I’ve just come back from a short trip to Pingyao in Shanxi province. Pingyao used to be a centre of private banking in Qing-era China, and was a very wealthy place. However, as the country developed, the growth of a national postal system and national-scale banks rendered Pingyao’s pre-industrial system irrelevant. The city declined into poverty; in fact, it became so poor that the inhabitants could not afford any of the products of the 20th century, or to do anything than patch up their buildings and just get by. As a result, it’s hardly changed since the early 20th century, and its Ming- and Qing-style architecture is almost entirely untouched.
The poverty of the last century is evident, with many derelict and semi-collapsed buildings. However, its UNESCO status is gradually bringing tourism, along with the money – and social problems – that accompany it. We stayed in a hostel close to the old government building, which was OK, but not necessarily somewhere I would recommend or want to stay again. We took an overnight train from Beijing, which was noisy and uncomfortable. There weren’t any available tickets for the return trip, though, so we ended up hiring a car and driver to take us to the provincial capital, Taiyuan, from where we caught a coach back to Beijing. The less said about that trip, the better!
Don’t think I didn’t enjoy it, though! It was an adventure, with good company. As for Pingyao, I love it. In the early morning, it’s beautiful; the streets are empty except for locals going about their business, and it looks exactly as it must have done in centuries gone by; it’s surely the closest I will ever get to time travel
From about 8am, the fleets of coaches started arriving, and the main streets were crowded with throngs of tourists, almost all of them Chinese. There were a couple of local performers dressed up in Republic-era clothes (a mixture of traditional Chinese and western), who specialised in posing as rickshaw men, with tourists sitting in the rickshaw dressed in period costume. It was interesting to see Chinese tourists flocking to have their photo taken, where Westerners would surely be too afflicted by post-colonial guilt!
After about 5pm,the crowds melted away, and the streets became wonderfully quiet again. Pingyao in the summer evening is almost perfect. In the mellow evening air, you’re free to wonder around streets that are lively but not crowded. The only illuminations are from red lanterns hanging on the buildings, and from the shopfronts and restuarants. The old gate towers are also gently illuminated and visible from almost everywhere. I would love to go back just to spend a few more evenings there.
The old walls are still complete (after a little restoration), and we walked around one quarter of their length. It didn’t take long – Pingyao is very small! For the first time, I realised how intimate these old cities were; I wonder what it was like to live your life within a walled city…
On our last morning, we looked at our city map and decided to visit two temples: the Temple of Confucius, and the Dragon Temple. The Confucius Temple was very, very noisy and crowded when we went in, but most of the crowds didn’t go beyond the first couple of courtyards; as we went deeper in, there were more and more gardens and trees, and it became more tranquil. There always seemed to be a barely visible door or gate which, when investigated, led to another hidden courtyard and garden. There were lots of sparrows in the gardens; that reminds me, another lovely feature of Pingyao is the number of swifts (swallows? what’s the difference? Don’t ask me…) which sweep through the streets, darting around just above the heads of the pedestrians. The Dragon Temple, just outside the city walls, was a whole other story. After leaving the Confucius temple, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us there; the driver was astonished – “Why? There’s nothing there?”. He was right – and wrong. The temple was a gutted ruin, with what must have been the main altar open to the wind, the windows empty and broken, and a wholly desolate atmosphere pervading the whole complex. Tucked away in the back of the compound, a few temple buildings had been converted into housing and, though we didn’t linger, the poverty was clear. According to a sign on the outside wall, the compound had once housed an elementary school, but there’s absolutely no sign of that now; the only presence there is decay and collapse. We saw only one sign of life: an aged man sitting in the courtyard as if he’d been in the same spot for the ages; he barely acknowledged our presence, and certainly showed no surprise at the sudden appearance of this noisy group of Westerners. As we left, though, he came after us and locked the door behind him. It was almost as if he’d been waiting for us. I wonder how long he’d been there, and what tales he could tell about this temple’s past. Here, for the first time, I felt the damage and destruction wrought on traditional Chinese beliefs.
Pingyao used to be a centre of banking; banking means money, and money needs protection. There are a couple of museums in the premises of old-style security companies. These were family businesses just like the one Michelle Yeoh ran in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s also a martial arts museum. In the Chinese way of doing things, the English signs in these museums weren’t particularly helpful, but it seems clear from what I read that these companies were specialists in xingyiquan and baguazhang, which I found extremely interesting. I took a lot of pictures, which I’ll try to post here in the hope that someone can give me more information! I knew from Master Zhou, of course, that his own line of bagua descends from convoy guards, but it was fascinating to see it here, in the buildings where these companies’ own headquarters.
OK, plenty more to say, particularly about my fellow travellers, and the train of thought this trip and other recent encounters have started, but I’ll save it for another post.