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Getting Away: Jianchuan Old Town

By in Travel on

Plants sprouting from the roof of an old courtyard house

The earliest mention of Jianchuan (剑川) in Chinese historical records is from the year 680, when it is referred to as a waypoint for traders. From then until 1950 — a span of nearly 1,300 years — caravans plying the Tea Horse Road (茶马古道) utilized the Jianchuan Valley and its eponymous lake for forage and rest before setting out once again.

The encampment slowly grew into a small village, later becoming a military garrison and finally transforming itself into a city near the end of the Yuan Dynasty. The name 'Jianchuan' — literally meaning 'plain of swords' — is believed to be taken from the military detachments which were often dispatched by Nanzhao (南诏) kings to the valley to protect caravans from marauding bandits or sometimes wage war against invading armies.

Having established itself as an important entrepôt, the town, which was almost exclusively inhabited by the Bai (白族) people began to flourish. Its artisans made names for themselves as master woodworkers and stonemasons. At the same time, scholars successfully passed imperial examinations for the first time. The work of the craftsmen is still in evidence in dozens of well-preserved houses and temples built in the Bai style.

Locals heading to work on a chilly morning in Jianchuan

Modern day Jianchuan

Today, the city, quite literally, sits at a crossroads. The new Dali-Lijiang Expressway (大丽高速公路) is part of an 18 billion yuan (US$2.96 billion) road building program in western Yunnan and passes just two kilometers away from Jianchuan Old Town.

The expressway is scheduled to open to traffic at the beginning of 2014, connecting the tourist Meccas of Dali and Lijiang. Once open, it will shorten driving times between the two cities to less then two hours. Jianchuan government officials and local business owners are preparing themselves for an influx of tourists.

A section of the Dali-Lijiang Expressway, which will open to traffic in early 2014

City planners have taken a two-pronged approach to the anticipated travel boom. New hotels and restaurants are being built furiously on the outskirts of the once-sleepy town. Near the center of Jianchuan, architects and investors from Lijiang are building a new 'Old Town' in the style of the province's number one tourist attraction.

The 9,000 square meter development, called Shuigetang (水阁塘), will most likely be ready to receive costumers at the same time the highway opens. The area abuts a cultural square and the towering, wooden Jianyanglou Pagoda (剑阳楼) were built in 2012.

Jianyanglou Pagoda in the center of Jianchuan

While this may appear to be the Disneyification of yet another bastion of traditional Yunnan culture, local planners have other thoughts. Shuigetang will indeed look a bit like Dali and Lijiang, and cater to a specific type of tourist — one perhaps most interested in shopping.

However, for those travelers fascinated by living history and traditional culture, buildings along the streets of Ximen Jie (西门街) and Zao Jie (早街) have been slated for preservation and restoration. Everything from the stone gutters flanking the roads to the ancient houses lining them is hoped to be saved.

A look down Ximen Jie in the early morning

Jianchuan Old Town

Zao Jie, as its name implies, is a street abustle in the early morning. Locals gather to shop for their daily groceries and hear the latest gossip. Ximen Jie has its fair amount of traffic as well, but people strolling down its cobbles more than likely live on the street — people go to and from work while others have already returned from the fields with bushels of wheat and corn.

The two streets are home to more than 40 Ming Dynasty-era homes and another 130 from the time of the Qing. Most, if not all were originally built in the Bai sihe wutianjing (四合五天井) style. The vast majority still have descendants of the original families living inside.

The well-worn front gate of a house on Ximen Jie

Courtyard houses constructed in this manner usually contain gardens surrounding a three-sided, two-story living area. The forth side of the house, which normally faces the main living quarters is called a 'screen' wall and often painted with a lucky character. The wall is considered auspicious and in harmony with Bai interpretations of fengshui.

Outer walls of these homes are made of mud bricks or stone, depending on the wealth and prestige of the family who commissioned them. Gates are topped with intricate wooden filigree work and open onto darkened hallways or gardens full of ornamental plants and ponds teaming with goldfish.

Inside the courtyard of Zhang Dehe's home

The first floor of a traditional sihe wutianjing is built of a combination of brick and wood. Each wing of the household has three rooms per floor which are used as living, dining, cooking and storage areas. Hanging crops such as dried corn and spicy chilis provide multi-purpose decorations outside of the nine rooms arranged around three outer walls.

Second floors are utilized as bedrooms for the family and usually also contain an ancestral shrine. These spaces are built almost entirely out of wood, save for slate shingle roofs. The woodworking on the shutters and doors — often well-worn and faded — are intricately carved and meticulously painted.

Detail of a doorway inside a home built in the Ming Dynasty

The local government is actively promoting the preservation of these old buildings. Although most are still occupied, many families are unable to afford renovation work. They are being offered grants to help them restore their homes, some of which have settled awkwardly after centuries of use.

Some families have chosen to put their residences on the market in hopes of relocating to newly built apartments. The government of Jianchuan has decided that instead of letting the buildings fall into further disrepair, they should be converted into businesses such as guesthouses, cafes and long-term rentals.

Detail of the lush garden inside a traditional Bai home
Detail of the lush garden inside a traditional Bai home

When GoKunming spoke with representatives from the Jianchuan tourism bureau, we were informed business and individuals are being courted to take over management of such properties on a rental basis.

Any restoration endeavors undertaken must be done with local workers familiar with Bai-style wood and stone-working traditions. Grants for investors, both foreign and domestic, are being made available to people willing to follow such guidelines.

Gate of a home on Ximen Jie with auspicious couplets emblazoned in green

Inside a Bai mansion

One of the most stunning houses on Ximen Jie is the former residence of General Lu Yuan (鲁元). A native of Jianchuan, Lu commanded Nationalist forces before the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Lu came from a military family and both his father and father-in-law were generals in the Qing Dynasty.

His home is now occupied by his extended family and overseen by Zhang Dehe (张徳和), Lu's sister-in-law. In addition to tending to the maintenance of her centuries-old house, Zhang is the proud matriarch of the buzha (布扎) tradition, a Bai sewing technique she learned when she was a teenager.

Zhang Dehe, now retired, at home in her garden

Buzha incorporates elements of embroidery, bead work and weaving. All of the details and embellishments are crafted by hand. Zhang retired from professional buzha-making in 2012, just after she celebrated turning 98. Over the course of her life she has taught countless others this type of sowing, including four generations of women from her own family.

Zhang's home is filled with clothing, shoes and stuffed animals she has made over the years, including brightly decorated representations of each year of the Chinese zodiac. The walls of her smoke-stained living room are lined with numerous national awards and citations she has received in recognition of her talents. These days she spends most of her time in the central courtyard of her compound, surrounded by flowering plants and caged birds.

A small selection of handmade buzha pieces sown by Zhang Dehe and her daughters

Unlike many of the other homes along Ximen Jie, Zhang's has been painstakingly maintained. The structure's age is evident everywhere, but it is by no means tumbledown or neglected.

Flowering plants sprout from the roof tiles, gently bending over lacquered eves. The elaborately hand-carved shutters and doors close tight, somehow unwarped by decades of weather and Zhang seems more happy to discuss the house than she does her sewing exploits.

Heading home from the fields

The quiet side of Jianchuan

Inside Zhang's house the silence is almost complete, save for the occasional whistling of a teapot or the muffled murmur of conversation. For much of the day — outside of breakfast and dinnertimes — the streets and alleys of the old town are much the same. People quietly come and go, surrounded by hundreds of years of history.

Many tourists who have visited Jianchuan in the past have used it simply as a stopping point before heading on to more popular and rustic Shaxi. Impressions are often made solely by assessing the bus station and few travelers know the old town exists.

The facade of a 200-year old home in Jianchuan

Urban planners do expect the city to, at some point, to be inundated by tourists. They are confident, however, that the old town will become something along the lines of a living outdoor museum where each building can tell its own story. They hope this, coupled with the pristine waters of nearby Jian Lake (剑湖), will attract people for whom tranquility and calm are of the utmost importance.

Jianchuan is faced with a difficult challenge. Residents and the government are embracing modernity while looking to also preserve the city's fragile, and sometimes tenuous, connections to the past.

A view across Jian Lake, where local children flock to go swimming during the summer

Getting there

There are direct buses from Kunming to Jianchuan and tickets range between 130 and 157 yuan. Buses leave from the West Bus Station and the trip should take no longer than ten hours.

Alternately you can first travel to Xiaguan (下关) by bus, car, plane or train. From there, tickets to Jianchuan are 65 yuan and buses depart every 15 minutes between 6:30am and 6pm. Curiously, return travel along these same lines is significantly cheaper.

Images: Yereth Jansen

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Interesting article.

Most of Yunnans cities and villages had these old towns just some 10+ years ago. Its pretty ironic, that first you plan to tear all "old" down, put some big posters of Western faces with slogans of development, bring in a construction company, that is called "Jin Ma", with a new slogan: "keeping up the spirit of old Yunnans glory", and then tear all down, and build poorly constructed (probably poisonous too) modern buildings (that still have rats).

Now what happens after that. Yea, then they realize these old towns have value as attractions - and that they can bring income in Yunnans commercialized tourism venture. So what do the smartheads do then: its time to build a "new old town".

There are some tragic examples around, such as Anning, that has an apocalyptic shadow over it, brought with pollution and rapid modernization. The chemical plant would probably suit in there just fine - actually, it would just add spirit to the apocalyptic dimension. And what yet? Oh yea, Anning is also planning to build a new old town! In between the factories, maybe. :)

Thank you for yet another very interesting article! I know lots of people who've been to Shaxi, but as far as I know none of them stopped over in Jianchuan to see the old town.

Modern & postmodern culture, including modern & postmodern portrayals of the past, is often merely a matter of producing something to sell to people - 'success' and 'truth' tend to mean: 'whatever makes money', and/or maintains and/or legitimizes the power of those who already have it. There is a lot of past, and it is worthwhile to figure out who is selecting the items for its present incarnations, and why they are doing so as they are.

Think of any museum - ANY museum.

How far from xiaguan to Jianchuan? I always prefer the train if i can :)

Its really nice to read any article about Yunnan & its historical cities, I had spent more than 3 years working in Kunming and Dali and by reading all these articles I feel because of massive industrializations, over use of infrastructure there's a huge loss of flora & fauna.
The weather had now changed its course, it gets more warmer in summer & more colder in winter.
Kunming is worst effected, what I saw Kunming in 2008-9 is totally changed,the atmosphere is embedded more dust & smoke particles making it difficult to breathe during the peak hours of the day.
But I really appreciate the steps taken by the local administration to make the surroundings clean & green.

I just feel that Kunming which is regarded as the spring city, should not change it to another METRO city like Guangzhou where one gets lost in the sea of people & cars.

this is a great account, thanks. I fell in love with Jianchuan on my frequent stop overs to Dali or Lijiang and always wondered why development hadn't happened there yet (although there were signs of it then). I often wondered up and down the old streets and visited the temple and museum. Well, it seems, it's all happening now, just hope they don't spoil it too much.

Xiaguan to Jianchuan is now only 2 hours via the new highway.

i like this beautiful place.................

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