Last week was Qingming – aka Tomb Sweeping Day – offices and schools in China closed for three days holiday so that people had time to travel to their ancestral tombs to remember family members who have died, honour their ancestors, burn paper money and place decorations on the tombs. As we have no ancestral tombs over here, AMM and I decided to visit the ancient city of Pingyao.
Pingyao is a small city in Shanxi Province, south-west of Beijing. The overnight sleeper train which goes to X’ian via Pingyao was fully booked, so we travelled by high-speed rail to the provincial capital Taiyuan and then by car to Pingyao.
The city is some 2-3000 years old and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Set in the dry and dusty Loess plateau (Huangtu Plateau) of central China it is remarkable how it has survived virtually untouched by all the stormy events of Chinese regime changes over the past centuries.
Pingyao is a walled city. The walls were built, using a method known as rammed earth construction, approximately 2700 years ago and then in 1370 AD they were repaired and faced with brick, they remain more or less the same today – despite the Imperial Japanese Army having shelled them in the late 1930s, fortunately to little effect. The walls (actually it is just one wall) extend 6kms around the city.
Residential compounds and commercial buildings occupied courtyards within this plan, and today nearly 4000 courtyard buildings still remain. There were the usual public buildings that any city needs such as court houses, government offices to administer taxes, a prison and so forth as well as several rather magnificent temples – Daoist, Confucian and Buddhist (and today there are also two large Christian churches, one Roman Catholic and the other Protestant).
Pingyao was a very typical Chinese city, but its real claim to fame came because of money. There were many rich merchants living in Pingyao during the Ming (1368-1644 AD) and Qing (1644-1911 AD) Dynasties. In or about 650 AD some bright spark in China had the idea that instead of having to pass great quantities of gold, silver and bronze between the entrepreneurs when striking a deal, the metal wealth of the merchants should be lodged in a safe place and promissory notes issued for the ‘real money’ to be redeemed at another time. These notes started being traded, and BINGO, paper money was born; when Marco Polo came to China it was one of the things he marvelled at.
The merchants of Pingyao were quick to cotton on to this new method of money management and one enterprising chap, who had owned a large premises dying fabric and leather, converted it to what was the first proper bank in China, Rishengchang Piaohao (their enormous courtyard is now a ‘banking’ museum and a fascinating place to visit within the city) grew and grew and by the early 19th century it had hundreds of branches across China as well as in Russia, Japan, Burma and Singapore. Other merchants had followed suit; very soon Pingyao had numerous banks and became the financial centre of the whole country.
I should just say at this point, that if anyone had told me I would find a ‘banking museum’ interesting I would have thought they were barking mad – but I did!
When my dear husband announced that he was off to visit ‘The Armed Escort Agency’ premises I was a little purturbed – well, in the west we all know what Escort Agencies do! However, this ‘museum’ is actually about a company which was the Chinese equivalent of Wells Fargo. Because Pingyao was the Chinese ‘Wall Street’, the banks were shipping money (paper and metals) to branches all over the country. As banditry was a real problem, the company hired Chinese martial arts masters to accompany their shipments, and managed to fend off many attempts to rob their shipments.
The main streets are named with stunning originality North Street, South Street, East and West Streets, and they are lined with hundreds of small shops selling everything from swords and drums to lacquer ware boxes and hand-stitched fabric shoes. There are also a vast number of shops selling ‘antiques’ (oh really?), and, as in every Chinese town or city I’ve ever visited there are umpteen stalls selling street food as well as many restaurants.
One reason Pingyao has remained relatively unchanged is that the area has very little water, and that has prevented the building of factories and other industrialisation. Nowadays Pingyao’s major industry is tourism, and because we were there during a holiday period the whole place was hotching with people,
however 99.9% of the tourists were Chinese, and we saw very few weiguoren whilst we were there. The lively atmosphere, the car-free streets and the old buildings gave one an insight into what Chinese cities would have been like two or three hundred years ago.
We stayed in a fabulous hotel – one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in over my years of travelling around the globe Jing’s Residence is pricey by local standards – but on the other hand, 2-3 nights in Pingyao is quite enough to get under the skin of the place and it was wonderful to be staying somewhere so civilized, so luxurious, so welcoming. Four old courtyard houses have been beautifully restored and adapted, all the rooms open on to small courtyards decoratedwith ancient carvings. It is small – only 19 bedrooms – but absolutely perfect, and the manager, staff and chef are exceptional. It has recently become a member of the prestigious French hotel group Relais & Châteaux, which has only four member hotels in China. Save up your pennies and stay here when you visit Pingyao.
If you are visiting China, and have time to do some travelling, Pingyao is a must.