Ancient City of Pingyao: An Outstanding Example of Han Chinese Cities in the Ming and Qing Dynasties

The Ancient City of Pingyao is located in Pingyao County in central Shanxi Province. With a history of over 2,700 years, it is an outstanding example of the Han Chinese city of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.

Ancient City of Pingyao

First built during the Western Zhou Dynasty (827 B.C.-782 B.C.), Pingyao was designed and constructed according to traditional planning and building style of the Han Chinese. Until today, the ancient city looks much the same as when it was the county seat of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The enclosed city covers an area of about 2.25 square kilometers. Within the city, 4 avenues, 8 streets and 72 small lanes crisscross one another and the formed blocks are filled with the county’s administrative buildings, residential houses, stores and temples. Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, business districts and family residences here were all planned in accordance with the layout of the city.

From a bird’s-eye view of the city, the shape of the Pingyao is like that of a turtle, earning Pingyao the moniker “Turtle City.” Traditionally the turtle is considered a symbol of longevity, so through ancient times the hopes were that Pingyao Ancient City would be permanently secure.

Highlights of Pingyao Ancient City

  • City Wall of Pingyao: One of the Four Best-Preserved City Walls in China

The city wall of Pingyao is about 6 kilometers long, 12 meters high, 3-6 meters wide on the top and 9-12 meters wide at the bottom. The original wall was of tamped earth; its outside was faced with stones and bricks in 1370. The wall underwent frequent repairs and rebuilding during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

City Wall of Pingyao

The city wall was a fortification in the ancient time to protect the town from the invader’s attack. Pingyao had an extensive fortification system, consisting of gatehouses, barbicans, watchtowers, turrets and moat. With the barbicans built outside the city gates, the watchtowers along the top and the turrets at the four corners of the wall, as well as the moat outside the wall, all facilities formed an effective defense system, displaying the great achievements in city fortification design of that time.

The eastern, western and northern walls are square and straight, and the southern walls wander along the moat. The northern and southern walls have one gate each, and the eastern and western walls, two gates each. Each gate used to have a drawbridge to cross the moat, which is 4 meters deep and 4 meters wide.

The barbicans were auxiliary defense facilities built just outside the city gates in approximate round or square shape, and Pingyao has six barbicans which are all in square shape. Because the city gates were the weakest points of the whole city and easy to be attacked, normally the barbicans would be built additionally outside each city gate to strengthen the security of the city gates. As the round barbican is shaped like a big urn, the barbican has a vivid Chinese name called Wengcheng, which literally means “Urn Town”. The name also implied that if the enemy came through the entrance of the barbican, they would be trapped in the barbican, open to attack from all sides.

Pingyao ancient city walls have six barbican gates

Watchtower is a key part of the military construction. 72 watchtowers were built in a regular interval of 50-100 meters along the city wall of Pingyao, with external battlements, which are said to represent the 72 disciples and more than 3,000 students of Confucius. The watchtowers are 2 stories tall – the second floor was serving for lookout while the first floor was used for storing grains, fodder, military equipment and gun powder, as well as for stationing soldiers.

In 1993, the renowned relics of Pingyao were restored to their ancient forms, including the city wall, 72 watchtowers, Kuixing Pavilion which was built on the southeast section of the wall in the later period of the Qing Dynasty, as well as three barbicans.

Kuixing Pavilion

  • Pingyao: Museum of Architecture in the Ming and Qing Dynasties

In the ancient city of Pingyao, there are 3,797 Ming- and Qing-style folk residences, and the residences are all courtyard houses made of black bricks and grey tiles with a clear axis and bilateral symmetry. Out of the total, over 400 of these courtyard houses are still well preserved. Therefore, Pingyao enjoys the reputation of “museum of architecture in the Ming and Qing dynasties”.

Pingyao City Tower

The Ming-Qing Street, reputed as the “Wall Street of China” in the past time, is the most prosperous business center in Pingyao. Shops from the Ming and Qing dynasties are well preserved on the street. Also on this street stands the City Tower. With a height of 18.5 meters, it is the highest structure within the historic city and also the center of the city.

  • Pingyao: A Financial Center in China from the 19th Century to the Early 20th Century

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 centered around Pingyao. In 1823, Rishengchang Exchange Shop, whose predecessor is Xiyucheng Dye Store, was established in Pingyao. It dealt in bank drafts rather than in silver or gold money, becoming the first draft bank in China’s history. The shop kept running for over 100 years. With its branches spreading across 35 cities in China, it almost controlled China’s entire economy in the 1900s. Nowadays, this quadrangle-shaped structure is a “Museum of China’s Bank Draft” with over 20 exhibition rooms.

Rishengchang Exchange Shop

Travel Tips:

Endowed with countless historical sites and cultural treasures, Pingyao County has “three treasures”, which are the Ancient City Wall, Zhengguo Temple and Shuanglin Temple.

Founded in 2001, the China Pingyao International Photography Festival (PIP) is held annually in the ancient city of Pingyao. It has become one of the world’s largest photo exhibitions.

Pingyao Beef and Immemorial Pies are the most famous snacks in Pingyao. It was said that the emperor dowager Cixi spoke highly of these snacks when she passed Pingyao and tasted the food. Pingyao’s lacquer ware and embroidered cloth shoes are handmade articles with strong local flavor, and are good choices as souvenirs.

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