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The Ancient Chinese Merchant Town Qikou: A Forgotten Jewel on the Banks of the Yellow River


Qikou (碛口镇) is a town located in Lin County, Shanxi Province, China. According to one source, human habitation of the area dates back to the Neolithic period. Nevertheless, the present town was founded relatively recently, i.e. less than a 1000 years ago. Whilst China is well-known for its great number of historic sites, Qikou is one of its lesser known ones. As a matter of fact, it has been reported that the tourism industry of Qikou was developed by the local government in 1998, though it was only in 2010 that tourists started visiting the town.

Natural Phenomenon in a Name

The word ‘Qi’ in the town’s name has been translated to mean ‘sand-piled shoal’. This phenomenon occurs when sudden fluctuations in the Yellow River (which the town is situated on the east bank of) cause rip currents to occur. As a result, the river becomes much shallower during this time. In one report, it is stated that the depth of the river could “reduce from 400 (1312.34 ft.) meters to 80 (262.467 ft.) meters”. Thus, the town of Qikou was named after this natural phenomenon.

The banks of the Yellow River in Qikou.

The banks of the Yellow River in Qikou. (itraveltochina)

Due to its geographical location, the land around the town is not suitable for agricultural activities. The Yellow River, however, was an important route for the transportation of trade goods in ancient times. It was due to this that Qikou prospered. From Qikou, goods were transported to “Lanzhou and Wuzhou [in the] west, Baotou and Wuyuan [in the] north, Handan and Zhengzhou [in the] south, and Taiyuan, Beijing [and] Tianjin [in the] East.”

Transport through Qikou

The town of Qikou thrived during the Ming and the Qing Dynasties. During these periods, it “served as a vital trading point marking the eastern terminus for river-bound freight between northwest and north China.” At this point, the Yellow River became narrower and shallower, thus making it difficult, if not impossible, for boats journeying to the east and north to pass. Thus, the trade goods had to continue their journey overland in caravans of horses or camels. This brought business for the people of Qikou, and made the town flourish.

A building in Qikou.

A building in Qikou. (itraveltochina)

The remnants of this past glory can be seen in the town’s many well-preserved buildings. During its heyday, Qikou is reputed to have had more than 380 shops operating in the town. These shops were likely to have catered to the needs of the passing merchants, providing them with a variety of goods and services.

One of the buildings in the town that attests to this, for example, is a shop that housed an escort agency called 十義镖局 (‘Shi Yi Biao Ju’, roughly translate as ‘Ten Righteousness Escort Agency’). Such agencies hired out caravan guards to merchants who wanted extra protection for their goods.

Architecture in Qikou.

Architecture in Qikou. (Ministry of Culture, P.R.China)

Qikou’s prosperity gradually declined during the first half of the 20th century. During the 1930s, rail transport was introduced into the region. Still, Qikou remained as a trade center connecting business from Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia until the 1940s. Since then, the use of modern transportation meant that Qikou lost its role as a trade hub.

Most local people in Qikou live in yaodong, or cave houses, one of the most dominant features of the Loess Plateau along the Yellow River.

Most local people in Qikou live in yaodong, or cave houses, one of the most dominant features of the Loess Plateau along the Yellow River. (Kuang Linhua / China Daily)

Decline of Trade, Beginning of Tourism

Due to the economic decline of Qikou, many young people left the town for larger cities since the 1980s. Additionally, this decline has helped to preserve the old buildings from being redeveloped into new structures. In the past two decades, efforts have been made by the local government to inject new life into the town by bringing in the tourism industry.

Qikou's fledging tourism industry offers new job opportunities for local residents.

Qikou's fledging tourism industry offers new job opportunities for local residents. (ChinaCulture.Org)

The town’s well-preserved structures and its scenic landscape are promoted as its greatest attractions. Whilst this industry would re-invigorate this sleepy town, it has also been warned that there are potential hazards, such as the “threats of superhighway access to Qikou and a proposed riverfront highway that would sever its historic access to the waterfront.” Therefore, it is important that a balance is struck between tourism and the preservation of the town.

Featured image: Qikou Town. Photo source: Ministry of Culture, P.R.China

By Wu Mingren                               


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dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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