Pingyao — The Best Representative of a Traditional Chinese Han City

Traditional Dwellings in The Ancient City of Pingyao in Shanxi Province of China

What is the Ancient City of Pingyao?


Pingyao, or the Ancient City of Pingyao, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with great architectural, historical, and cultural values.


Firstly constructed between 827 BC to 782 BC as a military site garrisoned by general Yin Jifu and his soldiers, Pingyao gradually developed into a normal city for civilians to live in. 


In the year 1370, the city Pingyao was rebuilt and expanded, and its city wall was reconstructed and solidified, which stayed basically the same way in the next six centuries. 

The city's prosperity reached to the peak in 19th and early 20th centuries, when Pingyao was the financial center of China.  

Pingyao experienced its ups and downs, together with the history of China; but all the building complex of this city barely changed much over time, and together, they are showing people how a traditional Han county-level city in history looks like.


Courtyard of A Traditional Dwelling of The Ancient City of Pingyao

What is the turtle-shaped architectural layout of Pingyao?


In ancient Chinese culture, the turtle is an auspicious animal that represents longevity, peace, health, eternity, and luck. Therefore, many ancient cities' layouts look like a turtle, and Pingyao is one of them:

  • The ancient city of Pingyao has six gates;


  • One gate in the south is the turtle's head, and one gate in the north is the tail;


  • Two gates on the east and two on the west, represent the turtle's four legs;


  • The 4 main streets, 8 roads, and 72 lanes inside the city wall look like patterns on the turtle's shell. 


Together they form a giant turtle, protecting people living inside the city. 


A Gate on City Wall of Pingyao and The City's Panoramic View

Important Data of Pingyao.


  • The Ancient City of Pingyao is 225 square kilometers large;


  • Its city wall is 6163 meters long and about 12 meters tall;


  • There are about 4000 dwellings and shops inside the city wall of Pingyao;


  • Zhenguo Temple of Pingyao has buildings and painted sculptures date back to the Five Dynasties (907 — 960);


  • Shuanglin Temple of Pingyao preserved over 2000 painted sculptures of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (1271 — 1912);


  • The first modern bank of China Rishengchang was built there in 1824.


Exquisite Roofs of the Building Complex of Pingyao

Why Pingyao was the financial center of the Qing Dynasty and how did it decline?


In the year 1368, Emperor Shundi of the Yuan Dynasty fled out of Beijing city and established a regional nomadic authority in Mongolian Plateau.

At the same time, the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) was established as a national regime, strengthened Great Wall, and send strong armies garrisoning on borders. 

Some people in Shanxi, the middle-north province of China that Pingyao was located, started to do business on nearby borders, by transporting and selling food and daily necessities there. 

During Emperor Longqing's reign (1566 — 1572), with the assistance of great ministers Gao Gong and Zhang Juzheng, the Ming empire agreed to open up trade on the northern borders. 

Afterward, more businessmen carried their goods up north, and crossed borders to Russian, and accumulated more and more fortune through their diligence and courage. 


Weapons and Armor of Escort Troops (Biaoju), the Professional Security Companies of Merchants During These Periods — Museum of The Service Guard of China in Pingyao (Photo by Dingding)

In Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), businessmen from Shanxi Province (or Jin Shang) became the most successful merchant group in China. 

With their growing business and longer transportation distance, carrying a large amount of money became more dangerous. 

Therefore, the first draft bank (in Chinese is Piaohao) named Rishengchang was built in Pingyao in 1823, when over 20 other more banks opened in Pingyao, and thousands of branches were launched in other Chinese cities and countries.

Their advanced management system made sure their successful businesses kept growing, and then served as Qing's financial department and acting treasury.  

Underground Treasury of Rishengchang in the Ancient City of Pingyao, Photo by Dingding.

Since the late 19th century, Qing had lost in a series of wars against western countries and paid a large number of war reparations, which cost banks of Pingyao suffered big losses too. 

In 1912, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, with many warlords arising, the whole society falling into chaos, and more western capital and institutions rushing in, Pingyao and their business empire declined and perished after decades of difficult struggles. 

Today, all the history, their ambition, prosperity, fight, and decline, lies in those well-preserved buildings of Pingyao. 

Plaque of Rishengchang "Huitong Tianxia", Meaning To Provide Service Worldwide, Photo by Guo Hui.


What are the important cultural sites of Pingyao?


City Wall of Pingyao

Rebuilt in 1370 under the command of Hongwu Emperor, the City Wall of Pingyao is one of the best-preserved city walls in China. 

It is 6163 meters long, about 12 meters tall, has 72 fighting towers (Dilou)  and 3000 crenels (Duokou).

Fighting Towers (Dilou)  and Crenels (Duokou) on the City Wall of Pingyao

Confucius Temple or Wen Miao

This is the most ancient Confucius Temple in China, whose main hall was rebuilt in the year 1163. 

Other buildings were built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912).


Together, they form the 35811 square meters' large Confucius Temple of Pingyao, which had been used as a national academy in history, besides worship Confucius.

Exquisite Details on Dachengdian that was Built in the Year 1163, the Main Hall of the Confucius Temple or Wen Miao of Pingyao.

County Government or Xian Ya

Rebuilt in 1370, the over 26,000 square meters' large government of Pingyao is the largest and best-preserved ancient county-level government in China. 

Its layout, buildings, and relics inside show explicitly the Pingyao government's authority, responsibility, daily works, and lives. 

Governor's Working Desk in the County Government or Xian Ya of the Ancient City of Pingyao

Ancient Dwellings of Pingyao

Inside the City Wall of Pingyao, there are about 4000 traditional dwellings and shops from Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912). 

The structure and layout of these buildings, as well as the exquisite decorative carvings, are exceptional showcases of people's culture, economic activities, daily lives, and history. 

Traditional Dwellings of the Ancient City of Pingyao, Photo by Gaozheng.

Zhenguo Temple — Precious Ancient Timber Buildings

Located in the northeast of Pingyao city, Zhenguo Temple is an exceptional treasure, whose main shrine and many sculptures date back to the Five Dynasties (907 — 960). 

Besides being one of the most ancient, valuable existing timber structure buildings in China,  Zhenguo Temple also preserved bell, frescoes, and stone inscriptions from the recent few centuries.

Main Shrine and Ancient Tree of Zhenguo Temple

Shuanglin Temple — Gallery of Painted Sculptures

In the southwest of Pingyao, the Shuanglin Temple has been known as the “Oriental Art Gallery of Painted Sculptures”. 

Rebuilt in the year 571, the Shuanglin Temple has a stone tablet established in 1011, buildings and frescoes from Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912). 

The most precious treasure of Shuanglin Temple is the over 2000 painted sculptures of Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (1271 — 1912) preserved inside, which hold extraordinary artistic values. 

Extraordinary Painted Sculptures in Shuanglin Temple, Photo by Dongmaiying.

What are the famous food and specialties of Pingyao?


Beef — Ancient Cooking Method

Originated from a historic local beef shop, Pingyao's beef uses traditional pickle, braise, and stew procedure, and used to serve as a royal tribute in the late Qing Dynasty. 


Push Light Lacquerware or Tuiguang Qiqi — Handmade National Intangible Cultural Heritage

Originated during the North and South Dynasties (420 — 589) and reached prosperity in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Push Light Lacquerware has been one of the most popular and exquisite lacquerware crafts for over 1000 years. 

As a national intangible cultural heritage of China, making Pingyao lacquerware need to use hand to varnish and draw, which made the lacquerware smooth, lustrous, and beautiful. 

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