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October 31, 2009

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Laid-back living in Lizhuang ancient town on Yangtze River

WHILE Lizhuang is just one of many towns that lie along the Yangtze River, this southern Sichuan Province town has a rich cultural and historical background that makes it a fascinating place to visit.

With its striking temples, narrow stone alleyways and quaint family homes, the town's historical district offers a rich array of Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties architecture waiting to be discovered around the next corner of its winding streets.

Lizhuang is 19 kilometers from the nearest major city of Yibin and four hours' drive from Chongqing Municipality.

It claims to be the first of the ancient towns along the Yangtze River and 3,000 years ago the Bo ethnic group lived there.

In the Han Dynasty (221 BC-AD 220) it was included in the Qian Prefecture.

While Lizhuang was a regional center for government at various stages during its 1,460-year history as a bustling trading port on the Yangtze River, it wasn't until midway through the 20th century that the small town rose to national significance.

During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), Lizhuang was one of China's four major centers of culture, providing refuge to some of the country's most important scholars.

Shanghai's Tongji University relocated to Lizhuang and the small town of 3,000 people accepted more than 12,000 academics, writers and students as well as priceless national artifacts.

At one point it was doubted that the town would have the capacity to accommodate so many people, as the three other cultural centers, Kunming in Yunnan Province, Chongqing and Chengdu in Sichuan Province were much bigger cities.

Today Lizhuang is proud of the role it played in safeguarding some of the cultural and intellectual heritage of modern China and a monument to its relationship with Tongji University stands at an entrance to the town.

Several intellectual luminaries called Lizhuang home, including the renowned husband-and-wife team of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin.

Liang wrote several seminal works on the history of Chinese architecture, including "Examples of Qing Style Architecture" and "History of Chinese Architecture."

His work researching and cataloging many buildings, styles and periods of Chinese architecture was considered vital in preserving vast areas of heritage architecture.

Lin is said to have been China's first female architect and was an accomplished writer on architecture and a poet.

The couple was part of the group that designed China's national emblem and the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tian'anmen Square in Beijing.

In Lizhuang one can wander through their former residence and see the classrooms where they taught.

The old town contains some of the architectural marvels that may have inspired Liang as he wrote his treatises on historic Chinese architecture.

Xizi Lane is a charming narrow alleyway where life continues to keep the slow pace and rural rhythms the town has maintained for more than 1,000 years.

The wooden buildings are notable for their half-wooden doors. Local guides say they were originally designed to provide light to women knitting, while allowing them to remain hidden from the eyes of men on the street.

Nowadays elderly women still knit, but they sit outside on the lanes.

At the end of a winding 60-meter walk along the lane is the Zhenwu Palace, founded by a secret folk society known as Tuanding (Heavenly Lamp) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It served primarily as a temple to Xuanwu, the Taoist god of the northern sky.

During a recent visit, some of the village elders were singing folk Sichuan songs, making for a quiet afternoon break in the tree-filled inner quadrangle. In the 1940s the building also served as Tongji University's medical college.

Other quiet secluded sights are the various old family residences.

While Lizhuang's sites in the old town can be seen in a day, it is also worth venturing outside the town to some outlying historical buildings.

The most significant site is the Spiral Hall or the Wenchang Palace built in 1596, Emperor Wanli's reign of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Visitors walk past paddy fields and a small waterfall to get to the palace.

Its positioning atop a mountain is said to have been decided by a fengshui master.

The wooden hall construction uses no nails or metal brackets to hold the 25-meter-high building together. An intricate system of all-wooden through-jointed brackets and interlocking joints are used. The ceiling is particularly notable with many interlocking wooden beams and a dragon's head at the apex.

Lizhuang is a leisurely, laid-back town where visitors can slow down and relax while wandering about. Sites are within easy walking distance, making the town ideal for an overnight or a two-night stay.

There are regular flights from Shanghai to Yibin. Lizhuang makes a nice side-trip from Chongqing.


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