In the early 1990s the Chinese government nominated Lijiang's old town of Dayan (大研) to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the time, Dayan was the last major traditional urban entity in southwest China. It was basically an autonomous town, whose 50,000 or so Naxi (纳西) inhabitants grew their own food, brought in their own fuel, organized their own markets, got water from the streams that ran through town and were dependent on the outside for basically just electricity. Life in old Dayan ran pretty much the same way it had for centuries. All but a handful of its buildings were in the traditional Chinese style, characterized by red wooden walls, stone foundations and tiled roofs. In terms of Heritage Site qualifications, Dayan lacked nothing.
On my first visits to Lijiang in the early 90s, foreigners had to stay in hotels near the Mao statue — a part of the city full of drab, utilitarian, concrete buildings, a few blocks away from the entry to Dayan. Unlike Dali then, no guesthouses existed in the old town. I used to rise early and head for the old town to see who wakes up and starts working first. Turned out to be the makers of noodles and black bean pudding. The rest of the city slept in longer. Only around 9am did people start setting up market stalls in Sifang Square and Qiyi Jie, while Shazu xiang became lined with butcher stalls run by middle-aged Naxi women.
Most of the older women dressed in the Naxi style and donned the seven-starred sheepskin cape as well. A shop producing them stood next to the Old Stone Bridge. The men preferred ordinary modern clothes and didn't seem to ever work much. The women ran the market stalls, did the purchasing, washed vegetables in the streams, hauled in the firewood and toted the water pails. Many men carried caged songbirds out to places where they could sit, smoke long pipes and listen to the birds. Others brought their hawks with them, tied to their wrists, and sat on benches to drink tea and converse.
I never tired of treading those winding stone streets to every nook and cranny of the town. But that was an adventure that generally ended shortly after dark. The small daytime restaurants, where I enjoyed lunches of rice and sausage baked in a clay pot, washed down with a glass of the Naxi wine yinjiu, were closed by then. People had all retired to their homes for the evening and the only restaurants were at the far edge of the town, next to the new city. In that respect, too, Dayan was following the old ways, for traditional small towns in China did not have much of a night life.
Lijiang didn't have an airport then, nor the highway from Dali through Songgui (松桂) and Heqing (鹤庆) that reduced the journey from over six hours to under three. Few tourists, Western or Chinese, made it that far. The Westerners were almost all backpackers and the Chinese visitors included mostly art students, who would sit on the rocks to sketch the traditional houses or the Old Stone Bridge.
No spot in the old town was ever crawling with tourists. And anyway, some of the tourists were Tibetans from Diqing Prefecture and Yi from Ninglang County. A few Bai women from Dali ran shops selling antiques or brass and copper items. Other Bai women came from nearby Jinshan (金山乡), distinctive in their bright blue and rose pink jackets and headscarves. The presence of these outsider minorities further emphasized the ethnic element in Dayan's exotic atmosphere.
Always fascinated exploring the old town — submerged in a timeless classical urban China atmosphere — I was not surprised to learn of Dayan's bid to become a World Heritage Site. The UNESCO selection committee slated a visit for the spring of 1996. But before they arrived, a violent earthquake, 7.2 on the Richter scale, struck Lijiang County on a cold February 4, at 7:15 in the evening. For ten terrible seconds, shockwaves punched through various spots in the old town and countryside, leveled dozens of houses, office buildings and business establishments, ripped open foundations, cracked stone walls and sent others tumbling to the ground. Whole villages — especially in the Wenbishan (文笔山) and Jinshan areas — collapsed in a heap. The quake killed 80 in Lijiang and over 300 in the countryside.
Dayan residents had to put up tents and makeshift shelters of corrugated iron sheets or thick cardboard and sleep in courtyards or public squares — in sub-freezing temperatures. With aftershocks continuing, they were afraid to stay in their homes, even if these were the undamaged ones, and risk having the roof collapse on them. Relief poured in from all over the country, especially Hong Kong, but by the time the Heritage Site committee arrived, little had been restored and the city was still in a shambles.
The quake had punched around the town, rather than concentrating on one big area, so the committee members often walked past a row of fallen buildings piled on top of their own rubble, while the buildings on either side and behind them stood undamaged. The initial quake demolished a large percentage of the wealthy folks' homes, but the aftershocks hit mainly the poorer quarters of town. The committee didn't wait to see how reconstruction turned out. Its members approved Dayan's bid, making recognition official later the same year.
The one positive effect of the earthquake was a new awareness, both nationally and locally, of Dayan's cultural value. Millions of people who had never heard of Lijiang before followed developments of the catastrophe on national news channels. Many of them now wanted to go see it before anything more befell it in this seismically active part of remote China. A new airport opened south of the city and newly rich Chinese tourists began flocking to Lijiang even while reconstruction was still in progress.
The local government decided, in line with the Heritage Site award, all buildings within the boundaries of the old town had to be in the traditional style. This meant knocking down the row of three-story cement shop-houses that lined one of the streets leading to Sifang Square. Fancy new buildings in a traditional style replaced them. While they looked a little too good for Dayan, a few future monsoons would weather them enough to look like a natural part of the city.
Reconstruction included erecting small wooden bridges over the streams to replace the existing simple stone slabs. The government also reorganized the market scene by closing the butcher stalls on Shazu Lane and relocating them and the stalls on Sifang Square and elsewhere to a new venue two blocks beyond the old town. Residents now had to walk a long way to buy their food.
It turned out the authorities had their own idea of what a Heritage Site should look like. That view didn't stress preservation so much as transformation. Apparently they thought that recognition as a Heritage Site gave them the right, even the duty, to recreate Dayan as an idealized version of itself. This was not a decision made by insensitive Han bureaucrats from the north. This was the choice of the Naxi-run city government itself, a policy that eventually resulted in the removal of all the Naxi living in the Naxi old town.
Dayan's makeover began with the destruction of the rest of the undamaged buildings in about twenty square blocks of the southwest quarter in order to construct a magnificent palace compound. Officials claimed they were recreating the original palace of the former Mu family rulers that existed in the past.
This was simply not true. In dynastic times, strict sumptuary laws governed how big or fancy a house could be, depending on one's rank in the Confucian hierarchy. If this Mu family palace were really an authentic recreation of the original it would have been twice as big as that of the governor of Yunnan province. The notion that the palace of a minor frontier town could be bigger and more impressive than the governor's in the capital was historically, culturally and legally impossible.
Of course, the new palace compound included a ticket booth. And its construction signaled the new attitude applied to the old town. Its transformation would not be marked by restoring Dayan to what it had been before, but by making a wholly new Dayan, oriented toward attracting tourist money. As for the damaged buildings, in most cases the owners did not have enough money to reconstruct them. Chinese businessmen, largely from Hunan province, swarmed into Dayan to make deals with these owners to rent their buildings, pay for reconstruction, keep the traditional architecture but make it bigger, more ornate, and convert it into guesthouses, restaurants or high-priced souvenir shops.
Within a year most of the damaged buildings, thanks to outside investment, had been restored, but not as Naxi houses. Their former residents, as well as those evicted to make room for the Mu family palace, moved into a subdivision outside Lijiang the government created for them. These new houses were constructed in the Naxi style, but were identical — all the same dimensions and the same distance apart from each other, like barracks in an army compound. They were more modern than those in Dayan, with running water and with two toilets per house, instead of one every two blocks, as in Dayan. The people lived more comfortably than before, but they had lost the whole social and cultural environment they had enjoyed before the earthquake.
The business assault next targeted the undamaged houses, aiming to turn these into commercial establishments as well. Naxi home owners initially resisted, especially the older generation, but already tourists from all over China were flooding Lijiang and the kind of lifestyle Dayan residents had enjoyed before the earthquake was looking increasingly impossible to revive. Within a few years every family had agreed to move out and every old building in Dayan had been torn down and rebuilt as a guesthouse, restaurant or souvenir shop. They all employed traditional architecture, but one far fancier than the original houses. The only parts of Dayan left intact and authentic were the Old Stone Bridge and the paving stones.
The makeover continued with the erection of two huge water-wheels — which Dayan never had in the past — next to an entry gate proudly announcing its status as a World Heritage Site. Other arches and gates went up on various streets, along with rows of potted flowers. The city government also required every building to hang red lanterns from the rafters beside the front doorway. Officials explained that because of the international renown of the film Raise the Red Lantern, people associated red lanterns with traditional domestic Chinese architecture.
Apparently none of them actually saw the movie. In the film's narrative, the red lantern goes up when it's that particular concubine's turn to sleep with the master. So the red lantern of the movie is not exactly symbolic of domestic architecture, but instead symbolic of domestic sex. By 2004, when I visited Dayan again after seven year's absence, soft lighting illuminated the buildings of the old town at night — the lanterns were lit and wild parties transpired at the square, full of boisterous singing and drinking by Chinese tour groups, replacing the former peace and nighttime quiet of old Dayan. The atmosphere was now more like that of a traditional red-light district.
Four years later, on a brief return visit, the only Naxi seen in Dayan were the dancers that entertained tourists daily at Sifang Square and the older men in ancient martial gear guiding children's pony rides through the old town. Where only two guesthouses had existed on the periphery of the old town before the earthquake, the town now had hundreds. Every other building was a commercial tourist establishment.
Yet Chinese tourists loved it. Just because the buildings were all in classic Chinese style, Dayan seemed to look like the kind of place their grandparents grew up. That the Dayan lifestyle had disappeared did not bother them. It was too harsh a way of life to witness anyway, an unwanted reminder of the bad old days before they all became rich enough to be tourists to faraway places like Lijiang. As for the ethnic element, Chinese tourists could rent colorful Guizhou province Miao costumes for an afternoon and parade around town.
In the end, the earthquake was less damaging to Dayan than its reconstruction afterwards. The earthquake killed a lot of people, true, but the makeover of the town killed its identity forever. The Naxi could have restored Dayan after the quake to its original condition, slowly maybe, but they could have done it. But its post-quake designation as a World Heritage Site soon made that impossible. The characteristics of Dayan that made it so richly deserve recognition as a World Heritage Site became destined for deliberate extirpation, thanks to the decision to cash in on the award and orient the town in the direction of tourist revenues. A Heritage Site jettisoned its heritage to morph into a holiday playground. And that was the greater tragedy.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally posted on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). Goodman has recently released an ebook entitled "Living in Shangrila: Tibetans and Mosuo in Northwest Yunnan". It and many other works by the author can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu.
All images: Jim Goodman