China’s many old towns and ancient villages are very easy to overlook when so many of the must-see destinations in this country typically involve China’s ancient past or its bright future. However, I think, China’s old towns and ancient villages are worth the visit, too.
Of China’s 45 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there are about six or seven of these old towns and ancient villages. Let me tell you about the two that I have been to thus far.
Lijiang, Yunnan Province
Right off the bat, I knew there was something special about Lijiang. It was not the rows of small wooden houses with rooftops made with terra cotta tiles (though these certainly helped). What made it special was something grander in scale. This sprawling ancient village is situated in the shadow of the highest mountains the world: the Himalayas.
Lijiang lies in the shadow of the Himalayas.
Things gets even more impressive. Lijiang, I learned, is the home of the Naxi, one of the many ethnic minorities of China with distinct culture and language. They even have their own writing system—called Dongba—which uses hieroglyphs (like the Egyptians did). Today, however, the Dongba is mostly for ceremonial and decorative purposes.
The ancient writing system of the Naxi people: Dongba
What is still used in the everyday life of the Naxi—at least for Naxi women—are traditional clothing: a wide-sleeved loose gown with jacket, trousers and a decorative belt supporting, what seemed to me, a cape at the back which resembled the tail of a peacock. Many Naxi women can be spotted wearing this traditional clothing throughout Yunnan province.
Surprisingly, Naxi women still don traditional clothing in their everyday lives.
This isn’t to say that it’s all idyllic in Lijiang old town. It’s not. Because of its size and prominence, Lijiang is a big attraction for Chinese tourists. Hordes of people fill the tiny alleys of this old town every day. Many of the old houses have been turned into restaurants, bars and tourist shops, too. If this turns you off, then perhaps you’ll like the other ancient town I visited.
Hongcun, Anhui Province
Just a few hours from the bright lights of Shanghai is ancient China’s countryside. This is the fertile region of the Yangtze River delta. Naturally, many settlements sprung up here throughout history. Three of them made it to UNESCO’s heritage list. One is Hongcun.
Hongcun, as with many parts of Anhui, is the home of the Huizhou Chinese. The Huizhou are known to be skilled entrepreneurs often away in some other part of the empire doing business but dutifully sending money back home. Hongcun was a fruit of that wealth.
The wealth of the Huizhou Chinese built the mansions and halls of Hongcun.
The small village had grand gathering halls and mansions for the clans that lived here. Snaking between and around the structures are the small canals which funnel water from the nearby streams to right outside and even inside the homes of the villagers.
Half-moon pond in the centre of Hongcun
It is very quiet in these parts, at least when I visited. A few tourists came every now and then, but most were really just day trippers. As the evening rolled in, when Hongcun was practically empty save for us and the locals (yes, locals still live here), it was not hard to imagine what the village would have been like in Ancient China. It is no surprise really that Ang Lee chose Hongcun as one of the filming locations for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Parts of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed here.
As I see it, Lijiang is for those who want to see a sprawling old town. Though touristy, its special beauty (both in itself and by virtue of its location) is incomparable to anywhere else in China. Meanwhile, Hongcun appeals to those who want to have a quieter old town experience, something smaller in scale but closer perhaps to what an ancient village should be. If you ask me, of course, both are worth the visit.