Traditional architecture and modern shops in Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China.

Pingyao: What Gems of Architecture are Housed in this Traditional Imperial Chinese City?

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The ancient city of Pingyao is a county-level city located in the center of China’s Shanxi Province. This ancient city has been described as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city. Whilst the city itself was first established around the 9th / 8th century BC, during the Western Zhou Dynasty, many of the city’s present structures were built from the 14th century AD onwards. As the centuries went by, different architectural styles and elements of urban planning were incorporated into the city’s urban fabric. Therefore, the evolution of such styles and elements over half a millennium of Imperial Chinese rule can be traced in the city. 

Pingyao ancient city wall south gate.

Pingyao ancient city wall south gate. ( 历史研究/CC BY SA 3.0 )

Pingyao’s Impressive City Walls

Pingyao’s well-preserved city walls are one of the city’s most impressive structures. Built around the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1370, the walls, which stretch over a distance of about 6 km (3.73 miles), originally served to protect the city from enemy attacks. The walls, which have an average height of 12 meters (39.37 ft.), were further fortified by 72 watchtowers - with four larger ones on each corner. Six gates, one each in the northern and southern walls and two each on the eastern and western walls, provide access in and out of Pingyao. As the positions of these gates give the city a resemblance to the outline of a tortoise, Pingyao has been given the nickname of Tortoise City. In addition, the walls made the city an impenetrable stronghold, providing the city’s nickname with another layer of meaning.

The Wall and some watchtowers of Pingyao city, Shanxi, China.

The Wall and some watchtowers of Pingyao city, Shanxi, China. ( Public Domain )

The Economic Powerhouse of Pingyao

Whilst the walls of Pingyao give the city the impression of a significant military post, this historical city was also important to the Imperial Chinese government for another reason. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Pingyao was a major economic powerhouse. For example, this was the birthplace of the Jin Businessmen / Merchants. These were prominent traders from Shanxi who operated during the Ming and the Qing Dynasties. The first Chinese trading shop is recorded to have opened in Pingyao and in the following centuries almost all of the large trading shops in China were based in this city. Many of these trading shops can be found on Ming Qing Street (known also as South Street), where their magnificent remains can still be seen today.

Old city street in Pingyao, Shanxi, China.

Old city street in Pingyao, Shanxi, China. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

One of the buildings in Pingyao attesting to the city’s commercial significance is the Rishengchang Exchange House. This establishment, which was founded in 1823, was the first draft bank to be set up, and hence is known also as the ‘Father of Chinese Banking’. Draft banks allowed bills, instead of gold and silver, to be used for business transactions. This meant that merchants going to other parts of the country to do business did not have to transport large quantities of gold or silver with them, which made it much more convenient. The draft banks operating in Pingyao contributed greatly to the city’s prosperity.  

A view of the Rishengchang Exchange House in Pingyao.

A view of the Rishengchang Exchange House in Pingyao. (Zhangshugang/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Pingyao’s Temples and Government Office

Other places of interest in Pingyao include the city’s temples and the County Government Office. For example, the Temple of Literature (known also as the Temple of Confucius) is reported to have been re-built during the Song Dynasty. In this temple, the memory and philosophy of Confucius are honored. An interesting fact about the Temple of Literature is that it is in possession of the last remaining Confucian Imperial Examination paper from the Ming Dynasty.

As for the County Government Office, this was the place from which the city was administered. This governmental complex was built during the Yuan Dynasty, though the majority of the present structure dates to the Ming Dynasty. The County Governmental Office contains such facilities as a prison, a courtroom, meeting rooms, a garden, as well as residential quarters and offices for governmental officials.     

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