Ancient Walled City of Pingyao, Shanxi Province | A band of street performers, dressed in traditional red and yellow
A band of street performers, dressed in traditional red and yellow.

Ancient Walled City of Pingyao, Shanxi Province

Guided tours of the alleys, thoroughfares, and the key historical sites; an easy hike around temples outside the city walls.

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Trip overview
Day One main activities Fast train to Taiyuan, private bus to Pingyao, walk around city walls, paper-cutting class
Day Two main activities Guided tour of Pingyao City, free time before dinner, Jin opera performance.
Day Three main activities Visit Shuanglin Temple, hike around and tour White Cloud Temple, fast train back to Beijing.

Pingyao Ancient City

The old city of Pingyao in Shanxi Province is a living museum, with its intact city wall, its residences and shops, and even its government office all preserved in the style of China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties. Walking its alleys and thoroughfares, it’s easy to imagine what life was like in those times long gone by, when Pingyao was the financial center of China.

A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 1997, Pingyao’s old city contains much of interest: the Rishengchang Exchange Shop, known as the ‘father of banking in China’; the display of the Qing Dynasty legal system at the old County Government Office on Zhengfu Street; the Temple of the City God and the Temple of Literature; the City Tower and the line of old buildings and courtyard residences on either side of the ‘Ming and Qing’ Street; and, of course, the city walls and moat, over six kilometres in circumference.

Walking around the old city walls of Pingyao.
Walking around the old city walls of Pingyao. (Click for larger image)

Ancient City Walls and Moat

Constructed in 1370 AD, the walls of the old city are just over six kilometres in circumference and average about 12 metres in height, with 72 watchtowers and four larger towers on each corner. The wall has six gates, and the positioning of the gates gives rise to Pingyao’s ‘Turtle City’ nickname – there is one gate in the northern wall, one gate in the southern wall, and two gates on each of the east and west walls – a layout like a turtle shell. On the first day of this trip we’ll walk all the way around the city walls, getting a good look over the city from above.

Temple of Literature

Also known as the Temple of Confucius, the Temple of Literature is a place where the memory and philosophy of Confucius are honoured. The temple was reconstructed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), which makes it older than the Temple of Confucius in Beijing. The temple is in possession of the last remaining Ming Dynasty Confucian Imperial Examination paper.

Pingyao’s City Tower at night, seen on an evening stroll.
Pingyao’s City Tower at night, seen on an evening stroll. (Click for larger image)

‘Ming Qing’ Street

This street, also known as ‘South Street,’ was the center of commercial activities in Pingyao and is lined with shops and courtyard residences. The 18-metre high City Tower, one of the highlights of the old city, straddles Ming Qing Street, and many of the main tourist sites can also be found close by.

County Government Office

The County Government Office is a 300-room complex that contained a prison, the courtroom, meeting rooms, a garden, and housing and offices for officials. It was originally built in 1346, during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 AD), but most of the remaining buildings date to the Ming Dynasty. In some of the rooms we’ll see implements of torture.

Temple of the City God

The Temple of the City God still sees regular use by locals. Entering through a large archway, we will explore the main hall and the many courtyards, and take in the depiction of Daoist Hell. Inside we’ll also find a shrine to the Kitchen God. The Temple of the City God was the counterpart to the County Government Office—spiritual affairs balancing with those of officialdom.

Ancient Streets and Old Lanes

Of the four main streets in Pingyao, only the west-east street runs uninterrupted all the way across the city. The rest are a maze of twists, turns, and t-junctions, said to be arranged in a Bagua-influenced layout.

Rishengchang Exchange House

In the 19th century, draft banking (the use of bills of exchange instead of silver and gold) became a convenient way for merchants to do nationwide business without having to transport silver and gold cross-country. Pingyao was a great hub of draft banks, and this business brought economic prosperity to the city. The Rishengchang Exchange House, founded in 1823, was the first to be set up, and is known as the ‘Father of Chinese Banking.’ The draft banks eventually failed, in part due to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, but also because the owners resisted progress. The Rishengchang Exchange House was fully restored in 1995, and during our visit we’ll be able to see how it was operated.

Shanxi Opera

Beijing Opera is known as Jing Ju (with the Jing being an abbreviation of Beijing); Shanxi Opera is known as Jin Ju, Jin being the abbreviation for Shanxi Province. The music of Shanxi Opera is based on folk melodies, and was developed through the Yuan and Ming Dynasties During the Qing Dynasty, popular elements of Shanxi Opera were incorporated into Beijing Opera performances. Shanxi Opera tends to be energetic, and sometimes include special effects. We’ll have a specially arranged performance of Jinju after our dinner on our first night in Pingyao.

Snacks and street food

Like other places in Shanxi Province, wheat-based products are a staple food in Pingyao. Noodle dishes like wantuozi are very popular, and vinegar can be found on every table. Small stalls selling street food abound on the ‘Ming Qing’ Street, one of the better places in town to try out local specialties.

Sightseeing outside the city

Stupas in the hills near White Cloud Temple, Pingyao, Shanxi
Stupas in the hills near White Cloud Temple, Pingyao, Shanxi. (Click for larger image)

Shuanglin Temple

Originally constructed during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), the Shuanglin Temple was reconstructed and renamed during the Ming Dynasty. Originally known as Zhongdu Temple, the current name can be translated as ‘Two Trees.’ Buddhist Temple. As well as the line of great halls along the south-north axis of the temple complex, the temple contains a collection of more than 1,500 clay sculptures. The colourfully painted sculptures were made from Ming Dynasty wooden moulds, and feature buddhas, bodhisattvas, heavenly kings, as well as larger figures of important Buddhist deities. We’ll make a tour of Shuanglin Temple on the third day of our visit. We'll do a little hiking as well, taking a stroll in the hills around White Cloud Temple.

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