Pingyao Ancient Town, part of the greater city of Pingyao, located about 80 kilometers south-southwest of the capital of Shanxi Province, Taiyuan, is situated on the eastern bank of the Fen River, on the southwestern rim of the Taiyuan Basin. The ancient, walled town, originally named Tao, belonged to the Jin Kingdom (BCE ca.1200-376), one of the many states of the Spring and Autumn Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty.
However, Pingyao Ancient Town as it stands today stems from Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty reconstructions – including an expansion of the original defensive wall, since the town had in the meantime grown – especially the reconstructions that took place at the outset of the Ming Dynasty. Though the defensive wall is an integral part of the ancient town, it does not form a part of the description here, for the following reason: an admission fee is charged to walk the 12-meter-high wall. Therefore we have devoted a separate webpage to its description (see it here).
Pingyao Ancient Town is laid out in what is called a ba gua ("eight diagrams") pattern. Each of these eight diagrams, consisting of three lines each (called trigrams), corresponds to a fundamental concept of Taoism (alternatively, Daoism): earth, wind, fire, water, sky (or heaven), thunder, mountain, and lake (or marsh). Moreover, the ancient town, with its particular arrangement of 6 gates – 2 on each side and 1 at each end, and each consisting of double doors – is said to resemble a turtle: the single gates at either end represent the turtle's head and tail, while the remaining gates represent the turtle's four legs. In addition, there are 2 wells near the "head" gate, suggesting the eyes of the turtle.
The network of 84 streets and lanes, some large and many small, are likened to the asymmetrical pattern on a turtle's shell. Since ancient times, the turtle has symbolized longevity and tranquility in China, both of which qualities seem to apply most admirably to Pingyao Ancient Town. Not surprisingly, a common nickname for Pingyao Ancient Town is "Turtle City".
The avenues, streets and lanes of the ancient town are laid out in a rather regular grid. There are 4 avenues, or larger streets, 8 (smaller) streets and 72 lanes (tiny streets). To preserve the ancient town from the automobile emissions pollution that could quickly deface these old structures (and which has defaced many similarly precious structures in Italy especially), the government of the PRC has restricted public transporation in Pingyao Ancient Town to bicycles, while certain battery-powered government vehicles the size of small golf carts are used for official purposes.
Most of the banks, shops and major residences lie on the main drag, Nan Dajie ("South Street") – aka Ming-Qing Street, and also known as the Wall Street of ancient China. Ming-Qing Street is a 440-meter-long broad mall that also serves as the town's north-south axis. Incredibly, on this main street, in its heyday, there were 220 businesses spread over banks, inns, haberdashers, fabric merchants, spice shops, restaurants, tea emporiums and numerous other establishments including even pawn shops. Many of these businesses still operate today, though the old banks, called tongs in Chinese, have now either been converted into museum pieces or serve other functions.
The two main tongs of Pingyao Ancient Town, Ri Sheng Chang Bank and Baichuan Bank, have been restored, albeit, as indicated, as museum pieces. Ri Sheng Chang Bank was the forerunner of all well-structured financial systems, both public and private, that would later appear in China. Ri Sheng Chang Bank was eventually expanded to include 35 different branches located throughout China, with additional offices in Europe, North America and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Ri Sheng Chang Bank handled remittances, currency exchanges, loans, deposits and other financial transactions. Even the Imperial Qing Court made use of the excellent finance vehicles offered by Ri Sheng Chang Bank.
Though most of the civil administration of the city of Pingyao has now been transferred to the newer city on the outskirts of Pingyao Ancient Town, the ancient town remains home to a relatively large number of hotels that have been created out of other ancient business edifices, principally the edifices that formerly housed lesser banks. For its size, Greater Pingyao has a remarkably large number of hotels. This is owing to the fact that during the peak tourist season, the "population" of the city can treble.
The Yuanmiancheng Minfeng Hotel, the Yunjincheng Hotel, the Yuantiankui Hotel and the Yide Hotel – the latter having been created out of a private residence originally built in 1736 during the reign (CE 1735-1796) of Emperor Qianlong by of a wealthy merchant – all have been created in this manner, their beds being in the coal-heated brick style of ancient times called kang. These hotels, despite their quaint, throw-back kang beds, also have all the modern conveniences, such as air conditioning and hyper-modern bathrooms. Their courtyards have been tastefully restored without being over-restored.
In general, the government seems to have attempted to balance the desire to attract tourism dollars with the need for continued protection of this ancient town, which received UNESCO recognition already in 1997 owing to the fact that it was not only highly representative of Ming and Qing period architecture, but was also well-preserved.
At the main east-west cross-street in the center of town (at the junction with Ming-Qing Street) stands the town's highest building, the Town House, at a mere 18.5 meters. However, since the town's walls stand at a height of 12 meters, the view from the top of the Town House is the best in the entire area, offering a full, 360 degree view of Pingyao Ancient Town and its environs. Numerous shops, some with large, restored courtyards, line Ming-Qing Street. Curiously, most of the residents of Pingyao Ancient Town are descendants of the banking community that put this ancient city on the map. Their former pre-revolutionary capitalistic trade practices were restored when all of China, under the astute leadership of Deng Zhaoping, opened China up to the West and moved the country toward a market oriented economy.
There are many old temples in and around Pingyao Ancient Town, such as: Shuanglin ("Double Tree") Temple, located about 6 kilometers southwest of Pingyao and renowned for its colorful sculpture; Zhengguo Temple, aka Zhenguosi Temple, made almost exclusively of wood and located about 12 kilometers northeast of Pingyao Ancient Town; Xiaoxu Temple; and Chenghuang Temple on Chenghuang Temple Street, which is in fact three different Taoist temples in a single building complex: Caishen Temple, Chenghuang Temple and Zaojun Temple. Qingxu Temple is yet another of Pingyao's Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty Taoist temples, while Wen Miao is Pingyao's Confucian Temple, whose main hall, Dacheng Dian, was renovated in CE 1163.
Other notable architectural structures in Pingyao Ancient Town include the Former Residence of Lei Lutai, the founding father of the Ri Sheng Chang Bank. The Former Residence of Lei Lutai has four connecting courtyards, each created in a different style, and is the only civilian residence in Pingyao Ancient Town that is open to the public (note that the most famous "Former Residence" is the Wang Family Residence located about an hour's drive southwest of Pingyao). The well-preserved Ming- and Qing style residences of Pingyao Ancient Town number upwards of 4000, while an additional 300 or so sites in the environs of Pingyao Ancient Town consist of ancient ruins.
While we have dedicated, as indicated, a separate article to the old, but well-preserved, city walls of Pingyao (see the link above), we should add that apart from being well worth the visit for the sake of the ancient walls themselves (perhaps we should say "late ancient era" instead, since these walls are some of the most handsome, trapezoidal-shaped (broad at the base and narrow at the top), well-thought-out fortress walls seen anywhere in the world), the tour along the top of Pingyao Ancient Town Wall can also be used to good advantage to gain a better perspective of "Turtle City".
Inside the ancient town, bicycles can be rented for a mere 10 Yuan/hour. If you are more than a little interested in handicrafts, you should pay a visit to Wentao Papercut Shop where can see – and yourself learn – how it is done, just as a similar visit to Yonglong Lacquerwork Shop will introduce you to the art and science of that most famous Chinese craft as well.