Postcard from China, 3

14th July 2013

Since Saturday afternoon we have been in Pingyao, from where we leave on Monday morning to fly to Xi’an. Pingyao is quite wonderful and like nowhere else I have been before, as is the Yide Hotel where we are staying. This is a former townhouse built in the mid-18th century around a linked group of courtyards. In the early 19th century it was the home of the manager of the first bank in Pingyao, which was a key institution in establishing modern systems of credit and savings in China. The house has been beautifully preserved and yet it also has a messiness and a real-world quality that keeps it from feeling unreal. It’s like a stage set for a historical drama, but with enough that is raw and slightly rough to give a rare sense of authenticity. Which can also be said about the town itself.

Pingyao has a substantial city wall enclosing the old town. Around this there is the usual urban sprawl but within the streets and buildings are almost exactly as they were more than one hundred years ago. In the 19th century and into the 20th Pingyao was a major centre of trade and, especially, banking, but in the 1920s its influence declined precipitately and the modern world more or less passed it by. So now it is a rare relic from another world.

Not that the modern tourist industry has passed it by, for on the main streets almost every space is a shop or a restaurant or a hotel. There are thousands of sellers and it seems remarkable that there can ever be a sufficiency of buyers, even though the town is becoming more and more popular as a destination. Some of the shops are very upscale, while many are little more than stalls with some memorabilia from earlier days. People sell a few vegetables from their garden on the kerbside next to elaborate retailers selling lacquer boxes or pricey ceremonial swords.

There are museums dotted around the town, which takes about twenty minutes to walk across from substantial gate to substantial gate. We visited the banking museum and the home of the first armed escort agency (to protect shipments of silver and the like), but the architecture has a consistency which means that one establishment is much like another. A highlight is the very beautiful Daoist Temple, which we wandered through with me trying to explain to my family the little I had managed to understand about the religion when we made a programme about it back in 2009 for Art of Faith.

The experience of Pingyao, however, is all about wandering the streets and the alleyways, marvelling at a world that is half-familiar from a handful of movies and yet ought to have disappeared decades ago. Yet he it is, in vivid and living detail, combining what ought somehow to be unreal with mangey dogs and men who spit and all the immediacy of a bustling world intent on making a buck.

PS. Apologies once more about the lack of pictures – I am posting from an iPad and I cannot work out how to import and edit images in Word Press. If anyone can point me in the right direction for learning how to do this I would be most grateful.

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