Lijiang: Capital of Romance, Naxi Culture – and a Dark Twist

Lijiang: Capital of Romance, Naxi Culture – and a Dark Twist

Lijiang in China’s Yunnan Province is famous for its UNESCO heritage old town as a capital of romance – and of the Naxi ethic minority’s culture.

That traditional romantic character and culture, however, comes with a side of suicide.

[Content warning, obviously: This post will focus on the romantic side of Lijiang – but that includes its famous tradition of love-suicide.]

The Many Opinions of Lijiang

Lijiang is one of the places in China that lead to very different opinions.

Some people celebrate it and see nothing but beauty. Others shun it as nothing but a Potemkin village for tourists.

It may be cliché, but the truth is probably in the middle.

Traveling for More than “Been There”

If you want to travel for more than just a superficial visit, it pays to look closer, to learn more about the place you are visiting.

It may leave you with less obvious conclusions about it than you would otherwise have had, going just by however you felt about it. But at least, your view will be closer to reality in all its complexity, too.

Tourist Lijiang

Lijiang as a tourist place is very much a set piece.

Its much-visited old town is actually quite new; it was restored from 2002-2005 after years of neglect and decline.

Before it was restored, it’s said that there weren’t even guesthouses to be found there.

Old town road of Lijiang, with inverted paper umbrellas that are prettily illuminated at night
Old town road of Lijiang, with inverted paper umbrellas that are prettily illuminated at night
Shopping street in the old town of Lijiang at night, 2019
Shopping street in the old town of Lijiang at night, 2019

Now, with the rise in popularity it has seen as a tourist destination, the cobblestone streets with water channels running beside them are full of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

Even years ago, during my first visit, there were more wifi networks there than spider webs.

Lijiang alley in 2009
Lijiang alley in 2009

The Naxi culture that Lijiang is a center of, too, is both being preserved here, and being invented.

The Draw of Love-Suicide

A particularly interesting example of tourist draw and cultural invented tradition is love-suicide.

We, a colleague of mine and I, had just arrived in Kunming and taken a taxi, mentioned where we would be going on this trip, when we encountered the influence.

Have you heard of the lovers who jumped off Yulongxueshan [Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the ‘house mountain’ of Lijiang] to their deaths?,” the driver had asked.

The Romantic Side

The way people tend to have heard about it, it is a romantic notion.

Lovers who were forbidden from marriage, rather than acquiesce to their family’s wishes, would make a bond to jointly go into the afterlife, hoping to be together that way, at least.

With that romanticism has come an idea that Lijiang is for lovers.

Gate in the old town of Lijiang
Gate in the old town of Lijiang

Lijiang Is For Lovers?

Not necessarily those lovers who are happily married or engaged, but rather those who are looking for a little something.

What happens in Lijiang stays in Lijiang. Even without suicide. That sort of idea…

A closer look, as usual, provides a much deeper awareness of the things that are happening. And much less clarity.

Exotic-Erotic

There is a lot of exoticising of ethnically “other” women happening here.

It happens, not even in a “yellow fever“-way (of Western men chasing after Asian women for some “reasons” that are really stereotypes, of how feminine and sweet they are, etc.), but in an almost traditionally (Han-)Chinese way.

Ethnic minority women have often been seen and portrayed (by the Han majority of people) as less civilized, wilder.

Where that makes minority men potentially seen as more of a danger, it makes women seen as more natural, more in tune with their sexuality.

If your mind’s eye goes to NSFW places when you read that, it’s going to the right place (or so it’s said, anyway).

People posing in modern interpretations of traditional Chinese costume
Lijiang as a mere backdrop for photos

Looking closer, the story of love-suicides is more complicated.

Love-Suicide

Love-suicides did happen.

They were probably less romantic, but possibly a form of protest against the loss of local autonomy and the arrival of patriarchal systems.

Ethnic minorities in this area of Yunnan did famously have more egalitarian societies, and they went all the way to the – at least, supposedly – matriarchal society of the Mosuo peoples at Lugu lake.

With all the murder-suicides “out of love” seen in the world, which are more of a continuation of male domestic violence and frustrated sexuality, it bears pointing out: These love-suicides were initiated by the women.

For me as a botanically inclined person, it was interesting to hear that these suicides were (arguably) not usually done by jumping off cliffsides, but through plant poison.

As the story goes, the first plant drug taken was one that paralyzed the vocal cords, so that there was no reconsidering and calling for help.

The view down from Yulongxueshan
It would be a sheer drop from Yulongxueshan – though I don’t think anyone would have climbed that far up

As these things go, the historical circumstances and “dangerous” contexts don’t matter much anymore, nowadays.

Only the feeling of something different, but romantic, remains and is being upheld – and commercialized.

For decades, Lijiang has occupied a distinctive place in popular imagination; and among tourist destinations it is thought of as a place with spiritual forces and healing power.

Lijiang tourism differs from the usual Chinese tourist places
that focus on programs consisting of visiting famous sites, taking pictures, and souvenir shopping. It instead presents an alternative model for simple relaxation and lifestyle change.

Chunmei Du (see “source” at the end)

The Surface Beauty

As a tourist-visitor who isn’t immersed in Chinese stories, you may never hear about this background. And Lijiang will still not only look touristy, but also beautiful.

The old town is rebuilt and often overrun by tourists – but it is pretty.

The paths through it are winding and confusing. With the waterways often running alongside them, you’d better be careful where you walk. Don’t get distracted and stumble into a ditch!

Only a slope is missing, a mountain right above, and it would look a lot like ‘my’ Austrian Hallstatt.

Look closer, and you may notice that some of those waterways’ edges are being used for a little bit of vegetable growing. (Of course, given my interests, I would notice. You can read more about this side of Lijiang here.)

Lijiang even has its “village mountain” . Or even mountains:

Yulong Xueshan visible (with heavy clouds at its top) from Heilongtan, 2009
Yulong Xueshan visible (with heavy clouds at its top) from Heilongtan, 2009

Yulong Xueshan and Black Dragon Pool

Off in the distance, often hidden in clouds, lies Yulongxueshan, “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.”

It is, far enough though it may be, considered a guardian and guide of Lijiang (maybe because of its meaning to Naxi culture in general).

From the Black Dragon Pool at the edge of Lijiang’s old town, it is particularly beautiful to see, when it can be seen from there. Often enough, clouds hide the mountain from view.

A morning non-view of Yulong Xueshan in 2019
A morning non-view of Yulong Xueshan in 2019

The path between the old town and this park goes along a rushing, burbling creek. A little up and down, the path sees schoolchildren skip to school, tourist visitors looking for photo spots, locals going to and from the market.

The side of Black Dragon Pool, one can climb up the mountain there (or come down from a little morning run, as I did). The climb is not far, but it is on steep stairs. And reaching above 2000 m in altitude at the top, it is exhausting enough.

The wide views over Lijiang and the surroundings are worth it, though.

The look South, East, and North from the hill above Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool), Lijiang; photo from 2009
The look South, East, and North from the hill above Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool), Lijiang; photo from 2009

The view also makes it obvious what a small part of Lijiang the Old Town actually is – but also, in all the usual construction all around, how nice the area is.

Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool) in the lower right, the old town of Lijiang lies left of the hill in the center of the photo
Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool) in the lower right, the old town of Lijiang lies left of the hill in the center of the photo

Mountains around beckon. The hills in Lijiang – standing on top, they feel like hills – are forested. Birds flit about. Okay, there may also be some modern communications tower up there, but that’s just modern life.

Lion Hill

The Lion hill with its Wangu tower, open only during daytime and requiring an entrance ticket, is much easier to get to; it forms the northern side of the old town.

Wangu Tower

It is an interesting mixture of reactions and views one sees there. Lots of people climb up the small steep paths leading there, but not so many people want to pay and get in.

Consequently, it is nice and calming to stroll around the park inside, climb up the tower for the view it offers of Lijiang new and old – and think about one’s enjoyment of such a place, perhaps.

The view of Lijiang's old town from the Wangu Tower on Lion Hill
The view of Lijiang’s old town from the Wangu Tower on Lion Hill

Expectations and Realities

If you go to a place like Lijiang expecting some untouched romantic home of an unspoiled ethnic minority culture that somehow was just waiting for you alone, well, then it’s your own darn fault.

Expect tourism and take things leisurely – as a tourist yourself, after all – and Lijiang is pretty. Or probably, given the amount of bars, exciting if that’s how you decide to play it.

If you want to let your exploration range a bit further, you can go to Yulongxueshan.

Or you can visit the village of Yuhu at its foot, following in the tracks of Austro-American Joseph Rock. His story is a fascinating linchpin around which to learn more about this region, its culture, history, and nature.


Source:
Chunmei Du, “The Love-Suicide Mystique of Naxi: Experiential Tourism and Existential Authenticity.” Frontiers of History in China 2015, 10(3): 486–512


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