The past is alive in Pingyao. Whereas other cities have embraced modernity often at the expense of their historical heritage. Pingyao tenaciously holds onto its past.
When dawn breaks and the morning sun bathes Pingyao’ s gray city walls in warm tones, you find yourself flung back in time as your eyes behold a Ming dynasty fortress in all its imposing glory. Watchtowers, cast iron cannons, intimidating wooden gates and study walls impart a sense of invulnerability to the scene. And then the city wakes up. Narrow alleys that coil around time – honored courtyard homes fill up with its 480,000 denizens Shops open their doors to reveal modern cash registers perched on antique tabletops. Bustling about are bicycles, rickshaws and scooters. Here in Piangyao, modernity lives with centuries old relics.
The old walled city is an architectural treasure trove. Civic buildings, private homes and streets are well preserved in Ming and Qing styles. Few buildings rise above two stories. Several are adorned with splendid eaved roofs, intricately latticed windows, hand – painted glass lanterns and ornate wood.
Such exquisite handiwork didn’t come cheap, but then again. Pingyao was China’ s premier banking center during the two dynasties. Its wealthy residents were merchants and businessmen who set about constructing sprawling mansions as expertly as they built up their business and trade. Of the many banks in Pingyao. Rshengchang Exchange Shop is the most famous. Originally established in 1643, it still has records of its earliest days in business. For centuries, the Westerners knew China through the so-called “Shanxi Bank”.
One reason for the city’ s prosperity was its location. It lay at the heart of Shanxi Province between the central plain and the northern desert. Han Chinese merchants occupying the central plains could communicate easily with the northern tribes and set up trade links with the rest of China.
The stoic city walls also did their part to shield Pingyao from marauding enemies from the 14th to 19th centuries, allowing the city to flourish. The walls were first erected in the Zhou dynasty and last rebuilt during the Ming. After the Song army set the earthen walls on fire in AD 960, the walls were covered with bricks.
The fortifications are sophisticated – the square perimeter is 39 feet (12m) high and 16 feet (5m) thick and there are platforms every 165 feet (50m) with 3,000 crenellations on the outer wall, 72 watchtowers, and a water drainage system reinforced with bricks at the top. The wall is surrounded by moats roughly 10 feet (3m) wide and deep and six suspension bridges once fronted each city gate. You can walk all the way around the walls in 2 hours.
By the 19th century, the once dynamic town fell into provincial obscurity and the walls became a psychological prison. When modernization fever swept through China in the 1980′ s, town officials laid plans to demolish the ancient city and rebuild the town to accommodate what was hoped to be a future economic boom.
As the city planners dreamt of a modernized city and Pingyao’s economic revival, people on the ground struggled to rescue the ancient city. Professor Ruan Yisan, who specialized in urban planning at Tongji University in Shanghai, worked tirelessly to make officials aware of the cultural value of Pingyao. His efforts paid off and modernization was left outside the ancient wall. In 1986, Pingyao was declared a national historical city and protected it from demolition. The town was flush with funds, accelerating its conservation efforts. In 1997, Pingyao made it to the list of UNESCO’ s World Heritage Sites, and thus a silver lining finally revealed itself.
The city is also known as Turtle City. The south and north gates represent a turtle’ s head and tail, and the four gates on the east and west represent four legs; the two wells just beyond southern gate are the eyes. A web of alleys links the main streets in such a way that even the layout of the town resembles the markings on a turtle shell.
Slipping into the city, you feel as if you’ re entering the movie set of an elaborate Chinese period drama production. Elegant Ming and Qing architecture line the quaint streets. Like in the good old days, there are no cars in Pingyao’ s winding alleys; pedestrians and bicycles crowd the lanes; pedestrians and bicycles crowd the lanes, and a rickshaw rider scurries past. You might want to hop on for fun, but going slow on foot can be a visually rewarding feast. The ancient abodes of the commoners are fascinating cultural relics. Most of the compounds are arranged in quadrangles, where the houses are built around a square courtyard. There are 3,797 such residence, with over 400 in immaculate condition. They’ re in such pristine condition partly because of Shanxi’ s arid climate and also because they were not destroyed wars.
There are so many mansions, temples, museums, inns and shops – where do you start exploring? Chances are that you will put up at a hotel near Ming Qing Jie also known as Nan Da Jie, the main downtown thoroughfare. This street has undergone major restoration and its attractions now include hotels offering traditional brick oven beds, restaurants serving Pingyao’ s famous beef and shops hawking an astonishing array of art wares such as antiques, furniture, ancient coins, Chinese paintings, jade-ware, lacquerware and traditional folk clothing. In the old days, over 700 shops peppered this same street and several remain exactly as they have for centuries. On this lively street, just shouting to be climbed, is the 60.7 – foot – high(18.5m) high Town Tower – the tallest structure in town. Don’ t start your ascent without your camera: you’ ll want to catch the view of the tiled roofs flowing over the entire city when you reach the top.
You can find many notable museums along Ming Qing Street. Tongxinggong Armed Escort Company Museum offers an eye – opening insight into the significant role played by armed escorts in promoting commerce. The economic boom under the two dynasties meant a lot of cash moving from one area to the next. To thwart thieving hands, Pingyao’ s ever – resourceful and pragmatic merchants left their cash in the professional hands of security escorts. Wang Zhenqing, a martial arts exponent, set up the first armed escort firm to provide this crucial service, which was instrumental to the speedy development of Chinese trade.
Temple of the City God on Nan Da Jie hails from the Northern Song dynasty. Visitors enter through a double – eave, triple – gate wooden archway. It has a theater hall, where one can catch operatic shows during the annual temple fair on May 27, with six large urns positioned to amplify the performer’ s voices.
On the eastern end of Xi Da Jie is Rishengchang, meaning ” sunrise prosperity,” China’ s first bank. What started out as a single businessman’ s efforts to safely manage the accounts of his widely spread company became a private banking enterprise that caught on like wildfire – a similar phenomenon occurred in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Now converted into a museum, the head office was on this same site during the Qing dynasty.
There are 21 buildings surrounding three courtyards. On either side of the front yard are the counters, main banking activities were carried out in the middle courtyard house, which functioned as an exchange center.
Hop onto a motorcycle taxi to reach the best – preserved mansions outside Pingyao, the Qiao Family Courtyard House and the Wang Family Courtyard House.
The Qiao Family Courtyard House was the home of powerful trading family with significant commercial influence even beyond Shanxi. It was in this mansion that award – winning Chinese director Zhang Yimou set interior scenes for his film Raise the Red Lantern.
Located some 12 miles (20km) north of Pingyao, the compound is fortified behind a 33 – foot – high (10m) wall with battlements.
A watchtower perches from each of the four corners. The main entrance opens east into a spacious compound that covers 2.16 acres (8,724sqm), with 313 rooms, six major courtyards and 20 smaller ones. An 87 – yard (80m) passageway divides the complex into half. The inner courtyards and corridors follow the Chinese character for the words “double happiness”. The roof styles are varied, from dramatically sloping to curved or terraced eaves. In classical Qing style, roof ridges are decorated with floral and fauna patterns. There are some 140 chimneys, each carrying a distinctive design. The Ancestral Temple of the Qiao Family if found at the western end.
The original name of the manor was Zhai Zhong Tang, which roughly translates as being fair in all dealings.” The Qiao family’ s philosophy,” Descendants be righteous, brothers show mutual care so the family may prosper,” is inscribed on each side of the main door. Besieged by invading forces. Empress Dowager Cixi passed through the manor while escaping Beijing for Xi’ an. The Qiao family gave her money and as a token of her appreciation. Empress Cixi issued an imperial edict to send the Qiaos an inscription, which now hangs above the main gate. Beyond the gate is a screen wall on which is carved Chinese characters evoking the theme of longevity. In 1937, when Japanese troops invaded China, the Qiao family fled this residence forever.
The Wang Family Courtyard House was the Wang clan’ s private residence and is four times larger than Qiao’ s, with 54 courtyards and 1,052 rooms. The mansion took more than half a century to build and is located on a hilly area. This rambling complex was home to the first Wang family in 1312. The Wangs had a rags – to – riches story, starting out as farmers and bean curd sellers, before entering business and politics. Some 300 family members later became officials.
The interior is divided into three complexes, the East Courtyards is spread over terraces on the mountain terrain and includes 13 cave dwellings; the Red Gate Castle has only one gate, the door of which is painted red; and Ancestral Temples. The streets in the compound form a pattern similar to the Chinese character “Wang” for the family name. The buildings of Wang compound have an eye – popping array of sculptures and carving on wood, brick and stone.
After 600 years, the family fortunes started to decline, and several residences within the compound were sold outside the family. When the Japanese forces came, the owner Wang Yirang sold off all the family shops and moved out. Since then, several houses in the compound have been lived in by non – Wangs or converted into showpieces.
Shuanglin Temple, a musty monastery 4.3 miles (7km) south of Pingyao, has traditional paintings and some 2,000 terra-cotta figurines dating back to the Song and Yuan dynasties. Other temples include Zhengguo Temple 9.0 miles (15km) north of Pingyao, which features Buddha figures and Dacheng Hall, located southeast of Pingyao. It’ s the only Confucian temple built during the Song dynasty and has as 800 – year history.