feature stories

Cultural Lijiang – Silk, Tea and Woodcraft

Lijiang (丽江), which means “beautiful river,” is in the northwest of Yunnan province, neighbouring the Tibetan plateau, halfway between the borders of Sichuan 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 centre 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.

Lijiang was once a major hub of the southern silk, tea, and horse trading routes that started in Burma (now Myanmar) 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.