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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

Updated: Mar 27

The Li River, or Lijiang, is one of the most picturesque watercourses in southern China. It is renowned for its spectacular landscapes that often appear in paintings depicting the Chinese countryside. Lijiang meanders through the karst mountains of Guangxi province, offering iconic views that have inspired generations of artists.

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

These silhouettes, shaped by millennia of erosion and tectonic movements, stand as witnesses to Earth's geological history and provide a unique backdrop for visually appreciating the interaction between humans and nature.

By delving into the history of these places unique in the world, we commit not only to celebrating their fleeting beauty but also to understanding the crucial role we play in their preservation for future generations.

Photographers who roam the banks of the Li River are faced with a challenge: how to translate into images the silent grandeur of the karst mountains and the fluidity of the river, while paying tribute to their rich cultural and natural heritage? It is a quest that requires not only an artistic eye but also an appreciation of the history that has shaped these landscapes.

What are Karst Landscapes

Karst landscapes are formed through a geological process that unfolds over long periods. Rainwater, becoming acidic by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, seeps through the soil and gradually dissolves the rock, usually limestone, but also dolomite and gypsum. This creates a complex network of geological structures, both above ground and underground.

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

This rock erosion process forms the unique features of karst terrains, which turn out to be precious ecological reserves. Here are some key elements associated with these legendary landscapes:

Caves and caverns: Karst landscapes are renowned for their spectacular cave and cavern systems. These underground cavities can extend for kilometers and house formations of stalactites and stalagmites, underground rivers, and lakes.

Sinkholes: Sinkholes are sudden depressions or holes in the ground caused by the collapse of the surface above underground cavities. They can vary greatly in size and are very common in karst landscapes.

Peaks and towers: In some karst landscapes, erosion has left behind isolated peaks and towers that rise dramatically above the surface. These formations are particularly iconic in the Guilin region.

Biodiversity: Karst habitats contain unique biodiversity, with many species adapted to these specific environments, as well as endemic species found nowhere else.

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Water resources: Karst landscapes often harbor significant underground aquifers that are vital sources of freshwater. However, the porous nature of karst terrains can make these reserves vulnerable to contamination.

Vulnerability to pollution: Due to the direct filtration of surface water into underground aquifers, karst landscapes are particularly vulnerable to pollution, necessitating careful land and water resource management.

Characteristics of the Li River

Source: The Li River originates from Mao'er Mountain in Xing'an, Guangxi Province, and flows southeast before joining the Gui River in Wuzhou. Its watershed covers an area of about 18,600 square kilometers.

Length: The river stretches for approximately 437 kilometers, making it one of the major rivers of Guangxi.

Landscapes: The region is renowned for its characteristic rock formations, with more than 70,000 karst peaks along its banks, creating an almost surreal landscape. These geological formations are the result of millennia of erosion by rainwater.

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

Cultural and Economic Importance

The Li River is not only a significant natural asset for China but also plays a crucial role in the economic development of the region through tourism. Cruises on the river between Guilin and Yangshuo are particularly popular, allowing visitors to enjoy breathtaking views of the karst landscapes, terraced rice paddies, and traditional villages along its banks.

Li River and Tourism

Guilin, with its saying, "The landscape of Guilin is the most beautiful under the heavens, and that of Yangshuo surpasses that of Guilin," perfectly encapsulates the natural beauty and tourist appeal of the region. This is something well understood by the Chinese.

The importance of tourism around the Li River is as spectacular as its landscapes. It is one of the most popular and picturesque tourist destinations in China. The unique combination of karst formations, winding rivers, traditional villages, and living cultures is a major point of interest for the country.

Contribution to local development: Tourism is the primary economic driver for the Guilin and Yangshuo region. It significantly contributes to the local economy through direct and indirect jobs in the hospitality, food service, transport, and tourist service sectors.

Promotion of local handicrafts: The tourist areas around the Li River help to promote local handicrafts and traditional products to a wider audience, thus supporting artisans and preserving cultural traditions.

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Tourist Activities

River cruises: The cruises on the Li River, especially the stretch between Guilin and Yangshuo, are one of the main attractions. These cruises offer breathtaking views of the karst formations, terraced rice paddies, and local villages.

Hiking and biking: The area around the Li River offers excellent opportunities for hiking or biking, allowing visitors to explore the countryside, visit remote villages, and enjoy panoramic views.

Rafting: For a more intimate experience of the river, visitors can choose to go down the river on bamboo rafts. This provides an original experience and a different perspective on the landscape while fostering closeness with nature.

Cultural discovery: Visiting historical sites, ancient villages like Xingping and Daxu, and interacting with local communities also allows tourists to immerse themselves in the rich culture and history of the region.


Sustainable management: Faced with the influx of tourists, adopting a mode of sustainable management becomes crucial to preserve the natural landscapes and the quality of life of local communities. This includes protecting fragile ecosystems, promoting responsible tourism, and managing waste. Finding the right balance between the development of tourist infrastructure, preserving authenticity, and promoting the region's natural beauty remains a major challenge for both authorities and residents.

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

Cormorant Fishing

The cormorant fishermen of Xingping are one of the most iconic images of traditional Chinese culture in the Guilin region. This ancient fishing practice involves the use of trained cormorants to catch fish in the clear waters of the river. Today, this tradition has become exclusively a major tourist attraction.

The well-organized event encourages tourists, in the evening, to gather around a few fisherman-actors, who simulate traditional fishing techniques in front of dozens of tripods, illuminated by a few lanterns. Personally, I have always refused to take part in these demonstrations. Thus, you will not find any photos of cormorant fishermen in this article. However, to be comprehensive, here are some details on this activity:

Regional symbol: Images of cormorant fishermen navigating bamboo rafts with the silhouettes of karst mountains in the background have become symbolic of the landscapes and culture of the Guilin region and the Li River.

Technique: The fishermen thus use these aquatic birds, which are naturally adept at diving and catching fish. The birds are fitted with a tight ring around their neck, preventing larger fish from being swallowed but allowing them to consume smaller fish, motivating the cormorants to continue fishing.

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Living heritage: Although the efficiency of cormorant fishing has declined with modernization and this practice has become less common as a means of livelihood, it remains an important aspect of the region's cultural heritage. It attracts tourists curious to observe this traditional fishing method.

Preservation challenges: The transition of cormorant fishing from an economic activity to a tourist attraction raises questions about preserving the authenticity of this tradition. Thus, there is an effort to keep this practice alive as a link to the past and as a means to teach future generations and visitors about traditional ways of life.

Picturesque Towns and Villages

Along the Li River, several picturesque towns and villages attract visitors with their historical beauty, cultural heritage, and living traditions. Here are some of the most notable:

1. Guilin: A popular starting point for cruises on the Li River, Guilin is famous for its spectacular karst landscape. The city is a fascinating mix of history, culture, and nature, with famous sites like Elephant Trunk Hill and Seven Stars Park.

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

Guilin © O. Robert

2. Yangshuo: Located about 65 kilometers south of Guilin, Yangshuo is a small village that has become a major tourist destination. Surrounded by impressive mountains and bordered by the Li River, Yangshuo is known for its breathtaking landscapes, outdoor activities, and its bustling West Street, full of shops and restaurants.

3. Xingping: This ancient village is known for its picturesque landscape, especially the view from Camel Hill. Xingping attracts photographers and hikers with its stunning views of the Li River and its karst formations. The village has a history that goes back more than 1,000 years, with cobblestone streets and well-preserved traditional buildings.

4. Fuli: Fuli is famous for its production of traditional fans and paper umbrellas. This small village has a more tranquil atmosphere and is an excellent place to discover local crafts and rural Chinese life.

5. Daxu: Founded during the Ming Dynasty, Daxu is another ancient village located on the banks of the Li River. Its cobblestone streets, lined with old wooden houses, and its traditional market offer a glimpse into life in ancient China.

6. Yulong River Valley: Although technically more a river than a town or village, the Yulong River Valley is an important area along the Li River. It is famous for its terraced rice paddies and mountains and is often explored by bamboo raft for a more peaceful and immersive experience than motorized cruises on the Li River.

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Li River in Chinese Art

The Li River has also been a constant source of inspiration for Chinese artists. From painting to poetry, its artistic representation has spanned centuries and continues to inspire many contemporary artists today. Throughout history, they have captured its beauty and essence through spectacular words and visual works. Here's a look at how the Li River has been represented in different arts over time.

Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Wang Wei is often cited as one of the earliest and most influential poet-painters in China. Although none of his paintings survive today, his poems describing landscapes reflect the aesthetic found in later landscape paintings, including those inspired by places like the Li River.

Li Bai (701-762), one of China's greatest poets, wrote many poems celebrating nature with references to the Li River. His poems often praise the beauty of natural landscapes, expressing both wonder and a certain melancholy.

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

Li River from Xianggong Mountain © O. Robert

Song Dynasty (960-1279)

The Song period saw the art of landscape reach new heights, with artists like Fan Kuan and Xu Daoning. Although they did not specifically paint the Li River, their works established stylistic and thematic conventions followed by those who did.

This period also saw a flourishing of landscape poetry, with poets such as Su Shi (1037-1101) writing about nature in innovative ways, thus influencing artistic representations of Chinese landscapes, including those inspired by the Li River.

Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties

During these periods, landscape painters such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Wang Hui (1632-1717) continued to explore and depict inspiring natural landscapes, including scenes reminiscent of the beauty of the Li River, in their works. Their work shows a deep interaction between man and nature, a recurring theme in the depiction of the river.

The 20 Yuan Note

The Li River is also featured on the reverse of the 20 Yuan note of the fifth series of renminbi (RMB), the official currency of the People's Republic of China. This series of banknotes was introduced starting in 1999.

China: The Li River and the Karst Mountains of Guangxi

The design showcases a characteristic landscape of the Li River, with its karst formations and picturesque mountains in the background. It captures the essence of the stunning natural landscapes for which the Guilin region is famous.

This depiction on a medium as everyday as the national currency underscores the cultural and natural importance of the Li River, making this gem one of the most celebrated landscapes in China.

Thus, the unique landscapes of the Li River have been and continue to be a profound source of inspiration for a multitude of artists across different periods of Chinese history. Each form of art, from painting to poetry, offers a unique window into how people have been captivated by the beauty of the Li River over the centuries.

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The Final Word

The Li River, winding through the karst mountains of southern China, offers more than just a visual spectacle. It proposes a reflection on persistence and change. These peaks, formed over millennia, stand as witnesses to geological history, reminding us of the slowness and patience inherent in natural processes.

Minimalist landscape photography, by capturing the essence of these scenes with an economy of detail, invites us to ponder what is essential. It strips away the superfluous to focus on form, light, and texture, revealing beauty in simplicity. This artistic approach, by reducing landscapes to their most fundamental elements, encourages the viewer to fill the empty spaces with their own thoughts and emotions, creating a personal and introspective experience.

In contemplating minimalist landscapes, one can see a metaphor for the pursuit of a simplified life, where the hustle of daily life gives way to a renewed appreciation of the present moment. In resonance with the karst landscapes of the Li River, minimalist photography opens a path towards a deeper understanding of our place in the world. It suggests that, in reducing to the essential, one can find unexpected richness and an increased receptivity to beauty and mystery.

This approach, both aesthetic and philosophical, reminds us of the importance of preserving these landscapes and traditions, not only for their ecological or cultural value but also as sources of inspiration and wisdom for future generations.


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