Getting to know Pingyao

  • imperial I
  • November 22, 2019

One of the most composed and sublimely beautiful films to have come out of China is Raise the Red Lantern (1991), hailed by IMDb as one of the “25 movies you must see before you die”. For a quintessentially Chinese location, director Zhang Yimou picked Pingyao, a turtle-shaped, walled city of nearly 4,000 wonderfully preserved original Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) buildings. 

Almost the entire town consists of traditional cobbled streets dividing classically-styled courtyard homes, making it easy to picture Pingyao during its heyday as one of China’s premier banking centers. Money is the raison d’être of the 2,800-year-old city. Pingyao originally rose to fame as a trading center on the route along which the teas and silks of southern China were transported to Russia and beyond. Bustling trade prompted caravans of camels and mules carting great crates of bronze coins, an inconvenient security problem for the province’s famous financiers. Eventually one of the more enterprising devised a virtual payment system involving pieces of paper known as ‘drafts’. And with the opening of the Sunrise Prosperity Draft Bank (Rishengchang in Chinese) on Pingyao’s main street in 1823, the clearing process was born in China. Soon there were 22 different draft banks based in Pingyao, more than half the national total, with branches all over the country and overseas. 

Thus an already successful, fortified city built on trade metamorphosed into a spectacularly prosperous national financial hub. Founded upon traditional Chinese principles the city centered on the City Tower with four main streets radiating outward in the four directions to the four-mile city wall. The positioning of its six gates – one in the north, one in the south, two each on the east and west walls – gave rise to Pingyao’s nickname ‘turtle city’.

More than 350 miles southwest of Beijing, Pingyao was probably too remote in recent times to succumb to the wrecking ball and modernizing China’s penchant for sleek skyscrapers. Its historic structures were cherished rather than obliterated – strict planning regulations came into force such that new buildings must conform to old techniques. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Pingyao is helping today’s China rediscover the value of preserving its ancient buildings – not least because there is so much money to be made. 

Rishengchange Exchange House

The Sunrise Prosperity Draft Bank, considered the first in China, reopened its august doors in 1995 as a popular tourist draw for its former counting rooms, vaults and opium dens where VIP clients were once entertained. (At its peak this bank controlled over half of China’s silver trade.) Nowadays, visitors line up to gawp at the brick well in the manager’s office where a massive reserve of silver was stashed and to admire the cipher used to encrypt communications between bank branches. 

City Wall

Averaging 33 feet in height with a perimeter of nearly 4 miles and an encircling 12 foot wide moat, this ancient wall was constructed out of rammed earth and brick in 1370 as a defence against the Mongols who had recently been driven out of China. Visible from its 72 watchtowers are many of the city’s 3,797 traditional courtyards, about 400 of them considered of particular historical importance. 

Yamen (Government Offices)

Nowhere else in China has such a perfectly preserved yamen, a six-acre ensemble of government buildings including a prison, courtroom, meeting rooms, gardens, housing and offices for mayors, judges and senior officials. The original 300-room complex was built in 1346 during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368a), but most of the remaining buildings date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). The efficient and pragmatic concentration of government office in one location reveals the centralizing tendency of traditional government, distinct from the more diffuse checks and balances of the modern day. 

Temple of the City God

If the yamen ruled the ‘yang’ of the human world, the Temple of the City God ruled the ‘yin’ of the spiritual world. The two sites balance each other on the same street with the yamen to the west and the temple to the east. Originally built during the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1227), the temple sees regular use by locals who congregate to honor not just the City God, but also the gods of wealth and the kitchen. One of the best-preserved temples in China, the Temple of the City God underwent major renovations after fires in 1544 and 1859, but the main hall is still very much in its original state. 

Shuanglin Temple

Whilst the city plan of Pingyao replicates the strictly linear pattern of Ba Gua, a symbol of Chinese traditional philosophy, monasteries, mansions and temples mushroomed up in the suburbs beyond the city wall, massive manifestations of Ming-Qing bling. What makes Shuanglin Temple an absolute treasure is its amazing collection of terracotta and wooden sculptures, noted for their vivid colors, fine workmanship and expressive postures. In a country where so much statuary was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (19666 – 1976), it is exceedingly rare to enjoy a wide array of magnificent statues spanning from the Northern Song to the Qing dynasties (960 – 1911). The temple itself is yet more venerable – construction began during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534), at about the same time as the Yungang Grottoes, but the existing buildings – 10 halls arranged around three courtyards – date from the Ming and Qing (1368 – 1911). 

Qiao Family Courtyard

During the reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong, an orphan named Qiao Guifa while working as a servant developed a sideline selling bean sprouts and bean curd. Little Qiao sold a lot of beans. As his business blossomed he built on the outskirts of Pingyao a two-acre mansion – the stunning but austere setting for the movie Raise the Red Lantern. This features 33-feet high parapet walls, 60 ornamental courtyards and 313 rooms – a home fit for a queen, or indeed the Dowager Empress Cixi, who escaped here to stay with friends when foreign powers ransacked Beijing during the Boxer rebellion. (Fre neighbors could have imagined that the Qiao family home represented less than one percent of the family’s total wealth.)

The banking and trading interests of Pingyao were eventually overtaken by modern times. Railways greatly shortened distances and improved communications, facilitating more efficient alternative payment systems. However, this great explosion of wealth in a provincial city left behind a wonderfully intact traditional Chinese town, about a million metaphorical miles from Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York.