Pingyao (平遥古城), an ancient city protected by UNESCO located at the center of Shanxi province, just few kilometers south of Taiyuan, is definitely a window to the past rural life in North-central China.
Following tradition Chinese cities were often surrounded by city-walls in order to defend themselves from neighbor reigns and nomads tribes. Between the more iconic Chinese cities known for their walls, I had the chance to visit : Xi’an, Nanjing, Taiyuan, Beijing, Kashgar, Dali, Songpang, Chengde. Even Shanghai still brings some memories of their old city-walls despite often considered a relatively modern city.
What makes Pingyao unique is that its walls are still well preserved thanks to the dry climate of Shanxi province and to the fact that the modern district developed outside its walls.
Visiting Pingyao is still possible to discover ancient buildings: one who belonged to a noble family, many business related with banking, logistics and even one famous company which provided security guards services (the gym where mercenaries used to trains is still well preserved).
The strategical location of Pingyao led to a rapid financial growth of its banks up to the 18th-19th century Pingyao. By that period of the 51 draft banks spread around the country, 43 of them were located in Shanxi Province, of which 22 just in Pingyao.
During Qing dynasty Silk Road was still one of the main trade channels to the West. Differently from what Western powers did since 15th century by discovering new commerce routes by the seas. [ For more information on the impact of Western powers economic expansion in Far-East Asia, more details in this article on “Opium Wars“].
Along the centuries the size of Chinese territory, the concept of country and clear border demarcation mutated. Pingyao used to be very close to the northern burdens of the empire, therefore the structure of the city was designed specifically to resist to the attacks from nomadic population from the North-West.
This strategical function was adopted for the first time already in the 8th century B.C. when king Xuan of Zhou reign (周宣王) allocated in Pingyao his armies in protection of the area.
The region then have been populated per thousands of years, under different kingdoms and rulers, yet its period of splendor started during Ming and Qing dynasties.
Pingyao’s city-walls started to take shape we see today already around 1370 when Ming Dinasty unified once again China under a Chinese ruler. As a result the whole city perimeter is protected by 6.200 meters-long city-walls, 6 to 10 meters tall, and 3 to 6 meters wide.
Pingyao wasn’t just a pole for commerce and baking, but also a pole for different religions to flourished protected by its walls. The temple of Confucius, the Taoist Qingxu Temple, the Buddhist Shuanglintemple and Zhenguo temples, and the Town God Temple where different gods were worshiped by the local population are all example of the religious tolerance in the region. Pingyao even hosts a protestant church, founded before the collapsed of Qing Dinasty.
Pingyao has a squared-perimeter typical of the traditional Chinese city planning. Its street are crossing each other vertically and horizontally. Something that recalls in the West the ancient Romans citadels (castrum) and its main road: decumanun (East to West) and cardo (North to South) which were following the same concept.
I had the chance to visit Pingyao twice, first in 2006 and then in 2012, and little things changed.
The everyday routine was still linked to rural life by 2012 while tourism industry was growing. While some signs of cultural revolution still visible in 2006 as the painting of Learn From Dazhai(学大寨）graffiti in the main cross-road already disappeared by 2012 and some the building started a timid process of restoration.
Pingyao represents the historical and cultural heritage of Shanxi Province (one of the most interesting provinces in North/Center China).
I hope Pingyao will maintain its original flavor in the years to come while the rest of the country is rapidly mutating, helping new generation to remember their complex cultural and historical background.