[Travel] From forgotten to forgetting – the heterotopic Lijiang

By Pearl Wang

Myhistoricity Lijiang 1

In his poems, Ezra Pound describes Lijiang as

"The green spur, the white meadow," "Wind over snow-slope," "The purifications," which "are snow, rain, artemisia," and "the pomegranate water, / in the clean air, / over Li Chiang" surround beautiful people living in peace (Hishikawa, 2005).

Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American, visited Burma in 1923. As a botanist, his mission was to find Chaulmoogra tree for its possibility to cure the disease of leprosy. During an accidental trip to Lijiang in Yunnan Province, China, he crazily fell in love with this historic town and Naxi people. During his time of living in Lijiang for 20 years, his enthusiasm and curiosity led him to an adventure of exploring local plants, and the language and culture of the ethnic group. He, consequently, produced several books, including The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of Southwest China (1948), and A Nakhi-English Encyclopedic Dictionary (1963). To Rock, Lijiang is "a magic Kingdom of wealth, scenic beauty, marvelous forest, flowers and friendly tribes" (Rock, 1947).

Peter Goullart, a Russian born traveler and a representative of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (an agency of the Kuomintang Government), is another enthusiastic person who introduced the beauty of Lijiang to the West. He moved to Lijiang in 1942 and lived in the historic town for eight years. In his book, Forgotten Kingdom, he explicated the religion, custom and life of ethnic groups, including Naxi people and Tibetan Lamas.

When China changed its political regime in 1949, Rock and Goullart fled China together to avoid further political turbulence. Nevertheless, their ways of describing the ethnic groups in Lijiang and the natural environment of Lijiang have exerted a strong influence on the Western fascination with the oriental. Poets like Pound, who had never been to Lijiang, created poems about the beauty of people and environment of the historic town through Rock and Goullart’s works. To the western readers, the historic town of Lijiang was a distant planet with imagination, and the legacy of Naxi was more of a novelty than a historicity.

Photo by Rock (1947)

The historic town of Lijiang in Yunnan Province is located at the significant spot along the Tea Horse Road, also referred to as the Southern Silk Road in China. Tea from Yunnan Province was exported to India and finally the West through the Tea Horse Road. Compared with traditional Han cities with high walls, the historic town of Lijiang was surrounded with mountains and tranquil surroundings, which provided a friendly environment to include different groups of people. Thereafter, Tibetans along with other ethnic groups other than Naxi were frequent visitors to the historic center. It was also the unique geographic location that kept Lijiang basin segregated from the outside world in the early 20th century. In Goullart's words, "Lijiang was a forgotten kingdom with rich culture and natural landscape.” Accordingly, visitors were attracted by the loveliness of the valley, the scene of paradise. Lijiang explicated the best example of a harmonic relationship between people and the environment they lived in. Goullart (1955) describes the historic town:

"Mount Satseto [known as Jade Dragon Snow Mountain among Chinese] sparkled in the setting sun, the dazzling white plume waving from its top. Storms were raging high up there and the powdered snow was whirling up into the air like feathers on a cap. … Pink and White groves of blossoming peach- and pear-trees, interspersed with feathery bamboo, all but concealed white and orange houses of scattered hamlets. Roses were everywhere (pp. 30). … In the market itself there was great tumult with all these crowds trying to pass each other and jockeying for the best positions on the square (pp. 57)."     

The devastating Lijiang earthquake in 1996 provided the historic town a chance for new types of development, and also pushed Naxi people out of the historic center. The collaborative force of several international organizations in the restoration of traditional buildings endorsed the designation of Lijiang as one of the World Heritage Sites in 1997. In addition to the stunning natural environment, its international fame has turned Lijiang into a most-visited destination in southwest China.

Most Naxi people rented their houses to Han business owners from Sichuan Province and individuals from metropolitans like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Beijing. Group travelers who arrive for a quick stop at Lijiang are not the major revenue base of Lijiang tourism industry. On the contrary, the atmosphere of Lijiang is created for weekend getaways and short stay travelers, who are eager to escape from noisy and materialized cities. In addition to amenities for tourist needs, coffee shops, internet cafes, bars and saloons are popular places for travelers to meet, chat, and vent, as well as comfort and consult each other. These particular groups, who visit Lijiang for three days or more, are the major population in Lijiang. Some of them eventually stay in Lijiang for small business, such as opening boutique shops, coffee shops, B&Bs. Lijiang has developed into a haven for young people from big cities to forget the material world, a place for lovely encounters among middle aged visitors to temporally run away from reality and responsibility, and a lost paradise for foreigners who follow Rock and Goullart’s footprints and end up with disappointment.

Myhistoricity Lijiang 4

China’s open door policies in 1997 accelerated the disappearance of traditional cities, and indirectly turned the historic town of Lijiang into a heterotopic space. The surrounding natural environment and the historic town remain intact under the goal of historic preservation, while tourist activities, which represent modernity and progress, replace the daily life of local people. In contrast with the crowded market in the ancient time, the historic urban landscape of Lijiang now epitomizes a heterotopic space for tourists. Goullart’s Forgotten Kingdom provides a deception for tourists to ease the nostalgia for old days, seek love affairs, and simulate Rock’s steps. In Lijiang, the time is frozen to serve these souls that need breaks from the fast-paced metropolitans to regain faith and momentum. Pertaining to the tourist development, the historic town center is the front stage for Naxi performances, as well as the back stage for Naxi elderly to take a break from performing. Ironically, the original inhabitants of Lijiang have retreated into apartment buildings behind concrete walls, and the new occupants look forward to being reborn through adventures and open their hearts again to face the outside world. The re-creation of space meanings was shown through the process of activities displacement and replacement.

Pound had never been to Lijiang, but he saw Lijiang through Rock’s eyes. As Pound says:

"[a]nd over Li Chiang, the snow range is Turquoise/Rock’s world that he saved us for memory/a thin trace in high air" (Hishikawa, 2005).


Goullart, P. (1957). Forgotten Kingdom. London: Readers Union / John Murray Publishers Ltd.
Hishikawa, E. (2005). Zhaoming Qian (ed.): Ezra Pound and China. Studies in English Literature, 46, 283-260.
Rock, J. (1947). The Ancient Na-Khi Kingdom of Southwest China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.