Pingyao Ancient City – Shaanxi, China

It had been a very intensive week undertaking the Identification Mission for the Taiyuan Urban Transport Project. The goal of the mission was to identify the likely components for a new World Bank financed project so this meant many meetings, site visits and technical discussions. By Friday night we had completed our work and were ready for a recovery day. Our client very kindly arranged for us to visit Pingyao City–one of the top tourist sites not only in Shaanxi, but in all China. Located about 130 km from Taiyuan, not only was it one of only four walled cities remaining in China, but it was also the location of the ‘central bank’ for the Silk Road.


The day started off misty and overcast which made it difficult to fully appreciate the magnitude of the city’s walls: with a total length of 6.4 km, the city wall is about 12 m tall and 3 to 6 m wide on top. The photo to the left doesn’t do it justice. However, it was impressive.


It was first built in the mid-800’s from earth and mud. In 1370, it was expanded covered by bricks and stones. From a bird’s eye view the rectangular wall resembles a tortoise. There are six city gates, one each on the north and south walls, and two each on the west and east walls. The south gate is the head of the tortoise, the two wells outside being the two eyes of tortoise. The north gate, the lowest place of the city, is the tail of tortoise.

Traditionally the tortoise was considered a symbol of longevity, so through ancient times the hopes were that Pingyao Ancient City would be permanently secure. There are 72 watchtowers on the top of city wall and 3,000 external battlements. It is said that the 72 watchtowers represent 72 people of great wisdom, the 3,000 battlements the 3,000 disciples of Confucius. The Chinese love symbolism.

 Besides our friends from the Taiyuan project office, I was joined by my team shown above. Anil Somani and Jean-Marie Braun are two old China hands. They have worked on most of the projects in China and I was fortunate enough to ‘inherit’ them from previous Task Team Leaders. Next to Jean-Marie is Wenling Chen who is a ‘Junior Professional Associate’. I hired her last year to help with the China projects and she has been simply wonderful to work with. Next to Wenling is Fei Deng, who we hired a few months ago. She is a ‘Young Professional’ (YP) and destined for great things at the Bank.  Very talented and bright, she was one of 45 hired by the Bank from 13,000+ applicants. I half-jokingly introduce her to everyone as my future boss, which I fully expect her to be one day.


When you enter the city gate through the barbican there is a courtyard about 15 m square. This was designed to trap the attacking troops in an area where the soldiers could attack them from above. There were many very dangerous looking implements hanging off the walls, like a flat 1.5 m square piece of wood with 0.3 m spikes sticking out of it. They would swing it into the crowd with deadly effect.

One aspect of China that I don’t like is the noise levels. Being a weekend, there were many tour groups in the area and to make themselves heard, the local tour guides put their PA systems on full tilt.  Of course this caused the others to do the same so soon it was insufferably loud. Fortunately, we were able to wander along the wall away from them, but this continued to plague us throughout the day.

After visiting the wall we boarded electric buses. Anil, my environmentalist, was very pleased to see this. In fact, within Pingyao city’s walls there is nary a vehicle allowed. Contrast this with life just outside the walls.

We wandered around the streets, surrounded by this lovely historical architecture. During the 20th century China was beset by civil war, the Japanese ‘War of Aggression’, another civil war, and then 60 years of rule by the communist party which led to such notables as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’. As a result of this, there is actually relatively few old, historical towns or buildings left in China. Although I’ve worked here for 3 years and travelled extensively, I had never seen so many surviving buildings as I did in Pingyao City.




As an example of just how much has been lost, prior to the Cultural Revolution there was over 8,000 historical houses, temple and buildings in Beijing. Afterwards there was less than 600. In the last 5+ years China has been developing at breakneck speed so even more has been lost. The gate below is an example of the delightful architecture that Pingyao city has managed to keep intact.



The city has a number of special tourist stops. The building below was the government office, which is where they ran the administration as well as dispensing with justice.



The court was a large building, with a yard in front. Inside the building there were spots on the floor where the accused were forced to kowtow to the judge. Spending time kneeling on a hard floor would have been punishment to many, even before the sentence was bestowed. For some crimes the penalty was beating and the walls of the court was lined with large ‘paddles’. If you were rich or paid a bribe you were beaten with the large, flat section. Poor people got beaten with the edges.



They had arranged for a mock trial while we were there. A judge sat in the courtyard with a scribe to his left taking notes. Two dozen robed guards flanked the courtyard. An old man was there complaining that his deadbeat son didn’t take care of him. In the end the judge ordered the son to be beaten and the scribe gave the old man a form noting the judgement in his favour. The dialog must have been great since the Chinese crowd roared with laughter at key points.

What was not funny was the room behind the court – the torture museum. This showed the range of ways in which people were tortured. They ranged from a ‘horse’ which you sat on while towed through the streets—complete with 25 cm spikes that you would be sitting on—to whips and other implements. The Chinese came up with over 125 ways to torture you to death, and the sadism of many were beyond description. There were photos of people who were being, or had been, punished. Some minus noses, ears, etc. Needless to say I did not dwell there.

It was interesting to visit the prison cells. There were (of course) two types. For the rich people they had had windows in the doors and heating. The poor were cold, black rooms.  It made me reflect on the prison at ‘Colonial Williamsburg’ in Virginia a few hours south of D.C. Conditions there were so grim that a sentence of 5 years was really a death sentence.

There were many courtyards that we could wander through, each leading off to another nice set of buildings or quiet area. It was very peaceful, as some of the photos below show.





Emerging from the courtyards you find yourself wandering through alleyways, which are so narrow two cars cannot pass. There are bicycles and a few motorcycles, but mainly pedestrians. It is almost possible to imagine yourself in Pingyao city hundreds of years ago, except there undoubtedly no plumbing then so it would not be the most fragrant place to be!





Pingyao City was most famous as the ‘Central Bank’ for the silk road. About 175 years ago a private bank was established in the city. At that time, banking was done by sending chests full of money between towns—quite a risky enterprise given the number of bandits about. The Pingyao bank decided that a more efficient process would be to establish a number of different branches around China, each of which had their own cash reserve. People could then travel between cities without carrying money and make a withdrawal at the local branch. The firm established a series of controls to ensure that the funds were only released to authorized people. They had (i) special paper with watermarks; (ii) a code which was used for communications; and (iii) the bankers recognized each other’s handwriting. The bank was forward looking in many other ways. It had a profit sharing scheme wherein the staff received an annual bonus based on a certain percentage of the profits. The bank operated until the 1930’s.

Another point of interest was the temple to Confucius. This was very popular with students who came before examinations and prayed for success. Don’t know how much it would help at such a late stage, but they come in droves every year—and have for many centuries. The original temple was destroyed but was rebuilt so we went to the top and saw something very rare—an actual imperial examination.

Ancient China had a high degree of meritocracy. Anyone could sit the ‘Imperial Examination’ and if you did well you were selected to become one of the mandarins and part of the ruling class of China. They had an actual examination undertaken some 500 years ago which was the top examination in China that year.  The exam was an essay asking for a big picture view on how you rule the country.  Unfortunately, the fellow who did so well never reached the highest echelons of China’s government: he was too honest.

The city was full of different temples which, as a Christian, I have to admit don’t interest me. It was interesting to see the people coming for their prayers, burning incense, etc., not minding at all the tourists taking their photos. Then again, is it very different to St. Paul’s Cathedral where I took Wenling to the Saturday evening service? Probably not … except photography is more actively discouraged there.



It was a great visit to a beautiful old city. It was also nice to escape from the sights, sounds and traffic of modern China. Highly recommended for any history buff.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: