Pingyao Ancient Town

The Old Town of Pingyao is in Pingyao County, in the center of Shanxi Province. It was constructed during the reign of King Xuan of the Western Zhou Dynasty (C.1100-771B.C.) and has been the county seat ever since the establishment of the prefecture-and-county system in ancient China. Today, Pingyao looks much the same as it did during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and is the best-preserved historic town in the regions populated by the Han ethnic group.

Pingyao is known mainly for three historical treasures: the ancient large-brick city wall, the Zhenguo Temple, and the Shuanglin Temple.

The city wall of Pingyao was originally built with rammed earth and was rebuilt with bricks in 1370, the third year of the reign of Emperor Hong Wu of the Ming Dynasty. The city wall extends for six kilometers and testifies to the profound influence of Confucianism in this region, as the disciples of Confucius are said to be represented by the 3,000 embrasures on the wall and the 72 best disciples are represented by the 72 small watchtowers. In the later period of the Qing Dynasty, the Kuixing Pavilion was built on the southeast section of the wall and became a symbol of the flourishing culture of the ancient city.

The Old Town of Pingyao was constructed according to the traditional planning and building style of the Han ethnic group and was laid out according to the functions of its different parts. Four large streets, eight smaller ones, and 72 lanes made a neat grid. Symmetrically arranged along an axis, the private houses were constructed either in the style of courtyard houses or in the style of manmade-cave houses, all with local features. Today, Pingyao still has 3,797 courtyard houses, 400 of them especially well preserved. In addition, richly decorated temples and shops are scattered all over the town. These old buildings bring back a scene of the flourishing town of Pingyao during the Ming and Qing periods.

The Zhenguo Temple, located in the northeast part of the city, was built 1,000 years ago, and its Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Wanfo) is the third oldest existing wood building in China. The painted statues from the Five Dynasties period (907-960) inside the Wanfo Hall are listed as precious works of sculptures.

The Shuanglin Temple, with its ten halls, is located in the southwest part of the town and was rebuilt in 571, during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577). The temple houses more than 2,000 painted clay statues from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) through the Ming Dynasty and is known as the Treasure House of Painted Sculptures.

Other treasures in Pingyao include the Hall of Great Achievements in the Temple of Confucius, reconstructed in 1163, and the Qingxu Temple, originally constructed in 657.

Pingyao occupies an important place in the financial history of modern China. It was the location of the Shanxi Commerce and Rishengchang Piaohao, a kind of banking firm dealing mainly in the transfer of money. The now-defunct firm is considered to be the predecessor of modern banks in China. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, along with the development of economy and commerce, several large commercial firms of Shanxi Province opened branches outside the province, thus establishing a trans-regional business network. The circulation of commodities and the transfer of money gave rise to the piaohao.

In 1824, the Rishengchang Piaohao, the first banking firm in China, was established on what had been the site of the Xiyucheng Pigment Shop on Xidajie Street. Three years later, Rishengchang opened branches in Shandong, Henan, Liaoning, and Jiangsu provinces. In the 1840s, it expanded its operations to Japan, Singapore, and Russia. Following the example of Rishengchang, more than 20 piaohaos opened one after another in Pingyao, turning the town into the financial center of China.

Remembering Pingyao's glorious past, the local people have protected and preserved the old town. On December 3, 1997, at the 21st session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, Pingyao was put on the World Heritage List.

'The Old Town of Pingyao is an outstanding example of the Han cities in the Ming and Qing dynasties, retaining all the features of these periods. Pingyao presents a picture of unusual cultural, social, economic, and religious development in Chinese history.' from a report of the World Heritage Commission of UNESCO.

Ancient Financial Street

The Ancient Ming and Qing Street, that is the South Avenue of Pingyao, is an essential cultural relics of the county. Reputed as the 'Wall Street of China', it used to be the most prosperous part of the county and the financial center of China.

The Ancient Ming and Qing Street is located in the centre of Pingyao and forms the axis of the county. The street which stretches for over 750 meters, is unique in its concentration of as many as one hundred shops and local houses in the style of the ancient Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) architecture. In the past the businesses that these shops encompassed involved nearly all fields of commerce including finance, medicine, silk, clothing, fans, lanterns and general merchandise, Now, although some shops have become museums or have changed the types of business they house, all retain their original appearance, making this street an excellent location to see historic buildings of the Qing and Ming period. The street is also a place where some local souvenirs can be purchased and some of the unique local snacks can be sampled.

The ancient City Tower, which is situated in the center of the street, is the highest building of Pingyao and also forms its axle center. It is also the best point to overview the county.

Qiao Jia Da Yuan

The prosperity of the Qiao Family originated with Qiao Guifa who was an orphan and made a living as a servant during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711 - 1799) in Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911). He first started a business when he met his business partner, Qin. Initially, they sold fodder, bean sprout and bean curd. Several years later, they had become very wealthy. The 'golden age' for this family was under the instruction of Qiao Zhiyong who adopted the principles of being industrious, modest and generous. The family fortunes began to decline due to the large amount of money offered to the Qing Army and the spoliation of the Japanese army.

The compound was first built in 1756 in the Qing Dynasty and renovated twice and enlarged once. When people first saw the compound, they were astonished to find that the complex was so large and magnificent; however, few knew that the value of the compound was less than one percent of the family's (fortune) asset. Situated in the central part of Qiao Town, Qi Xian County in Shanxi Province, it occupies an area of 8,274 square meters (about two acres) with a construction area of 3,870 square meters (about one acre). It consists of six main courtyards, twenty smaller courtyards and 313 rooms. The family built the complex like a castle for safety, as well as to create tranquil surroundings in which to relax, far away from the furious competition of the business world. With three sides facing the street, it has ten-meter (about 32 feet) high parapet walls (a kind of wall as high as the house, used to keep the yard safe). Some girls in large families could not resist the temptation of the outside world, so they managed to climb up the high wall to look at the outside world that was forbidden to them. Gradually, this kind of wall became known as 'Nv'er' (daughter) wall. The exquisite design and meticulous craftsmanship make these walls unrivalled.

Viewed from above, the Qiao Compound looks very much like the double Chinese character of 'xi', which means happiness and luck. As one enters through the main gate, an eighty-meter (about 262 feet) long paved path leads to the main hall, at the western end of which, is the ancestral temple of the family. This path divides the compound into two parts: the Southern Yard and the Northern Yard. The Southern Yard is further divided into three sections respectively called the Southeast Yard, the South Yard and the New Yard. The three subdivisions of the Northern Yard are respectively called the Old Yard, the Northwest Yard and the Study Yard. The given names reflect the location of the yards within the compound. Another important feature of the compound is the fact that the roof of every house is connected. This makes it easier for guards to protect the yard. What's more, the 140-plus chimneys on the roof all vary from each other in their design.

The Qiao Compound gained its renown not only for its large scale but also for the exquisite craftsmanship reflected in the brick carving, woodcarving and murals.

Brick carvings can be found on the wall and balusters, depicting various subjects such as flowers (traditional propitious pictures in the culture of Shanxi Province). For example, the carving on the corbie-step doorstep of the third yard shows Kylin (a mascot in Chinese culture) carrying a son to a mother figure. They caved this picture in the hope of having more male offspring.

The wood carvings are widely praised for they are extremely lifelike and possess some kind of meaning. For example, the caving of the three gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity can be found on the main gate of the second yard. These three gods represent all human desires, so they are very popular in China.

Beautiful gold murals are located under each eave of the compound. Some of these paintings portray fables and some others concern more prosaic subjects such as flowers, birds, railway lines, railway stations, clocks, etc. Although exposed to the wind and sun for hundreds of years, they are still shining!

There are many tablets in the compound, two of which are most valuable.

The tablet 'ren zhou yi fu' displays the handwriting of Li Hongzhang (1832-1901, a famous general in Chinese history during the Qing Dynasty). At the time when the Qing Army was at war with the invaders, the Qiao Family donated 400,000 taels of silver (705,479 ounces) towards a warship. Li wrote this tablet in praise of their patriotism.

The tablet 'fu zhong lang huan' was presented to the Qiao Family under the verbal instruction of the Empress Dowager Cixi(1836-1908) who made her escape after the Eight Powers Allied Army seized Beijing. When she arrived in Shanxi Province, the Qiao Family donated 400,000 taels of silver (705,479 ounces) to pay for her journey.

In 1985, the local government set up the Folk Art Museum of Qixian County, exhibiting 5,000 objects of folk custom in the compound grounds. These objects concern folk art, agricultural custom, clothes, foods, shelter and means of travel. Many films were also shot here, among which the most famous being 'Raise the Red Lanterns' featuring Li Gong. Therefore, information and materials on these films are exhibited, too.