The town of Pingyao, Shanxi Province, made famous by the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty houses of trade and finance that it spawned, is located about 80 kilometers south-southwest of the capital, Taiyuan. Shanxi Province itself belongs to the original "cradle of Chinese civilization", which can roughly be described as Henan Province and its contiguous provinces.* Being situated on the trade route between the ancient capital of Xi'an and the later capital of Beijing, Pingyao profited from its unique position to become a creator and eventually a facilitator, via its financial institutions, of trade. Pingyao's first foray into the mercantile sphere was in the salt trade that began already during the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty. Shanxi Province is home to a large salt lake, Lake Yuncheng. The harvesting of salt from the ocean came first later; in those early years, salt was recovered mainly from large indland salt lakes such as Yuncheng and the salt lakes of what is present-day Qinghai Province.
Pingyao's claim to fame as a mercantile and financial center stems from the mid-Ming to later Qing era, when the region bounded by Pingyao to the south and Taiyuan to the north produced several trade "houses" operated by families that ran their respective business for generations, families such as Cao, Chang, Qiao, Qu and Wang. The phenomenon of finance – the issuing of official IOUs (what one today would call checks) and the traffic in remittances – came about as a corollary to everyday trade transactions, when it eventually became cumbersome to have to make payments in the form of cash (and note that salt was an early form of "cash", also in China). Thus banking as we know it today was born in the Pingyao-Taiyuan region of Shanxi Province. During the 19th century, the Pingyao-Taiyuan region also served as the undisputed center of finance for the Qing government.
The Origin Of The Name "Pingyao"
The town of Pingyao hasn't always been known by that name. Originally the village that would become Pingyao was named Tao and belonged to the Jin Kingdom (BCE ca.1200-376), one of the many states of the Spring and Autumn Period. Later, during the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Tao became a part of the Zhao Kingdom when the Jin Kingdom had been absorbed by the former. When the King of Qin defeated the last remaining independent state among the former warring states and established the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, the town of Tao became a county and was renamed Ping Tao.
Much, much later, after the fall of the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty, the passing of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period, and the dissolution of the Western (CE 265-316) and Eastern (CE 317-420) Jin Dynasties, Ping Tao became a part of the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty of the Northern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period. During the reign (CE 424-452) of Emperor Tuoba Tao of the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty, the town of Ping Tao became the town of Ping Yao (commonly written as Pingyao today), because it would not have been fitting to permit the town to have the same name as the emperor.
Tao's Ancient Walls
The village of Tao was founded already during the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty. Its original walls stem from this early period, when King Xuan of Zhou, who ruled from BCE 827–782, sent general Yin Jie Fu to the village in order to defend the area from enemy attacks originating from the north (note that Shanxi Province borders on present-day Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region)). General Yin had a protective wall erected around the village, but it eventually crumbled. The current wall, built on the ruins of the original wall, stems from the year CE 1370, when the newly ascended Ming Dynasty, which had ousted the Mongol Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, feared continued Mongol threats from the north.
The ancient town of Pingyao was also refurbished during the same Ming period, and further restored during the early Qing period, whereafter the town and its walls no longer served a military function. The old town stood as it was for the next several centuries, and was restored again during the PRC. Miraculously, the town and its ancient walls were not desecrated during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), therefore the Ming-Qing period ancient town appears as it did originally, with streets wide enough only for carts. The main form of transportation in Pingyao is the bicycle, while small electrical vehicles reminescent of the golf cart, are used by the police and certain official agencies, otherwise walking and cycling are the only modes of public transporation allowed in Pingyao.
In 1997, UNESCO registered Pingyao Ancient Town on its World Cultural Heritage List, on the following grounds: "Pingyao Ancient Town is an outstanding example of a Han Chinese town of the Ming and Qing Dynasties period (14th-20th centuries) that has retained all of its features to an exceptional degree, and in so doing provides a remarkably complete picture of the cultural, social, economic, and religious development of the period in question, one of the most seminal periods in Chinese History."
Pingyao's Tourist Attractions
Pingyao Ancient Town and Pingyao Ancient Town Walls are of course the main attractions. Other Pingyao area attractions include the trade and finance houses of the distinguished families of the area, including: Rishengchang Draft Bank; Cao Family Courtyard in the village of Beiguang, Taigu County, about 30 kilometers northeast of Pingyao; Chang Family Courtyard, the largest of the Jin Merchant compounds in the country, though today it is only one quarter of its original size ("Jin" being an ancient name for Shanxi Province, and note that the Jin and the Hui (the latter being short for "Huizhou", Anhui Province) Merchants were the largest and wealthiest merchant clans in China)... the Chang Family Courtyard is located in the town of Dongyang, Jinzhong City, about 40 kilometers southwest of Taiyuan; the Qiao Family Courtyard located in Qi County, approximately 30 kilometers north of Pingyao (note that the Qiao Family Courtyard was the shooting venue for the Zhang Yimou film, Raise the Red Lantern); the Qu Family Courtyard located about 15 kilometers northeast of Pingyao, just beyond Zhenguo Temple; and Wang Family Courtyard, located near the town of Lingshi, about 35 kilometers southwest of Pingyao.
Of these many merchant family courtyards, the Wang Family Courtyard is the best preserved, though they are all worth a visit, and each is distinctly different, as one would expect of wealthy merchants who did not wish to copy each other but rather, wished to make a status statement by means of the uniqueness of their own family courtyard. These merchant family courtyards were a work in progress that spanned several generations.
Other interesting sites to visit in the Pingyao area include: Pingyao Confucian Temple in Pingyao Ancient Town; Shuanglin Temple in the village of Xiaqiao Tou, about 6 kilometers southwest of Pingyao; Zishou Temple in the town of Lingshi, about 35 kilometers southwest of Pingyao; and Zhenguosi Temple (alternatively Zhenguo Temple), located about 12 kilometers northeast of Pingyao and not far from the Qu Family Courtyard.
* The key word here is "original". The thing is, the 'cradle of Chinese civilization' moved southward in response first to the fall of the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty and the emergence of the troubled Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) and the Han-Chinese Jin Dynasty period (not to be confused with the later Jürchen Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty), when the first Turkic tribes from Manchuria (the area north of China at the time) began to exert pressure on the Han Chinese rule in the north. There were successive waves of Han Chinese migrations southward in which the Han Chinese took their highly developed culture southward with them. Therefore, for ethnic and cultural reasons, Han China had more or less relocated to the south-coastal provinces – the area sometimes referred to as home of the Lingnan culture, since the area was made into Lingnan Circuit long before it was divided up into the patchwork of provinces that one sees today.
While the Han Chinese who remained in the north intermarried with the local, non-Han tribes who resided in the area – including various Turkic tribes – the Han Chinese of Lingnan Circuit intermarried with the ethnic peoples of the south, many of whom were members of the Yue family of peoples. The Lingnan culture is therefore a cross between the culture of the Han Chinese and the culture of the southern tribes (principally the Yue).