With a population of 50,000 or so, tiny Pingyao pales into insignificance beside China’s great cities. But that’s not how it always was: a century and half ago, its central location made it a major hub for the “northern tea route” to Russia and the cradle of the country’s banking system. Today, the city has recast itself as a key player in the Chinese project to reconnect people with their past.
It’s worth giving a broad sweep of the historical context, which starts around 2,500 years ago with the “warring states” period and the writings of Confucius. The great sage’s prescription of a highly stratified, deferential society in which everyone knows their place may seem horribly restrictive to modern ears, but its appeal becomes more understandable when you consider that it came at a time ravaged by warfare, banditry and generalised mayhem. Even though its emphasis on an enlightened ruler and the duties of rich as well as poor would be as often honoured in the breach as in the making, Confucianism would come to epitomise the Chinese mentality and, with a brief intermission in the rule of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (he of the terracotta army), would last until Mao’s Cultural Revolution nearly – but not quite – succeeded in wiping it out, along with everything of the essence of old China that Mao could lay his hands on.
While most of today’s Chinese seem to be thoroughly satisfied with the results of Deng Xiaoping’s great project to open China to modernity and the West, many fear that an unwanted side effect has been an accelerating loss of Chinese identity. Chief amongst these is today’s president, Xi Jinping, the result being a drive to reclaim China’s past. And that’s where Pingyao comes in, with the walls of its old city unbroken since the Ming Dynasty in the thirteenth century, its heritage as the home of merchants celebrated for their integrity and its six-gated, turtleback-shaped pattern of streets untouched by the modern high rise world.
Modern Pingyao – the bit outside the ancient city wall – is a coal city (there’s a permanent faint smell of coal in the air) and a farming market town. From the bullet train station, the cornfields stretch as far as the eye can see, interleaved with orchards of dates, persimmom and apples: the condiment of choice on a Pingyao restaurant table is not soya sauce but the local cider vinegar. The city is also celebrated for “Pingyao beef”, instantly recognisable by anyone Jewish as salt beef (corned beef, if you’re in America), which is somewhat less salty than the European version but equally delicious.
The inner city, however is about heritage. You can visit a significant shrine to Confucius or the large Taoist temple; you can see the old government buildings where they re-enact criminal trials in the style of bygone days (the process, with an investigating judge, is closer to the French one than to the UK or US adversarial system). You can visit an agency which provided the armed muscle to protect travelling merchants: I’m afraid I couldn’t resist a giggle at the English translation as the “Armed escort agency” – accurate, but raising other connotations.
Particularly popular is Ri Shengchang Exchange House, which was set up in 1823 in a former dyer’s shop and became one of China’s first nationwide banks, with branches stretching across the country and in key foreign markets. The traditional way of transporting payment for goods had been in silver ingots, which were heavy and susceptible to accidents and banditry: Ri’s innovation was to replace this by letters of credit and cheques, which included anti-forgery measures in the shape of water-marks, the use of a small number of calligraphers whose handwriting was well known to bank employees in all branches, and the use of encryption with keys that changed regularly. The encryption was a simple substitution cypher and the keys weren’t changed very often (every year or two), but it worked well enough to make the house prosper until the central government started printing banknotes in the 20th century.
The legendary probity of Ri and his various counterparts forms the basis of the “Impression Pingyao” immersive theatre show. Created on the usual Chinese massive scale, a cast of over 200 actors and dancers accompany you and your thousand or so fellow visitors as you walk through the streets of old Pingyao (modelled on a scale that isn’t nearly as much reduced from the real thing as you feel it should be) to relate a tale of the fidelity of the merchant who travels to Russia to reclaim the only son of an employee who has died at his dangerous posting, only to be killed on his return voyage, together with his bodyguards (the body count gets pretty high in these stories).
Confession time: this is the kind of stultifying morality tale which makes me clutch my stomach and run for the hills, much in the manner of the opening show at the London Olympics. The effect was mitigated by the fact that (a) it was in Mandarin, so I didn’t have to listen to the undoubtedly saccharine dialogue and (b) the theatricals were suitably impressive: the Chinese really are good at theatre lighting and at getting large numbers of dancers/gymnasts to perform coordinated acrobatics on stage. But I can’t deny the fact that the locals were lapping this stuff up. As part of a focused campaign of indoctrination of a people into its supposed past virtues, I’m impressed by the method, even if the all-too-easy moral prescription makes my toes curl.
The vast majority (over 90%) of Pingyao’s tourists are from inside China. There are complaints, similar to those we’ve heard in Prague, that too many of them are bused in, spend a couple of hours seeing the major sights and then disappear again, not doing much for the local economy, but that still leaves plenty to throng the streets of the old city. The main arterial streets are lined end to end with small shops and stallholders. These give a great opportunity to assess what’s popular with the Chinese on holiday: a stroll along South Street passes enameled goods, elaborate designs made of cut paper, silver jewellery, plastic toys, brass and ceramic knick-knacks, perfume, soap, tea, hair combs, musical instruments, clothing of various sorts, shooting arcades, theme park ticket sellers, foot massage parlours as well as a place where you can get a pedicure where fish nibble at the dry skin, fungus and parasites on your feet (scuba divers will recognise the idea as a “cleaning station”). Local produce includes walnuts (not just for eating, but with pairs of the best ones to be used for hand massage), beef preserved in jars, dates and giant jars of the local cider vinegar, generally sold by the litre. Roadside bakery stalls turn out batches of various sorts of griddle cakes and biscuits: particularly popular at this time of year are the “moon cakes”, a hollow biscuit-like shell with a sesame-flavoured filling (the generosity of the filling is sadly variable between vendors).
There are few bars, many restaurants and zillions of roadside stalls selling the kinds of street food you might find anywhere in China: dumplings, steamed buns, octopus or meat grilled on skewers, glutinous rice dyed with bright food colouring and cut out of large cakes. I particularly enjoyed watching the man hand-slicing noodles into a huge vat of soup, using something like a pizza wheel to slice off each noodle at a time from his large rectangle of dough.
But the truth is that the real attraction of Pingyao is in its buildings, and not just the major ones: the uniform colour of the grey brick and tiles combined with the variety of the shapes and patterns makes for a true feeling of being transported into the past. Of course, this is Asia, where the tradition is that buildings are continually renewed and rebuilt, so there’s not really such a thing as an “authentic building” which has stood untouched for hundreds of years, but there are plenty of buildings whose appearance has not fundamentally changed in a millennium (philosophers will recognise the “ship of Theseus” question). The work of restoration is constant.
Reclaiming and restoring the past is also what you see when you visit the Great Wall, which is being steadily rebuilt in convenient, tourist party-sized chunks. There’s not much to say about the Great Wall’s history and scale that isn’t already well aired: suffice to say that it’s every bit as awesome in the flesh as you are prepared for by reading the stories, and the biggest surprise was the richness of the wildlife, with much birdsong and a thousand butterflies. But once again, the Chinese way of organising things is remarkable.
We visited the wall at a newly restored section at Jinshanling, some two hours Northwest of Beijing, having been told that it would be relatively quiet compared to the heaving crowds at the sections nearer the city. This turned out to be good advice: there were no more than a couple of dozen people on our section of the wall. But that’s not what they’re planning for: the visitor centre and its accompanying car park and facilities are built to many hundreds at a time, perhaps thousands. Even in the United States, I’ve never seen a scenic monument with this kind of infrastructure. The facility isn’t finished, but given the impressive amount of carpentry being deployed (the hundreds of metres of decking and walkway were all being made on-site), I don’t suppose it’s going to take them long. Looking out from the car on our ride back to Beijing, we could see the massive engineering taking place for a new bullet train line to link Beijing with Jinshanling. Clearly, the Chinese authorities believe in the phrase “build it and they will come”.