The past is alive in Pingyao. Whereas other cities have embraced modernity often at the expense of their historical heritage, Pingyao tenaciously holds onto its past.
When dawn breaks and the morning sun bathes Pingyao’s gray city walls in warm tones, you find yourself flung back in time as your eyes behold a Ming dynasty fortress in all its imposing glory. Watchtowers, cast iron cannons, intimidating wooden gates and sturdy walls impart a sense of invulnerability to the scene. And then the city wakes up. Narrow alleys that coil around time-honored courtyard homes fill up with its 480,000 denizens. Shops open their doors to reveal modern cash registers perched on antique tabletops. Bustling about are bicycles, rickshaws and scooters. Here in Pingyao, modernity lives with centuries old relics. The old walled city is an architectural treasure trove. Civic buildings, private homes and streets are well preserved in Ming and Qing styles. Few buildings rise above two stories. Several are adorned with splendid eaved roots, intricately latticed windows, hand-painted glass lanterns and ornate wood.
Such exquisite handiwork didn’t come cheap, but then again, Pingyao was china’s premier banking center during the two dynasties. Its wealthy residents were merchants and businessmen who set about constructing sprawling mansions as expert as they built up their business and trade. Of the many banks in Pingyao, Rishengchan Exchange Shop is the most famous. Originally established in 1643, it still has records of its earliest days in business.
The stoic city walls also did their part to shield Pingyao from marauding enemies from the 14th to 19th centuries, allowing the city to flourish. The walls were first erected in the Zhou dynasty and last rebuilt during the Ming. After the Song army set the earthen walls on fire in AD 960, the walls were covered with bricks. The fortifications are sophisticated-the square perimeter is 39 feet (12 m) high and 16 feet (5 m) thick and there are platforms every 165 feet (50 m) with 3, 000 crenellations on the outer wall, 72 watchtowers, and a water drainage system reinforced with bricks at the top.