Rishengchang Draft Bank, founded in 1823 in the early years of Emperor Daoguang's reign (CE 1820-1850) during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, consists of 21 different component structures surrounding a central courtyard. Rishengchang Draft Bank is famous because it is China's first bank. Of course, banking originated elsewhere in ancient times even though the first paper money originated in China (the first banker to issue "promissory notes" – a promise that the note could be redeemed for the amount of "currency" specified (anything from grain to gold) – was most probably a Greek).
Rishengchang Draft Bank (risheng meaning "sunrise" and chang meaning "prosperity"), like banks elsewhere in the world, began in response to the needs of merchants – both buyers and sellers – to conduct their business without having to carry around large quantities of cash, which, at the time in China (1823), still consisted mainly of precious metals such as silver coin.
Two brothers from Shanxi Province who owned the Xiyucheng Pigment Shop in Pingyao came up with the bright idea of issuing a draft/ promissory note/ bill of exchange that was based on the actual physical existence of the currency in question and in the amount specified. That is, the draft was no mere promise to pay, it was a declaration that an amount of coin corresponding to the specified amount and type of currency on the note had been deposited with the Li Daquan brothers in Pingyao expressly for the purpose of covering the amount of currency specified on the bank draft. Other Shanxi draft banks soon emerged, for the province was at the forefront of commerce in China during the period, and they all opened branch offices in all of the major trade centers throughout China – in all, in about 40 major Chinese cities.
Although Rishengchang Draft Bank no longer exists as a bank, it has been preserved not only as a monument to Chinese banking, but also as a monument to the entrepreneurial spirit of Shanxi merchants. Rishengchang Draft Bank is in fact a conglomeration of diverse commercial buildings surrounding a courtyard, buildings that include not only the bank proper but a number of typical shops and stores that were the backbone of domestic Chinese commerce for the period. Rishengchang Draft Bank is at once Chinese and international, in the sense that as a group of buildings that surround a courtyard, Rishengchang Draft Bank is laid out in a quintessentially Chinese manner – and yes, the architectural style is distinctly Chinese, yet the style of the individual structures, especially their interiors and their various functions, seem to bear witness to an outside influence; there is something slightly un-Chinese about Rishengchang Draft Bank which is no doubt owing to the fact that Rishengchang Draft Bank is the first of a kind, a structure for which there was no exact prior blueprint.
Rishengchang Draft Bank, whose present-day "bank teller" will issue the tourist a mock bank draft in exchange for a modest fee, is a must-see piece of Chinese cultural history for any visitor to Shanxi Province.