Asia | China | Yunnan Province | Lijiang – Lijiang, where dragons hide and tigers crouch
I still wanted to explore around Dali a bit more, but moved on today remembering what I read in a guide book ‘If you wanted to stay in Dali, don’t. Because Lijiang is even better.’ Old town Lijiang, with its running streams and exotic local Naxi culture, somehow became the highight of the trip before I even saw it.
However, all I wanted to do after getting there was to dig a hole in the ground and hide myself from the tour groups filling up the narrow cobblestone lanes, the souvenir shops occupying every single preserved traditional Naxi residence in old town, and crowds of people posing in front of a gigantic porcelein screen written by President Jiang Zeming declaring Lijiang a world heritage center. This is the dreamy Lijiang I had expected?
I found a refuge in a family-run inn at the edge of old town. With three connected 2-story buildings surrounding a dainty courtyard, the property was a typical tranditional Naxi house passed within the family for generations. The proprietress turned it into an inn when Lijiang became a hot tourist spot in the late 90s and business has been booming ever since. Not all Naxis have such a business mind like theirs, however, her husband told us. Most Naxis like to lead a simple life and are content when they are adequently fed and clothed. Indeed, the locals have retreated to the hills by the edge of town, leaving the main part of old town for merchants from Fujian and Guangxi provinces and millions of tourists. Even those who are invovled in business do it on a small scale, selling roasted corns on a coal stove set up along the road or opening one of the ubiquitous rice noodle stands. Although we have heard that the Naxis are hospitable people, the residents on the hills are too tired of the intrusion to their quiet lives, and were apathetic to visitors who do venture up the hill.
Every other shop on the street sold some sort of souvenir related to Dongba, the Naxi language. According to our proprietor, the ‘Dongba characters’ printed on the t-shirts and stamps are mostly made-up gibberish. Dongba, derived from the sounds of the beating of the drums during religious ceremonies, refers to the specially trained individuals who perform such ceremonies and the very pictorial language they use. The Dongbas earn others’ respect by mastering the very complex Dongba language after years of studying, while other educated Naxis all write Chinese characters instead. The costumes that waitresses wear in the so-called naxi restaurants are fake, too. Even those worn by old ladies have been modified after the communist takeover, with a liberation cape replacing the traditional headdress. Centuries of Chinese influence and a few years of tourism have definitely left their marks on Lijiang.
We spent the afternoon listening to our proprietor’s stories. Born in a local Naxi scholar’s family, he was a teacher before labeled a rightist in 1957 and sent to re-education camp for 2 years in northern Yunnan. After that, he vowed to never lift a pen again, and became a carpenter for 30 years. He pointed to the delicately carved door panes and told us that he made all of those. The famed local scholar Xuan Ke, an advocate for the revival of Naxi music who single-handedly supported half of Lijiang’s tourism, was his childhood playmate, and had once lived in this very house. Xuan Ke’s residence was across the street, and was supposedly built with the money that President Roosevelt’s son paid Xuan’s father when the latter helped Roosevelt Junior track down a rare white bear on the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. He took us to see Mr. Xuan’s, who was unfortunately not home. That was ok though, because we were planning on going to the Naxi concert that Mr. Xuan hosts every night.
Mr. Xuan appeared on the stage in a traditional long robe. An orchestra of musicians, mostly over 70, looked solemn, or perhaps just jetlagged from just returning from a tour in Japan two days ago. His Seinfeld style made the show a hit, and I had to wonder how much of the show is for promotion and how much real music. While he promoted his book and the orchestra’s CD, it once again hit me that an art form can only survive when it’s adapted for commercialism, and Mr. Xuan is that adapter. A row of pictures of deceased local musicans hung across the top of the stage, and Mr. Xuan announced that two of the orchestra members, one 88 years old and one 90, had not shown up for two days because they were sick, and everyone knew what being sick could mean at that age. Everyone sighed or gasped. But why would he lament the fast passing of these musicians when he took them on tour around the world all year long at their age?
At the end of the show, I waited by the dressing room as the older musicians filed out, hunched over with their walking sticks and faded Mao suits, looking as inconspicuous as every other old Naxi man on the street. It was then I realized that Lijiang, in Chinese, is a place where dragons hide and tigers crouch. It will be up to me to uncover the cultural treasurers underneath the glitzy facade.