Around three weeks into our motorbike trip around China – having gone through Hebei and Heilongjiang, up to the Russian border town of Manzhouli and back down across the Inner Mongolian grass plains – we found ourselves very much back in central China working our way through potholed, truck-filled roads to Shanxi (山西) and the ancient city of Pingyao (平遥). Our goal on this trip was to stick to a 250km per day average, which meant we normally could not linger in one place for more than a day. However we did arrive in Pingyao in the early afternoon, affording us a good half day and evening to explore the Ming and Qing Dynasty (1368-1644 & 1644-1912) architecture in and around the ancient city.
Qiao Family Compound (乔家大院)
The Qiao family was one of the wealthiest in Shanxi during the 19th and 20th Century. They started out as merchants trading bean products and tea with Inner Mongolians with later generations moving on to banking, becoming well-known financiers by the mid 19th Century. Qiao Guifa, having returned from his prosperous business endeavours in the north to his home county of Qi’xian (祁县) in Shanxi province in 1756, settled near Pingyao and started construction on his ‘dream home’. As the Qiao family became wealthier over the following 200 years the compound was extended several times as well as renovated twice. Today it covers around 9,000 square meters with 313 rooms, 6 large courtyards and 20 smaller ones.
Design Layout and Features
The entire compound is rectangular in form with a 10 meter high, crenelated wall spanning the circumference of the property. Presumably the wall served both for protection and privacy, as well as to “shield” the female members within the compound from the outside world (Qing Dynasty rules regarding noble women and their level of exposure to the outside world were quite rigid). The layout of the compound is in the shape of the auspicious double xi character (喜) meaning ‘double happiness’. The central axis is an 80m exposed corridor which runs from the main entrance at the east to the ancestral hall at the west end of the compound. The six larger courtyards are evenly divided three to the south and three to the north side of the corridor, with the third one in the north-west corner being a garden.
Intricate wood carvings and latticework surround many of the doorways and windows of the compound. Portcullis’ framing main doorways are constructed with several layers of exposed timber brackets, known as dougong (斗栱), often beautifully carved and sometimes surrounded by additional delicate latticework. The woodwork and beams are either left plain or painted in greens, blues and gold depicting birds, clouds and flowers. Timber murals or paintings of folk tales and legends also hang above the doorways.
The compound is also known for its well-preserved examples of elaborate brick and stone carvings worked into the walls and often lining the parapets of the grander rooms. Some of the stone carvings are in the form of murals used for screen walls depicting scenes of nature.
Shuanglin Temple (双林寺)
The Shuanglin Temple, located on the outskirts of town and accessible by a quick cab ride, was by far my favourite site in Pingyao. This Buddhist temple was founded in the 6th century, the current buildings on site dating back to the Ming and Qing Dynasty. The temple is known for its large, well preserved collection of painted clay statues, some 2,000 in total. Many of the statues and stone tablets on site date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The temple is made up of 10 buildings arranged surrounding 3 courtyards in the typical layout and style of traditional Han Chinese architecture.
Shuanglin Temple, like the Qiao Family Compound, is surrounded by a wall fortification upon which you can walk around the entire circumference of the site. This higher elevation affords you a great view of the temple roofs with their traditional half-barrel clay tiles and elaborate ridge and eaves decorations of dragons. The outward facing dragons sitting at the end of the upturned eaves – in Buddhism upturned eaves helped remove any bad spirits from above – were for protection against evil spirits. The dragons with their mouthes open on either end of the roof ridge are called chiwen (螭吻) literally translated as “horn-less dragon mouth” and symbolising the consumption of evil. Some of the roofs have green-glazed tiles lining the edges, green tiles being typical for non-imperial temples.
The architecture, whilst well maintained is not “over-restored” like so many other heritage sites in China. For example, if you look up when standing next to the stone tablets outside one of the smaller halls, you will notice that the coffered timber ceiling is not in mint condition but rather looks a little faded and worn. The timber pillars, beams and brackets are similarly worn, free of the lacquered, shiny paint often found decorating these ancient structures. The roof of the Bodhisatva Hall is supported by some elaborately carved dougong brackets also worthy of a closer look.
Whilst these relics should not be allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, I do feel there is a certain value, even honesty, in allowing the building to weather naturally. It gives you a better sense of what this temple might have looked like as a living, working temple, rather than simply as a museum piece detached from its surrounding environment. Furthermore, due to the temple’s location (7km outside of Pingyao), the site was virtually deserted when we were there which made for a great change from the hustle and bustle associated with the primary attraction of the ancient town.
Ancient City of Pingyao (平遥古城)
The old city of Pingyao together with it’s fortification is certainly the most popular attraction in Shanxi. Both the city and the Old City Wall which surround it are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and as a result are very well preserved. With a history dating back 2,700 years, Pingyao started out as a trading hub and by the 19th and 20th Century had grown into the banking capital of China. The ancient city therefore boasts some impressive examples of grand and richly-decorated private homes and businesses.
The layout of the town is of a typical grid fashion similar to other Han Chinese cities of that time. Whilst inside you’ll find a similar set-up to that of other heritage sites around China – knick-knack shops and lots of overpriced restaurants catering to the high volume of tourists – it is possible to catch glimpses of the old city when you explore the side alleys leading from the main streets.
This is the second time I’ve visited Pingyao, the first being in the summer of 2008. The city itself is rather well preserved, although I feel I did notice more building work going on this time. Certainly it seemed to me that some of the shop fronts were being torn down and built anew, something that I’m pretty sure you don’t do if you have a UNESCO Heritage listing. However without investigating further into the specifics I’m unable to say what the situation is, perhaps those guys on the roof wielding the sledge hammers are building restoration experts…?
Whilst I appreciate that Pingyao is a major tourist attraction, I can’t help but wonder what the place will look like in 5-10 years time. In 2008 it was already packed with tourists, as it was this time (and granted, I’m not helping by visiting twice), but this time there was the new addition of electric cars zooming up and down the main streets. I’m all for all-inclusive access to these sites, however I just wonder at the necessity of it. Surely there’s such a thing as overkill when it comes to accessibility, especially in a limited-space area such as this one. I would have though rickshaws would be more in keeping with the atmosphere. It certainly detracts from the feeling of being in an ancient Han city when at every second step you need to jump out of the way for a buggy honking it’s way past you carrying a family of tourists too lazy even to walk the 2km in through one gate and out the other.
The City Wall (城墙)
The city wall is still largely in tact and considered one of the best-preserved city fortifications of this size in China. Constructed of compacted earth with an outer layer of brick and stone, it stands 12 meters high with a width of between 3 to 6 meters at the top, tapering out at the bottom. Han construction and planning rules were very precise and were consolidated during the Ming era. The circumference of the city wall measures exactly 6km, which is “the precise dimension for a city of this grade according to Han prescriptions” according to the UNESCO description of the Ancient City. It has 6 major gates – one for the south and north entrance and two on both the east and west sides – as well as 72 watchtowers and 3,000 battlements. The outline of the wall is said to look like a tortoise from above (the tortoise being a symbol of longevity) with the the south gate representing the head of the animal.
When you consider the age of the city, it really was quite remarkable to ride our motorcycle alongside parts of the ancient city wall as we were coming into Pingyao. There were several smaller temples and private homes open for viewing along the way (for 10rmb entrance we stopped at one and had the entire place to ourselves) and it feels like the entire area is steeped in the history of a city with a very prosperous golden age. I would certainly recommend visiting this historical area, especially the surrounding courtyards and temples. Just please, do everyone a favour and refrain from using the electric buggies…