Pingyao: long-lived... like a turtle

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: July 1st, 2011 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
China travel_Chinese cities_China travel destinations China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>> Money and walls. That's what it takes to survive the wars, rebellions and general chaos of two millennia.Very few cities in China have both, and those that remain can count on tourism and UNESCO to keep the wrecking balls away for a few more years. Perhaps the most famous and most complete of these remaining old cities is Pingyao in Shanxi Province. Pingyao started making big money way back in the Spring and Autumn period, when Lao Tzu and Confucius were devising the foundations for a harmonious society. It would take centuries before the order-obsessed paternalism of Confucianism as we know it today latched onto Chinese society, and we're still waiting for the wild wisdom of Taoism to show us the way, but Pingyao remains. At least the walls, buildings and memories do. The last of the banks and hedge funds that kept the barbarians at bay fell in 1914, an event that is the main theme of the recently released film An Empire of Silver.

The tortoise of longevity

Pingyao's Old City is the best-preserved Ming Dynasty city in China and, as such, was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997. The walls that surround the Old City, the buildings within those walls, and many of the shops and restaurants claim to be essentially unchanged since the city's Ming-era heyday. And it's undoubtedly true that Pingyao's architecture, its walls and the lanes leading from one part of the Old City to the other are well worth the trip, even if you do nothing else. The Pingyao City Walls are built with two gates on each of the western and eastern sides and covered gates (extended) on the northern and southern sides which, from above, makes the city look rather like a turtle. As with many of the walls built in ancient China, this style is no coincidence. The tortoise in China represents longevity, and who can say that the architects did not know exactly what they were doing when they built those walls. Ming-Qing Street (or Nanda Jie) of the Old City is the original Shenzhen (or Shanghai?) of China. This little street--lined with one-story homes built around elegant courtyards and solid-looking shops and stalls--was the nucleus of a financial empire that lasted for 500 years. Five hundred years, ya'll--that is no joke. The trade in futures and speculation backed by silver continued even as the Ming were deposed by the Qing and after the Qing themselves were tossed out by modern rebels--although the last and most powerful of the banking institutions, Rishengchang, fell apart shortly after the fall of the Qing.

From merchants to financial overlords

Rishengchang began as a dye business that soon found itself at the center of a business network that involved A LOT of silver. The Shanxi merchants spread out across China and along the Silk Road selling all of the beautiful things that ancient China had to offer, and when they came back they needed a place to store all of that silver. Boxes piled ontop of boxes in the back room wasn't an option. Rishengchang found a way to hold all of that silver by introducing checks and deposits and as long as their holdings were diverse enough, they had little to fear from being robbed or pillaged. As the years went on, the power of a silver-backed institution caught the eye of the Emperor and Rishengchang (and by extension, the city of Pingyao) came to serve the Qing court itself. It was during the latter half of the Qing Dynasty that Pingyao became the financial center of the empire. For roughly 200 years all things finance went through Pingyao until everything collapsed. The Rishengchang Financial Museum is a must-see when in Pingyao, if just to gain a small understanding of the role of the city and the bankers in controlling and guiding China's finances during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Remnants of power

An ancient, powerful city is bound to leave relics of itself in stone and wood and Pingyao is no exception. Like many money-based towns in history, Pingyao did not distinguish between one faith or another: profit was the only True Belief and any God who might further that aim was alright by Pingyao. So some of the oldest and best preserved structures in the city are temples: the 7th century Qing Xu Taoist Temple and the 10th-century Ten Thousand Buddha Hall of Zhen Guo Temple are notable examples, as are the 6th century Shuang Lin Temple and the 12th century administrative complex, where government still does its thing today. One of the iconic images of the city  is the old City Tower, the tallest structure in town and second only to the walls as Pingyao's most famous structure. But perhaps the greatest and most poignant examples of past power are the former private residences of great banking lords, now turned into tourism sites with thousands of curious people coming through on a regular basis. The Wang Family Compound just outside of town is accessible to the public, a fact that might have the former elite businessmen of the Wang family rolling in their graves. The vast complex has 54 courtyards and more than 1,000 rooms. Today all of the big business men are gone and the cash is now flowing straight into the county's coffers (via a series of outstretched hands no doubt) and the main game in town is tourism and all the side-hustles that crop up along with it. The Ming-Qing street sells mostly souvenirs and artwork, eerily similar to every other old city in China and the city charges RMB 120 for a two day pass. Tourism numbers are starting to affect the World Heritage site, but taking UNESCO's past hesitation to remove a place from its list once on it, we can only hope that the city itself will maintain the Old City (and so far it has). It would be tragedy should modernization prove to the only force capable of toppling both money and walls.
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