The ancient city of Pingyao

On Pingyao’s impressive city walls, surveying the grey rooftops of the town below, a lone rickshaw rider takes a break. The imposing wall is probably one of China’s last Ming city walls still mostly intact, encircling a cityscape that has not changed in the last few hundred years. You could probably walk the 6km circumference of the wall and I would have liked to do this but we were short on time. Regrettably, we did not allot Pingyao more time. I underestimated the size of this town. There were places that I would have wanted to see but could not.

The World Heritage Site is one of four ancient cities in China designated as Historic and Cultural Cities by the Chinese government and wholly under protection for preservation. If you consider that Pingyao has survived 2,700 years of war, revolution and ideology change mostly intact, this is no mean feat. 

Some PLA soldiers out for a visit to Pingyao, seeking some 'financial advice' from China's first bank.

Some PLA soldiers out for a visit to Pingyao, seeking some ‘financial advice’ from China’s first bank.

The day was bitterly cold but thankfully, bright and clear without a cloud in sight. With time being very short, we kept our focus on the main sights – the city wall, China’s first bank, first protection agency and the highly under-rated magistrate court.

Long before Shanghai staked her claim as China’s financial nerve centre, there was Pingyao. You could say that the evolution of China’s finance and banking sector first began here in Pingyao. The Rishengchang Exchange House is just one of 20 financial institutions that sprouted all over the city. Started in the Qing dynasty, the bank continued to function until the early 20th century when it lost steam with the rise of modern banking systems and the interruption wrought by a volatile political climate.

With the rise of the banks, the formerly thriving business of protection and bodyguards came to a halt. Now that banks like Rishengchang could exchange silver for bank drafts, no one needed to lug around heavy cases of silver or gold anymore across the country. Additionally, the services of protector and armed guards on long journeys became less popular.

Still, today in Pingyao you could still visit the former protection agencies and maybe have a couple of swings of the mean-looking swords, clubs and spears. The kids had fun chasing each other around the courtyard with these huge and rusty weapons.

They also gleefully practised their ‘kung-fu’ in the protection agencies training school for wanna-be bodyguards. It’s not exactly state-of-the-art in equipment, but it’s old-school with an emphasis on arrow-craft, hand-to-hand martial art combat and swordplay. More importantly it brought to life every Chinese kung-fu movie we’d seen. Move over Donnie, Jet and Jackie!

The streets of Pingyao were also interesting. I was not interested in the run-of-the-mill souvenir shops but the beaten and weathered storefronts that sold antiques (real and fake) and the art of Chinese paper-cutting. Like these below:

The old wooden city tower still stands and is a proud centerpiece to the Ming-Qing shopping street. But I like it because this is probably the first building I’ve seen that’s got my name up there on the roof like a giant green SOS message!

The admission ticket to Pingyao included access to all the major sights including access to the city wall. Up on the wall, all of Pingyao spread below. Knowing that we were walking on authentic and original 500-year-old walls made the experience more special. The view of the city from the top was  of course fantastic. I was looking at a scene that has changed little in the last few hundred years. Today, although Pingyao’s main business is no longer finance, but the streets still bustle with a different money-spinner – tourism. In that respect, some things never change.

standing watch over Pingyao

standing watch over Pingyao

The quieter end of Pingyao is anywhere away from the main east-west drag. In the west lies the yamen or the magistrate’s court. Lest you think, as we did, that it’s just a simple building (blame it on the poor budget sets of the Justice Pao drama serial in the 80s!) and then dismiss it and not visit, think again. The yamen surprised us with the scale and the size of its grounds. It comprised not only a court but administrative buildings and living quarters of the magistrates and his staff. Pretty gardens with ponds and bridges are also thrown in. Interesting exhibits inside the yamen tell of how justice and punishment was meted out in the old days. With painful disfigurement and dismemberment being par for the course, death would seem to be the easier and preferred option.

The yamen's sprawling forecourt.

The yamen’s sprawling forecourt.

I posted earlier about spotting lions around the town accompanied by an engraving in Chinese that I do not understand, presumably as a good talisman against evil. I spotted a couple more in my walk through Pingyao. Here’s one more:

I would have liked to visit the old Catholic church (still hard to imagine that this very Chinese ancient city would even have a church!) and the old temple and stage at the other end of the city but time was not on our side. We ended our visit to Pingyao in the late afternoon and went by hired car to Taiyuan two hours away, to catch a fast train to Beijing.

But first, here’s a last look at Pingyao’s city walls from the outside.

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