Ancient Walled City of Pingyao

Surrounded by one of China’s few intact city walls, dating from 1370, Pingyao is a treasure trove of Ming and Qing architecture.  It was an affluent banking center beginning in the 15th century.  When the Qing dynasty defaulted on its loans and abdicated in the early 20th century the city’s economy collapsed and financial power moved to Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Pingyao became a backwater, but was saved from development and is one of the best preserved examples of traditional city fabric in the country.

Warning! really loved this place and got kind of carried away with the photography–so there are lots of pictures on this post.

Forty foot high walls that enclose the entire city.

NOrth Gate is one of six major entry points.

Delicate towers contrast sharply with fortified base.

Tops of walls are broad roads for moving around the periphery of the city.

Wood framing and bracketing in towers is as impressive as in temples.

South gate is even more foreboding than the north gate with huge blank walls.

Walls are mostly rectilinear, but this gentle curve near the south gate offers a remarkable counterpoint.

Sallyport through the wall into the city.

View from the top of the wall looking into the city.

Bell Tower spans over one of the city's major streets.

Other more minor streets have similar gateways.

Major streets are lined with very elaborate stone buildings.

Many of the old buildings are fully inhabited.

There is an elaborate pedestrian street scene in many areas.

Colorful make-shift shops abound.

There is a powerful contrast between the timeless old buildings and the ephemeral current inhabitation.

It's clear that this was once a very affluent place, but all of that glory is veiled in a patina of time.

Many buildings give the sense of protection and security natural to a banking center.

Though most buildings are stone, mud brick or rammed earth, wood is a common material as well.

Behind the street walls, most buildings are formed around courtyards.

Details in these interior environments are often lavish.

Residential and business uses were often mixed together around the courtyards.

Courtyards are filled with soft greenery and bright colors.

Interior rooms were small but sometimes beautifully appointed.

Some interiors are distinctly for business.

Business was also sometimes conducted from bed in residential quarters. These are mattresses placed on stone bases that kept temperatures more stable in a climate that can get very hot and very cold.

Harsh summer sun is nicely modulated by thick walls.

Traditional pedi-cab in "garage" off courtyard.

Contemporary versions of old rickshas are all over the streets today.

Pedaling a load of watermelons around would be really hard work.

In some parts of the city life on the streets is wonderfully lively.

Groups of guys hanging out is a national pass time in China.

Board games on the street are often a spectator sport.

Away from the main streets, the city is deteriorated and much quieter.

There are still signs of past glory.

But there is also poverty and neglect.

The courtyards are still the focus of life.

Outside of Pingyao to the south of the city is the Shuanglin Temple--also built around courtyards.

A kind of miniature version of the city, it has a series of portals that lead from court to court behind tall walls.

There is an austere beauty here you do not see in the restored Buddist temples in larger cities.

The wood is mostly unpainted and heavily weathered.

What color there is has been muted by time.

The traditional ornament is very powerful even without the normal polychrome surfaces.

Craft in the complex joints is more explicit than when covered by painted patterns.

As in the rest of Pingyao, time seems to have stood still over the last century.

This temple is particularly well known for its statures--like these guardians.

Many arms on a religious figure connotes great capability and power to do things.

Thinking about Cultural Identity
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Posted August 1, 2010