Discovery tour of Pingyao Ancient City, a well preserved Chinese walled city

Update:06 Sep 2010
Just in case you're wondering where Wall Street will be two or three hundred years from now; we give you Pingyao (平遥). Pingyao, the banking capital of Shanxi, was the nay of China itself during its Ming and Qing Dynasty heyday. If the flagstone streets look somewhat narrow and lackluster, know that so too will the glass monoliths of New York and Hong Kong someday. You can't imagine anything grander than a 70-story glass and steel edifice to high finance? Well, then you ought to visit Pingyao, a lesson in hubris, whose people built walls and streets to keep people out instead of letting them in, a grand, faded old cautionary tale whose lesson teaches that there's more to the world than counting money.
The Kangxi emperor was passing through Pingyao, China's wall street in 1703 CE, so the Pingyao father's decided to build this northern gate tower, and three others facing the other cardinal directions. Why? The city walls - ten meters high, six wide, and 6.4 kilometers around, just weren't imposing enough.
Today "ultra-quaint" rather than "imposing" is a more fitting way to describe the effect of the towers, the walls, and the flagstone, all witness to Pingyao both in its trade-center glory and modern-day status as inhabited relic.
Pingyao's City Tower, almost twenty meters high, is a wonder of symbolic decoration and glazed tile even today. You'll have to imagine the official peering out of the second-story window, supervising the bustling trade that drove northern China for at least two centuries, although Pingyao's first walls went up nearly three thousand years ago.
Those citizens who could afford to built their courtyard houses within the walls in the shape of the Chinese character for "sun",æ—¥, which meant two courtyards. Business and residence were combined into one dwelling, none more ornate than the Baichuantong Bank, here on Pingyao's South Main Street.
More angles and turns to a courtyard house meant more fengshui, less Shanxi dust and wind. Those who could have elaborate frescoes carved into the so-called screen wall facing the front door. Those who couldn't simply carved a niche into it, in which to place their house deities and simple offerings.
Vast consideration, however, and as much wealth as permitted went into a family's front door, complex signifier of both a family's wealth and its social status (not always the same in those barbaric days). The horse-tying poles outside this home denote a family of rare clout.
Plenty of resources went into décor as well. In those days, a family may well have saved for two or three generations, wheeling and dealing all over China, to finally return to Pingyao and build the ancestral home aright from the first. Form came before function, and ostentation before comfort, for virtually every detail bespoke the family's standing.
Again, in the Pingyao of old, you built not just according to your means but to your rank. Witness the elaborate side wall carving on the residence of Hou Dianyuan, owner of the Rishengchang Bank, who nearly paid the ultimate price for violating that dictum. One of the richest men in Pingyao, he built a house with seven bays, perhaps forgetting that the honor only went to officials with the degree of Advanced Scholar or higher. Lacking the degree but not the funds, the good Hou decided no one would make a fuss over his seven bays, only two less than the emperor himself was allowed. His life was spared only after selling house and spreading most of his wealth around in bribes.
What on earth could be the point of these elaborate structures, commonly raised on Pingyao parapets? Among the reasons given by the owners were to prevent robberies and fires, and to protect from prying eyes. The main reason, however, was to make the home higher than the neighbors' and maximize fengshui juju power.
Here's a look at the residential portion of Hou Dianyuan's Rishengchang Bank. Comforting, for all the symbols and ostentation, that Pingyao dwellers were pragmatic enough to live and work in the same place.
As can be imagined, all the proverbial stops got pulled out for Pingyao's Buddhist temples. Inside Sakya Hall, the main hall of Shuanglin Temple, artisans spent who-knows-how-long carving out Sakaymuni's reincarnation, birth, nirvana, ascension to Buddha-hood, spreading of the truth, and saving of souls.
To the layman, these are just a few more dusty old statues in a dusty old town, their like to be found in a thousand other temples across China. To the connoisseur, they are priceless examples of Song and Tang dynasty sculpture. As with Pingyao itself, it's not the attraction so much as the knowledge behind the eyes of the tourists attracted.
SOURCE: China Expat

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