World Heritage in China: Ancient City of Pingyao
Pingyao is a famous historic cultural city of China and a world cultural heritage site. inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997.
Located in the center of Shanxi Province, it’s 90 kilometers south of Taiyuan on the Fen River. The Dayun highway, the new Dayun Expressway and the Tongpu railway run north-south through or near it. Frequent trains and buses run between the two cities. taking about one and a half hours.
People lived in the vicinity of Pingyao during the New Stone Age. According to legend, an official from the village became Emperor Yao and gave the town the names of Gutao and Pingtao. This area, during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 B.C. – 476 B.C.) belonged to the Jin Kingdom and during the Warring States Period (475 B.C. – 221 B.C.) it belonged to the Zhao Kingdom. Pingtao became a city and the seat of the county government in the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. – 206 B.C.) . The name of the county changed several times, from Zhongdu to Jingling in the Western Han Dynasty to Pingyao County in the Northern Wei Dynasty. Its long period as a county government seat has left Pingyao with a 2,700 years’ history of politics, culture, and economy, as well as numerous historic buildings and sites. Ninety-nine of these are under government protection, including three under national protection: Zhengguo Temple (Five Dynasties to Ming Dynasty), Shuanglin Temple (Ming Dynasty), and Pingyao Ancient City (Yuan to Qing Dynasties). The city is laid out according to the system of the Han nationality.
The prototype of an ancient county seat
There are two historical features of Ming and Qing cities. One is that they were laid out according to strict protocol, with more important cities being larger in an area. The kingdom’s capital occupied the largest area, of nine square li (two li equals one kilometer), the capitals of dukes were seven or five square li and seats of county governments, such as Pingyao, occupied 3 square li. The other is that the layout of Pingyao Ancient City reflects “recognizing right directions” in both the entire city and the courtyards. They reflect the harmony of “humans, universe and buildings”. That is to say, they reflect the idea that “people and heaven combine into one”. This relationship is reflected in the layout and formula of the traditional system and customs of the Han Nationality: five directions (north, south, east, west and center) and four shapes, giving prominence to the center, strengthening the axis and that facing south is honorable.
The birthplace of Shanxi merchants
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, merchants organized commercial groups that engaged in business nationwide, with Shanxi Province having some of the most important ones and Pingyao as the center. The Xiyucheng dye store on Xi Da Jie dealt in remittance and in 1823 became the first draft bank in China, dealing in bank drafts rather than in silver or gold money. Known as Rishengchang (Sunrise Prosperity), it was the cornerstone of modern Chinese banking.
Unique traditional residences
In Pingyao Ancient City, there are many traditional residences and commercial courtyards, 3,797 of which are protected and more than 400 of which are intact. These traditional residences are the carriers of history culture, which are valuable for studying its history, folk customs, architecture and art, and still serve as homes of local people. They become the architectural cultural heritage, which are protected and utilized today.
The ancient residences not only reflect the level of ancient architecture and the fashion of residences of the time, but they also demonstrate ancient policies, economies, philosophies, ethics, art and customs. These old houses and ruined walls show people how the local people lived in years past.
Pingyao City Wall
The city was laid out according to traditional sayings that mountains and water should face the sun and a tortoise is playing in the water, making this the most auspicious city layout.
Pingyao was repaired in the West Zhou Dynasty (827 B.C. – 728 B.C.) when General Yin Jipu stationed his troops here to prevent an invasion of barbarians. The original walls were of tamped earth and were located northwest of the present city. Pingyao city, originally named Pingtao, was built in the early Northern Wei Dynasty. In 424, its name was changed to Pingyao. Over the centuries its walls were rebuilt and lengthened from nine li plus 18 paces to over 12 li (6.4 kilometers). The outside was faced with stones and bricks starting in 1370, and the wall underwent frequent repairs and rebuilding during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It’s ten meters high, 6,163 meters around, and three to five meters wide at the top. While the western, northern and eastern walls are straight, the southern one curves, forming a rough square. The northern and southern walls have one gate each, the easter and western walls, two each. Each gate has a barbican entrance with an inner and an outer door and has a tower above it, three of which have been rebuilt. Each gate used to have a drawbridge to cross the moat, which today is outside three sides of the city and is more than 3.3 meters deep and 3.3 meters wide. Scholar trees and willows formerly are lined the moat.
The tortoise is a symbol of eternity. 72 watch towers were built every 50 to 100 meters along the top. Two-meter-high walls were built along the outside of the wall’s top, with 3,000 crenellations with openings for shooting. These represent the 72 disciples and more than 3,000 students of Confucius. 77 brick-lined drains remove water from the walls. Each corner formerly had a grand tower, but only the Great Scholar Tower in the southeast remains, along with one roll-call platform. A temple used to occupy the large platform on the eastern wall.
Remarks by famous people about Pingyao, authorized by the World Heritage Committee
“Pingyao Ancient City is the finest under heaven”, by Tanaka Dan.
“Rishengchang (Sunrise Prosperity) remittance business covered the whole country”, by Tanaka Dan.
“The painted sculpture of Shuanglin Temple is a treasure of the world”, by Tanaka Dan.
“A real, unique treasure”, by Barkley Jones (an American scholar and UN Centre for Human Settlements expert).
“Pingyao is like the Sun”, “A pearl of ancient architecture”, by Jay Moore (a UN Centre for Human Settlements expert).
“A lotus appears above the water”, by Karl Ash (a Canadian scholar and a UNESCO expert).
“A quite famous and precious historical heritage”, by Fremin Arold (Danish Scholar and a UNESCO expert).