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Project Profile


2007 Award of Merit

Lijiang Ancient Town

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Project Title: Lijiang Ancient Town

Location: Dayan, Baisha and Shuhe Ancient Town, Lijiang City, Yunnan Province, P.R. China

Size: 41,760 square metres

Cost: US$ 444,000

Responsible PartyProtection and Management Bureau of the Old Town of Lijiang (He Shiyong, Guan Jiangping, Ding Wenjie, He Shijun and Liu Shicheng)

Heritage Architect: Shao Yong

Contractor: Company of Restoration of Lijiang Ancient Town

Date of Completion: October 2006

Project Synopsis

The Old Town of Lijiang was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997. Lijiang is the historic capital of the Naxi minority group, which has Himalayan roots, its own Tibeto-Burman language and customs rooted in Dongba shamanism. The town boasts a wealth of traditional architecture blending Chinese and Tibetan influences, comprising public and religious buildings as well as a large number of private houses in the vernacular style.  These generally have a wooden structure and mud brick walls in a courtyard pattern, featuring carved wooden decoration, pebble mosaic and unique tile work.

Occupied by residents who could not afford to maintain them in a fashion befitting Lijiang’s heritage status, many of the houses were in a state of decay prior to the start of the project. Others had been improperly adapted to serve modern needs, especially for tourism-related businesses following the post-1997 visitor boom. The prohibitive cost of restoration, the sub-standard quality of modern infrastructure in Lijiang, and the large demand for rental properties by immigrant businessmen led to the gradual emigration of the aging Naxi population from the town. 

The restoration project was launched in 2002 with the aim of rehabilitating the traditional houses, which anchor the distinctive ancient townscape, and of encouraging local families, particularly Naxi, to stay in Lijiang. With the overall goal of ensuring Lijiang’s sustainability as a living heritage town, the project complemented government investment in upgrading roads, water and sewage systems and other public services.  

With support from the Global Heritage Fund and Tongji University, the Protection and Management Bureau of Lijiang provided financial and technical resources for the conservation work. A fund was set up to provide subsidies to families with incomes under US$2500 per year. As a rule, the families living in the houses were responsible for shouldering half the cost, with the fund providing the remaining 50 percent, or more, in cases of special need.

Conservation was carried out by specially-trained teams under expert guidance to ensure the quality and consistency of the work. Between 2002 and 2006, 174 traditional houses in Lijiang were conserved under the auspices of the project. Of these, 101 were selected to be restored on the basis of their architectural value and 73 qualified because of the impoverished circumstances of their residents.

By limiting subsidies only to residents who had lived in Lijiang for at least 10 years, the project contributed to strengthening the vitality and cohesion of the local community.  Neighbourhood committees played an important role in helping families understand the project and in working closely with the Bureau and other local government units.    

Conservation Approach

The Protection and Management Bureau required construction teams to be conversant with Naxi vernacular architecture, and to this end, special training programmes and a manual – Conservation and Restoration Manual of Traditional Houses in Lijiang – were developed to guide their work.

In compliance with the conservation regulations, the traditional courtyard layout of each house was maintained, along with the original building height, façade, landscaping and decorative details. For most houses, the work involved the simple replacement of roof tiles or the reconstruction of collapsed or rotting timbers. To accommodate modern living requirements, it was permissible to install windows, toilets, kitchens and pipes for gas, water and sewage, provided they were not visible, particularly from the exterior.  Emphasis was placed on the vernacular decorative work in the form of wood carving, gilt and intricate pebble and tile work.  Traditional architectural techniques and materials were used, including mud and grey bricks, grey tiles, cedar and pine. Modern materials were selectively introduced in the interiors as required for their functional, anti-seismic or fire-resistant qualities.

In certain circumstances, however, particularly where modern additions or insensitive restoration had occurred, project houses were considerably remodelled to restore their traditional appearance and material palette. At Number 20 Renli Lane in Shuhe, for instance, an unsightly concrete terrace surfaced with modern tile was replaced by a wooden upper floor and refaced in stone, while the modern steel gate of the shop below was replaced with a traditional folding wooden one. 

Conservation and the Community

The strict aesthetic and technical control placed upon the conservation work, and the intimate involvement of local people in the conservation of their own homes, was a vital mechanism in instilling a sense of local pride in the built heritage of the community and encouraging future residential conservation efforts to be undertaken with the same sensitivity. 

The rehabilitation of traditional houses had an overwhelmingly positive impact upon the Naxi community at large. The combination of grant funding with public and private resources allowed low-income families to improve their living conditions while simultaneously preserving the overall heritage environment of Lijiang. At a time in which many residents of the ancient town were renting out their properties and choosing to leave their birthplace to seek economic opportunities elsewhere, the project made it viable for local people to remain and contribute to the continuing vitality of their historic community and way of life. As a community-focused, rather than tourism-focused initiative, this approach included simultaneous infrastructural improvements, making Lijiang not only an attractive place to visit, but also to live.

Quote from the Project Team

“An effective long-term system for protecting traditional houses is the best guarantee for protecting the authenticity and integrity of Lijiang Ancient Town.”