Li Jiang: Singing its Magic - My Family Travels

People often identify China by its legendary landmark, the Great Wall, or the backdrop of mountains and lakes dotting its scenic countryside. I was one of those people until August 2006. I was in the midst of yet another city, marked by skyscrapers and taxis, when I made one turn too many. Sneakers colliding with a spurt of dirt, I found myself transported back in time to a setting straight from traditional China. An intricate web of cobblestoned pathways and arched bridges spanned across the valley of the “Beautiful River”, Li Jiang. Enthroned on a plateau, nestled among majestic mountains, rests the “Old Town”, seeped in the culture of China’s Na Xi Tribe. The inhabitants, garbed in simple cotton and straw hats, tugged at wheelbarrows or rode horses. The carvings on shop plaques consisted of stick figure symbols. Though a quick search via Google would produce travel guide hits, a skim through these pages would reveal no inspirational light over the traditions of the Old Town. It was up to me to discover its secret. After an afternoon of wandering, I had reached a conclusion: It is the place of magic. Here, Valentine’s “Day” lasts from July to August. Hidden behind the daytime tourism activities is the true spirit of Old Town, unleashed at night. In the day, quaint shops decked in ancient wooden splendor sell brass wind-chimes and other cute trinkets. Fish dance in the streams that weave through town in a peaceful silver ribbon, to be replaced by candled lilies at twilight… And when the sun signals its colorful farewell, Old Town swells with a new source of life. Dozens of people line up along the streams, scurrying across bridges because the side that they ultimately stay on is important. It is the Old Town’s singing competition. One side of the stream hollers a song, then chants: “Ya shou, ya shou, ya ya shou!” to challenge the opposite side to sing a louder song in return. It is left versus right, bars versus bridges, and men versus women. Drunkards swig bottles of beer, smokers puff grey from their hinged lips, and women blow tantalizing kisses at men across the river—just beyond reach. As the teahouse mistress laughingly explained, “In Old Town, men drink to reflect their hearts. If he turns red with beating heart, he is safe to marry. If he turned white, he is like ghost—but no reaction is the worst!” She also proudly informed me that this community recognized the value of women, and prioritized them above men. This was rare, given China’s long-established preference for men. Li Jiang was the rabbit’s hole in China that defied all sorts of tradition, and I was the Alice that curiously explored all that it had to offer. Unsure of where to eat, I chose another Old Town oddity—a cozy French restaurant placed in the middle of seemingly traditional China. Outside “Petit Paris”, where a Frenchman had wisely chosen to start his business, young maidens giggled as they chorused a response to their courters’ serenades. Children chirped their nursery songs as adults resurrected childhood melodies. Everyone was swept away by the air of festivity that channeled energy throughout all of Old Town. When it was completely dark save for the strings and clusters of scarlet paper lanterns, candles centered in multicolored lilies drifted down the streams in a dreamlike godsend. The tradition is that each lily represents a heartfelt wish, fueled to Heaven by the powerful voice of its wisher—through enchanting song. I wished to return to this magical place of lanterns and lovers.

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