Street scene in Pingyao city, Shanxi Province. Few cities in China evoke the distant past like Pingyao, with its imposing gray walls, earthen lanes, and open-front shops. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
One of only a handful of towns and cities in China surrounded by their original walls, Pingyao, in Shanxi Province, was accorded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1997. Significant restoration work has been accomplished to provide visitors with a sense of urban life in times past, including the role of the fabled piaohao, exchange facilities that served as nascent banks for merchant traders.
Few cities in China provide the feel of the distant past, especially with imposing gray walls surrounding it, earthen lanes crisscrossing it, open-front shops offering traditional wares, and large numbers of traditional old houses, workshops, and other buildings. Pingyao, which in the nineteenth century was an important financial center, today seems like a remote outpost in Shanxi Province, 715 kilometers from Beijing and 80 kilometers from Taiyuan, the provincial capital. Built largely during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries by merchants and Chinese-style bankers who aspired to a courtly lifestyle, Pingyao over the subsequent century and a half nonetheless receded into a backwater status before resurging to prominence in 1997 when it was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
Some 6 million visitors now see Pingyao annually, bringing with them not only resources to reinvigorate the city’s infrastructure but also myriad unintended negative consequences of tourism that lead many to ask how it is possible to protect a fragile cultural landscape.
Said to have been laid out in the shape of an auspicious turtle, Pingyao’s perimeter is marked with 10-meter-high walls that run 6,200 meters in circumference and is secured additionally with a 4-meter-wide, 4-meter-deep moat. Six gates—two each on the east and west sides and one each on the north and south sides—provided guarded access into the town. Mounted atop them are multitiered wooden structures. Faced with bricks on the outside and along the top but with its tamped-earth core visible from inside, the wall is an imposing crenellated structure that is 9–12 meters wide at the base but tapers upward to between 3 and 6 meters. Distinctive features of the wall are the three thousand crenels, which are indented openings that give the wall the look of a saw blade, and seventy-one embattlements, each about 50 meters apart, that project from the wall.
Shanxi Province always has had a reputation as a difficult place to make a living because of limited arable land and a dry, harsh climate. On the other hand, the location of the province midway between the imperial capitals of Beijing and Xi’an brought with it relatively easy access to the outside world by way of its north-to-south flowing rivers and old-style trunk post roads that crisscrossed the region. Shanxi merchants during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries dominated various commodity markets in towns along the border with Russia as well as in large cities along the coast. With increasing wealth from buying and selling salt, iron, cotton, silk, dyestuff, and tea, a need arose for the long-distance transport of silver cash. Pingyao merchants, especially because of their sense of business and loyalty to kinsmen, introduced paper notes called huipiao that could be redeemed for cash at piaohao (exchange shops). Piaohao were nascent banks, forerunners of a modern finance system, that made possible long-distance remittances.
In Pingyao piaohao were associated with merchant shops, which usually were housed in extravagant courtyard residential structures. Among the largest was Rishengchang, once merely a dyestuff store, which at its peak had forty branches throughout China, each staffed by loyal people from Pingyao. It is said that by the middle of the nineteenth century, of the fifty-one traditional banks in China, forty-three were owned by Shanxi natives, with those from Pingyao operating twenty-two—all of them benefiting from a close relationship with the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) imperial court, which also had a need to transfer funds around the country. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, as Western-style banks began to be established in China’s major cities, they siphoned off resources from the traditional piaohao, and by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Shanxi merchants and “traditional bankers” lost their primacy. Many once-prosperous businessmen retreated to their great manors in Pingyao to live out their days quietly. This stagnation led to the preservation of Pingyao’s network of narrow streets and lanes, along with some thirty-eight hundred Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and Qing dynasty structures, about five hundred of which remained in reasonable repair.
Source: Knapp, Ronald G.. (2009). Pingyao City. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1769–1771. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Photograph of the walls of Pingyao, Shanxi Province, taken during Photofest 2003. The city was built during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries by merchants and bankers who aspired to a courtly lifestyle. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The roof tops of Pingyao, Shanxi Province. Since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage sight Pingyao’s network of narrow streets and lanes has been preserved. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
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