In his last days, he wrote to a friend: "I would rather die amidst the flowers of the Yulong Snow Mountain than dying alone on his deathbed in the hospital."
Lijiang is a place that can never be forgotten. In 1997, it was listed by the UNESCO as a site of World Cultural Heritage.
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