China has its fair share of glitzy towers, modern facilities and shopping malls. But behind it is an extraordinarily long history of some of the oldest civilizations in the world, and ancient towns in China are a reflection of that. Today, they offer a glimpse into the olden days for those wanting to see a different side of China. These Chinese ancient towns will capture your imagination and make you wonder what life was like in a different time!
Pingyao in central Shanxi is a one of the most well-preserved ancient towns in China from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Today it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Asia! The ancient town is still full of Ming and Qing-era buildings, cobbled streets and villagers living in traditional ways. Picture a period film of ancient China – that’s what Pingyao looks like. You can do a day trip here, but Pingyao is also full of ancient compounds converted into hostels and hotels. Staying in one really adds to the experience! Tip: Get here early (before 8am) if you want to avoid tour groups and hoards of tourists!
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lijiang has a history of at least 800 years and may date as far back as the Song Dynasty. It guards the division of the Jade River into three streams, among which canals were cut to flow along the old town streets. Red lanterns hang from aged wooden buildings, and in the streets local musicians play centuries-old Naxi instruments, reflecting a lifestyle and culture of olden days.
Fenghuang is often praised as “the most beautiful town in China”, thanks to its natural beauty, rich history and colorful culture. It harbours unique ethnic languages, customs, arts and distinctive architectural remains of Ming and Qing styles. Several ethnic minority groups still live in Fenghuang, including the Miaos and Tujias where their customs and culture live on. There are lots to see and do here, including taking a leisurely boat ride on the river.
4. Heshun Town
Heshun Town’s old name is ‘Yangwentun’ (阳温暾), which means sunshine and warm water, and it captures this ancient town perfectly. It was once an important stop on the Ancient Tea Horse Road, and it remains one of the better-preserved old towns in Yunnan Province. The villagers also maintain customs and traditions from before the Qing and Ming Dynasties. The luscious green spaces, willow trees, gentle river and quaint vibes attract many photographers, painters and film directors.
To see a glimpse of what Shanghai used to be, Qibao is just 18km from the downtown area. Its history can be traced back to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and the Northern Song Dynasty, and it grew to become a thriving business center during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today, Qibao and its old town is a tourist attraction with traditional Chinese architecture and a number of attractions, museums and street food.
Hongcun became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, due to its exceptional preservation of architecture and city plan. You may also recognize it from the movie ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’! It was established in the Song Dynasty and flourished in the Ming and Qing Dynasties when it became a centre for trade. Most of the buildings from this period still exist in the village today. The layout of Hongcun is in the shape of an ox. Leigang Hill is the head, and two trees stand on it as the horns. Four bridges across the Jiyin stream are the legs, whilst the houses of the village form the body. Its lakes and complex network of waterways form the internal organs!
Close to Hongcun is Xidi, also renowned for its exceptional preservation of rural Anhui architecture and city planning during medieval China. First built during the Huangyou era of Song Dynasty, Xidi has maintained its original street plan and water systems from the medieval period. Today, it is a village rich in history, ancient wooden residences and attractive carvings forming key tourist attractions.
Pingle was built over 2,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest ancient towns in China! Once a trade market on the Ancient Tea Horse Road, this riverside town is a nice place to relax and explore for a day or two. You can see traditional stilt houses by the river, streets paved with blue stones, and banyan trees that are over a thousand years old. Duck into one of its many riverside tea houses, and simply see the world go by as you contemplate life.
Ciqikou stands for ‘porcelain port’, and its history dates back to Song Dynasty. It grew to its peak during Qing Dynasty, where it was poetically described as where ‘one thousand people greet each other during day … ten thousand lamps flicker at night’. A thousand years after its foundation, the town remains a symbol and microcosm of olden-day Chongqing. Shops sell porcelain, handicrafts and gifts, while restaurants and tea houses give visitors a look at what many areas of Chongqing were like.