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Within the Walls of Ancient Pingyao

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Shanxi, the vast and arid plateau to the west of Beijing known principally for its coal mining industry, is in fact, a part of China steeped in history. Nowhere is the rich heritage of this landlocked locale better exemplified than that in the gorgeous, historical town of Pingyao. Situated 80 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital Taiyuan, the city emerged as a key financial center during the Song dynasty when Shanxi merchants garnered Empire-wide recognition for their business prowess. By the Qing dynasty Pingyao had become the Wall Street of its day, developing a style of banking known as piaohao – a system designed to transfer large sums of cash from one place to another. As the service fostered several remittance firms, riches were garnered for the region, exemplified in the marvelous eighteenth and nineteenth-century townhouses, temples, and towers that survive until this day.

Like most cities of its age, Pingyao is walled to protect it from marauding nomadic hordes, or in times of turmoil, gangs of bandits and revolutionaries. Unlike most Chinese cities, however, the wall survives and is probably the city’s key attraction. After purchasing the130 yuan ticket (which garners three days, total access to the city sites) the UNESCO protected, ten-metre high wall serves as an excellent means to get to know Pingyao. It can be mounted via the south or north gates. With a circumference of 6.2 kilometers, it’s a good half day walk if you plan to do the whole thing. However, with six watchtowers in total should you see a temple, antique store or Shanxi noodle vendor that lures your interest, you can simply step off and wander into the city.

Pingyao is designed along an easy to navigate north-south, east-west axis, with the centre-piece being the intuitively branded City Tower. From here the backpacker cafés, delicacy stalls, and souvenir stores fan out towards the wall towers. There is a total of 22 core attractions within Pingyao itself, excluding several outlying wonders, so plan for a good few days’ exploration. That said, some of the sites are of little interest, principally manufactured for tourism (consider the Beef Museum). With that in mind, here’s an overview of the few gems you can’t afford to miss.

The Temples

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China is often said to be a place without a state religion. But if any domestic belief system came close to capturing the ritualistic, spiritual and philosophical character of the Han people, it could be said to be Daoism. There are two major Daoist temples in the old walled city. The compact Er Lang Temple, located near the North Gate, comprises the many elements of the Dao (the Way). A theater stage is flanked by the traditional bell and drum towers, from where one can pay homage to ancestors, saints, and cosmological representatives, in nine sacred halls. The main hall is home to the Erlang Shen shrine; a Qin era folk hero turned God who is always depicted with a third “truth-seeing” eye in his forehead.

If it's size that matters, the quadruple-A rated City God Temple is the acme of Daoist architecture in the old town. Despite the tedious music being broadcast for classical effect, it’s an evocative place to explore. Spread over four courtyards, this homage to Pingyao’s patron saint Shui Yong is a rustic wooden structure adorned by spectacular turquoise tiled roofs, sweeping eaves and dragon motifs. Originally built during the Northern Song period, it has been rebuilt twice since, the last time being 1859.

A few meters down the road the Confucius Temple appears to have been largely rebuilt. That said, it’s a significant and impressive tribute to China’s foremost sage, which nowadays houses some interesting exhibition to boot, including a retrospective on the imperial examinations.

Other Sites

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There are many museums scattered across the city though you’ll soon find them repetitive, their exhibition scarcely as impressive as the house they’re housed in. Some do have some relationship to the grander narrative of Pingyao, like the Armed Escorts Museum and Hui Wu Lin Martial Arts Centre, which both suggest that, as Pingyao banked more and more cash, it had to develop a subsidiary industry, namely security.

But the core component of Pingyao’s rise is what might amount to China’s first bank, the Rishengchang Exchange House. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Shanxi merchants developed extensive trade routes throughout China and overseas, with Pingyao at the center of this trade. In 1823 the first piaohao was opened to provided remittance services, accepting deposits and making loans. Pingyao soon became the center of the nation's banking industry. The Rishengchang Exchange Shop is now a museum dedicated to the town’s fiscal legacy.

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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