Lijiang is a unique testimony of co-existence between various cultures, religions and nature. However, mass tourism could alter the destination’s uniqueness. A conservation plan will now fix limits to the destination’s commercial development.
The old town of Lijiang, set in an uneven topographic site, is a unique urban structure adapted to its difficult environment. It has retained an historic townscape of high quality and authenticity, according to UNESCO, with century-old architecture blending elements from several cultures. The city entered the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 and has since been a favourite destination for culture-minded travellers.
Located on the Lijiang plain at an elevation of 2,400 meters in southwest Yunnan, Lijiang has been since the 12th century an important distribution centre for trade between Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet, and is where the Silk Road in the south joins the Ancient Chama (Tea and Horse Roads).
The Old Town of Lijiang turned into an important centre for economic and cultural communication between various ethnic groups such as the Naxi, Han, Tibetan and Bai. Cultural and technological exchanges over the past 800 years resulted in the particular local architecture, art, urban planning and landscape.
A major element is the harmonious integration of urban structures with the mountains, rivers and trees creating a unity between man and nature. With mountains extending to the plain as the protective screen in the north and the plains in the east and south, the Old Town enjoys a sound geometrical relationship and ecological layout.
The Old Town of Lijiang comprises three parts: Dayan Old Town (including the Black Dragon Pond), Baisha and Shuhe housing clusters.
Dayan Old Town was established in the Ming dynasty as a commercial centre and includes the Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office; the Yizi pavilion, Guabi Tower surrounded by exceptional two-storeyed, tile-roofed, timber-framed houses combining elements of Han and Zang architecture representative of the Naxi culture. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements – pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.
The Baisha housing cluster established during the Song and Yuan dynasties is located eight kilometres north of the Dayan Old Town. Houses here are arranged on a north-south axis around a central, terraced square. The religious complex includes halls and pavilions containing more than 40 paintings dating from the early 13th century, which depict subjects relating to Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and the life of the Naxi people. The murals teach about the harmony of religions in the community.
Together with the Shuhe housing cluster, which is located four kilometres north-west of Dayan Old Town, these settlements, nestling in mountains and surrounded by water, reflect the blend of local cultures, folk customs and traditions over several centuries. In particular, the murals in the religious architecture and other buildings reflect the harmonious co-existence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
The combination of the water system, the urban structures, the pleasant environment and the integration of folk art into daily life form an outstanding example of human habitat, according to UNESCO.
With Lijiang a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city has turned into one of the most popular destinations for travellers, especially domestic visitors. Improvements in transportation infrastructure throughout the 1990s have facilitated total arrivals rising from 1.7 million to 16 million travellers between 1997 and 2015, making it one of China’s top destinations for domestic travellers. International travellers come mainly from Japan, Korea and Taiwan with a few Europeans venturing into the city’s narrow streets.
Like in other old cities turning into mass tourism destinations, Lijiang traditional way of life has had a sometimes difficult co-existence with modern travellers’ requests. Inns and hotels in the old town are chasing away local inhabitants while restaurants and karaoke bars are replacing traditional shops. Striking the right balance between authenticity and tourism is likely to be a major issue in the coming years if the city does not want to be turned into an urban theme park. Some tourists have already started to bypass this architectural jewel due to the permanent crowds in town, preferring to head directly to Dali.
The Central Government as well as Yunnan and Lijiang authorities are aware of the challenges. The Old Town of Lijiang has strictly abided by China PRC law on the protection of cultural relics and regulations on the protection of historical and cultural cities, towns and villages. In recent years, World Heritage protection and management organs at various levels have taken additional measures, working with professional institutions and experts to enhance research on the “Outstanding Universal Value of the Old Town of Lijiang”.
A conservation master plan for the old town of Lijiang looks at strengthening control and management over tourism and commercial development in the core historical area and immediate surrounds.