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One of the 25 or so minority groups in Yunnan province is the Bai people. The history of this small minority is very interesting. The little town of Xizhou (the name means “happy town”) is a now a quiet town with a population of about 32,000 people. It is 18 kilometers north of the ancient city of Dali. Though now it is surrounded by rice paddies and is mainly known for the well preserved Bai traditional houses, many times it has been important in Chinese history. During this century, it was a haven for Chinese intellectuals and a leading university was located here, fleeing the Japanese invasion.
Before 1949, Xizhou was the main center for Bai commerce, and many families were extremely rich. The best examples of Qing Dynasty era Bai architecture can be found here. Xizhou has about 200 national heritage listed private houses dating from the Qing Dynasty. The houses are among the best examples of traditional Qing architecture in China and are exquisitely detailed. By visiting this small town, you gain a better understanding of the history of this ingenious people and an appreciation of a culture that has been important in Chinese history.
One of the reasons that the architecture in this town is so well preserved is that the Japanese didn’t invade this area. It was part of the Nationalist stronghold in southwestern China. There was even an American radar station located there that can still be seen. The wealthy families living there paid attention to architectural detail and maintenance of their houses. Building craftsmen from Xizhou were famous in the region and travelled to Vietnam, Myanmar and throughout southwestern China to build and decorate houses.
Bai business families doing business throughout China built their homes richly and delicately here, and extensively decorated. The Bai people have sought to preserve their houses and traditions. During the Cultural Revolution, an army garrison protected this town. Nowadays, the comparably wealthy Bai families still live in most of the national heritage listed private houses, but some houses are open to the public. One such house is the Yan family house. Unlike many other ancient towns and areas in China, this town has not been as commercialized and developed for tourism. Since the town is so well preserved, if you want to understand Bai culture and Dali, it is important to visit the town of Xizhou.
The town lies in the fertile strip of land between beautiful Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain. In this area, protected by the lake and the mountain, the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms had the capital of their extensive territories. These kingdoms were accomplished in architecture and engineering as can be seen from the still standing Three Pagodas located between Xizhou and Dali and other sites nearby. Later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Xizhou prospered on the southern silk road, and the area’s tea and marble products were traded all over Asia. Bai merchants traveled all over Asia. Through the long era of trade in tea, horses, marble, and other goods between this part of China and Tibet and Burma, Xizhou was an enclave for prosperous merchants, officials, and scholars. Bai families emphasized academics, and during the Ming Dynasty scholars who passed the national examinations were publically honored by having their names written in the public square at the center of town.
After the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, some of the wealthy families sent their children for study overseas. Many Bai businessmen became very rich. After the Japanese invasion, Xizhou was a haven for professors and Chinese intellectuals. Xizhou was home to professors and scholars, and Huazhong University which was a group of three schools was relocated here. Two of China's most famous cultural figures, the writer Lao She and artist Xu Beihong, lived there. Xizhou was once even called the “Cambridge of the East.” The scholars and businessman living there preserved and developed a reservoir of wealth, capitalism, nationalism, and scholarship that was important for the Chinese people both in China and overseas after the war. The academic achievement of the people from this town during the past hundreds of years is remarkable. It is said that hundreds of people who were born in this town have been professors in universities around the world.
Xizhou is now home to a diverse population, and though the people endeavor to retain their traditions, it town is actually unusually cosmopolitan for Southeast Asia. Since the soil is rich and the climate is mild, the town farmers are relatively prosperous. The Bai appreciate bright clothing and attractive architecture and hold numerous festivals, and people from 25 other ethnic groups live together with them, so the region is more interesting than most areas of China.
Many of the houses are beautifully constructed and decorated and are some of the best examples of traditional Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) architecture in China. But they have a distinctive Bai touch of more decorations including colorful pictures, gardens, more use of marble decorations, upturned eaves, and brighter colors. The wooden structures with their tiled roofs and upturned eaves are somewhat reminiscent traditional Japanese houses. This may be because traditional Japanese architecture was derived from ancient China.
Bai people generally decorate the gate to their gardens and houses. A traditionally styled Bai house has a wall called the “shining wall.” When the sun sets, the sunlight shines on the wall and then reflects into the yard, making the whole yard bright. So the wall is called the "shining wall." There are four big Bai clans named Yan, Dong, Yang and Zhao. Each clan builds and decorates their houses distinctively.
There is a small square in the center of the town surrounded by shops. Good souvenirs of dyed cloth or marble crafts and art may be bought there. The quality is good, but you have to bargain to get a lower price.
With its blue water, fascinating islands, temples and villages, no visit to Xizhou is complete without a trip on or around the large lake called Lake Erhai. There are a number of interesting villages in the area where travelers can stop and wander through narrow alleyways and check out rural Bai culture up close.
Only about 16 kilometers away are some of the most ancient, best preserved, and tallest pagodas in China called the Three Pagodas. The oldest is 1,150 years old.
Many of China's 55 ethnic minorities retain their centuries old traditions and customs and live in their traditional homelands.