When an entire town is enshrined in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list (1997), you know it is something special. And Pingyao is very special. Marked by its 4,000 wonderfully preserved Ming and Qing courtyard homes, the town is an alluring time-warp diced up by narrow cobbled lanes, dusty eaved-roofs and stretches of swaying red lanterns at night. By day, the town’s 30,000 active residents do what everyone does here: chat with friends, cruise the ancient streets, hang their laundry and relax, all in the shadow of a gloriously large Ming-Dynasty city wall.Besides the courtyard homes, Pingyao and its surrounding area includes around 300 historic sites, two of which – Zhenguo Temple and Shuanglin Temple – share the UNESCO title with the town. What’s more, outside of town are several courtyard compounds that once belonged to some of Pingyao’s most affluent families, particularly those of the Wang and the Qiao clans.
Pingyao was founded thousands of years ago, but it really livened up over the course the Ming and (especially) Qing Dynasties. By the 18th century the small city sat comfortably as the financial center of the empire, boasting the country’s first banks (including the first Bank of China), and a century later its 20 plus financial institutions made up more than half of the country’s total. With 50% of China’s silver trade flowing through their banks and businesses, the famous Shanxi merchants who developed Pingyao’s sterling financial status became synonymous with wealth and luxury.
The “Wall Street of China,” as old Pingyao was commonly called, eventually lost its moneyed glory to Shanghai in the south, but it fortunately managed to escape the bulldozers of the ’50s and ’60s, which took the lives of many other ancient places in favor of wide boulevards, block apartment buildings and statues of Mao. The center of town even harkens to its days of capitalist yore with plenty of shops – some tacky and touristy, some not.
Entering the old city is free, but you’ll need a ticket for most of the sights around down. The best choice is to purchase a joint ticket for ¥150, which grants access to 20 major spots (including the City Wall, the County Government Office, the Temple of the City God, the Rishengchang Exchange Shop and the Ancient Ming-Qing Street).
As mentioned, Pingyao was once known as the Wall Street of China, but that name can be a little misleading. To clarify, Pingyao was more like downtown Manhattan, while today’s Ancient Ming-Qing Street was the real financial district of old Pingyao (the Wall Street, if you will). Divided into South Ave (Nán Dàjiē; 南大街), East Ave (Dōng Dàjiē; 东大街) and West Ave (Xī Dàjiē; 西大街), this street is where you’ll find various shops, tea houses, cafes, banks, museums, courtyard houses and other important financial institutions of the city’s affluent past.
You may have noticed that, with the exception of a few places (like Xi’an and Nanjing), most city walls in China have seen better days. But Pingyao’s mighty bastion, built in 1370, still stands as gloriously as ever. At more than 10 m- (32 ft)-high it has more than 70 watchtowers, each engraved with a verse from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. There are decorative gates at each entrance of the wall and bridges that cross the moat, which was meant to keep thieves, bandits and criminals out of the money vaults. Any of the gates are great, but the best may be the Lower West Gate, which still guards some sections of the city’s original road. You can see groove marks made from centuries of cart wheels rolling through.
This temple, located in the southeast, is one of the oldest surviving structures in old Pingyao. Constructed in 1163, Dacheng Hall (Dàchéng Diàn;大成殿) also served as the place where diligent students came to take state exams for a chance to land a posh, well-paying government job.
You don’t have to be an investment banker to appreciate this museum, which details the fascinating history of Pingyao’s bullish past. In fact, this very same building is where the first Chinese bank was opened in 1823.
Climb the city’s tallest building to catch an aerial view of Pingyao’s remarkable rooftop scenery.
One of the city’s finest Taoist temples, Qingxu still has several halls dating all the way back to the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist statues and the well-preserved “Statue of Opera Actors.”
On the eastern side of the Confucian Temple stands a beautiful, white-washed Catholic Church. It has been renovated several times, and it still serves as a place of worship for Pingyao’s Catholic community.
Feel the justice at the Zhengfu Jie (政府街) County Government Office, where you can get a look at 18th century Chinese courtrooms along with an old-timey prison.