Early on the evening of the 3rd of February 1996, a severe earthquake, 6.6 on the Richter scale, laid waste the centre of Lijiang, destroying a third of a million buildings, killing over 300 inhabitants, and injuring 17,000.
Early on the evening of the 3rd of February 1996, a severe earthquake, 6.6 on the Richter scale, laid waste the centre of Lijiang, destroying a third of a million buildings, killing over 300 inhabitants, and injuring 17,000. Ironically, this devastation and the reconstruction needed made many Chinese aware of its charms for the first time, and what rose from the ashes was not only an architecturally improved town but one with a completely new economy, based on tourism. The municipal authorities from the start insisted that reconstruction within the old town—known as Dayan—use stone and timber, and that buildings not in traditional materials be replaced by ones built in the local Naxi style. Within a year, it had been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, chiefly because of its unique urban architecture, which includes the pattern of winding cobbled lanes and a complex water system that incorporates three-wells systems (a triplet of public wells, of which the upstream well is for drinking and cooking water, the middle for washing vegetables and the third for washing pots and clothes). All this within the space of two years was a dramatic change of fortune for a settlement that began as a tented camp for Kublai Khan’s Mongolian army as it swept south in 1253 in its conquest of the region (and ultimately of all China). The Naxi inhabitants of the plain to north had helped the Mongol army cross the Yangtse, and when the Khan moved on south to attack Dali, he had their leader, head of the Mu family, rule for him from here.