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Home Chinese Cities and Province Information Shanxi Province   Pingyao

Chinese City Information and Related Sources:
Pingyao County, Shanxi Province

Pingyao Basics
Area:   1,260 square km
Population:   490,000 (2004)
Postal Code:   031100
Phone Area Code:   0354
Local Time  
A Brief Introduction of Pingyao
Pingyao, an ancient city of Shanxi province, was the financial center of China from the 17th to 19th century. Although today it is only a tiny spot on the map, almost beyond recognition, Pingyao boasts a brilliant past with rich culture deposits. Even now, the shops, booths and other buildings bearing the authentic styles of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties are still well-preserved.

Step into the city gate, and you will immediately be thrown back in time. About 12 meters high and 5 meters wide, the city wall that stands now was built in the Ming Dynasty, It as six gates, each having two doors. The city wall winds in the shape of a turtle, as the ancient Chinese took the turtle to be a symbol of longevity. Its two gates on the south and north represented the head and tail of the turtle, and the four gates on the east and west were the four legs. Its body is rammed earth supported by a layer of bricks. There are also 72 watchtowers and 3,000 crenels that add a touch of life to the ancient wall. The most interesting part is the implied reference to the 71 disciples and countless followers of Confucius.

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Walking along the city wall and strolling through the city, you can’t help but wonder if you were transported to ancient times. The streets are narrow, designed for the exquisite sedan chairs and leisurely people. Along the street are ancient-style buildings with similar decorations, such as house eaves, stone stairs, huge plaques, arches, courtyard walls and rocks for trying horses. With just a little imagination, you can envision Pingyao in its heyday: Along the streets walked women with bound feet, men with tied hair, labourers carrying sedan chair, intellectuals holding fans and bag-burdened merchants with horse-drawn carts fully loaded with gold, silver or cargo. The merchants in Pingyao were the tycoons who controlled the wallet strings of Chinese Finance.

Soon you will reach the famous West Road, which in its primes would have been a match for Wall Street in New York. Flanking the road are about 20 exchange shops, whose operations held and the rudiments of modern commercial bank drafts. In the last century, Shanxi was the richest province and financial pulse of Shanxi was controlled right here. The big cities were simple the stage for Shanxi merchants, while Pingyao was the core of their financial kingdom.

On the West Road stands the famous Rishengchang Exchange Shop, which opened a new era in Chinese finance when its initiated operations similar to modern commercial bank drafts. The clever merchants here ended Chinese’s history of transporting hard currency and money in commercial transactions right in the courtyard. However, standing before the courtyard that was as a milestone in the financial history of China, you might feel a little disappointed at its ordinary appearance. Yet the two deep wheel tracks on the granite threshold can tell you that a century ago, horses and carriages from all parts of the country made their way here, loaded with money, risk and pride.

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If you want to find a trace of the extravagance of Shanxi merchants in the courtyard of Rishengchang, you will be let down. All you can find here are elegant yet simple, exquisite yet practical shop-like houses, the pragmatic mentality of the Shanxi merchants prevented them from pouring money into houses decorations. All the glory of the place belongs to the past and now it stands in a forgotten world.

The Decay of Rishengchang may still weigh heavily on your heart as you walk down the West Road, but you will soon cheer up at the sight of another street that is called Ming Qing Road, characterized by the bright and grand remains of the old exchange shops. The merchants of Pingyao paid little attention to their residence, but their shops were magnificently built, surviving the passage of century or two with their plaques looking as grand as ever. The only thing that has changed is the contents under the counter. The abacuses and account book, which used to be the sole items in the counter, are now replaced by objects for sale, such as books yellowed by time, ancient coin covered with green rust, cracked ancient china ware and handicrafts.

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In the middle of the Ming-Qing Road lies the Gold Well. Legend has it that there was gold grog in that well, when it appeared, the well water would become golden. Although nobody ever saw the frog, the “Market Building,” a magnificent three-tiered wooden construction near the well, is called the Gold Well Building. You may think the splendid building was for religious or safe-guarding purposes, but actually it was simply a civil decorative construction. Climbing to the top of the Market Building, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Pingyao. Blanketed by rows and rows of greyish green tiles, the city is a place of mystery.

After several hours’ walk, you might be hungry. If you step into any small restaurant on the street, you can order some beef or folk staples and relax yourself by chatting with the waiter, who will more often than not be a gusher. After the meal, if you still have energy, you can visit the temples in the outskirts of the city, such as the Shuanglingsi Temple and the Zhenguosi Temple. These temples are the museum for ancient sculpture. Or you can take a stroll along the lanes and appreciate the folk courtyards and ancient trees. Breathing the fresh and free air and far from the rushing crowds, you can subdue yourself to the ancient beauty of the city.

Some people may feel that the city is too small. However, you will be sure to be filled with a sense of satisfaction, even if only a transitory one, as you wander through Pingyao and are lost in a trip back through time. (Source: Beijing Review)

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