Preserving a piece of old China

SUN JOURNAL

History: This country has destroyed much of its architectural heritage. But not in Pingyao, the only one of 2,000 fortress cities where the walls are still standing.

May 17, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PINGYAO, China -- In its desperate rush to modernize, China is rapidly destroying one of the very things that makes it unique: the colorful and graceful architecture of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Over the decades, local officials have demolished countless miles of tile roofs, gray-brick walls, hand-painted wooden eaves and ornate gates in favor of monotonous block buildings covered in white bathroom tile and blue glass.

The demolition has been so thorough in some parts of Beijing that visitors often remark that the city is far more modern than they had expected and not at all the exotic, imperial capital of their imagining.

Those in search of old China might do better to board a train and head 11 hours southwest into the flat, dusty plains of Shanxi Province, where the fortress city of Pingyao stands as a rare beacon of historic preservation.

China was once a nation of walled cities, but neglect and pressure to develop local economies led to their destruction and decay. Today, Pingyao is the only one of 2,000 fortress towns where the wall remains intact.

Selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Pingyao feels like a 19th-century Wild West town as imagined by Chinese architects.

Bicycles and pedestrians crowd the narrow streets, where most private vehicles are forbidden. Black-and-white cows lounge against brick walls while butchers stand on street corners chopping sides of beef. Men with blackened faces sit atop mule-driven carts laden with chunks of coal the size of microwave ovens.

Hidden inside the narrow lanes are houses from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) with courtyards, ornate facades and windows covered with wooden lattice. Above the windows sit brightly-colored, hand-painted panels depicting tranquil lakeside scenes with birds and arching marble bridges.

"This house is as old as your country," says one bespectacled man, showing off his home to an American visitor.

The best way to see Pingyao is from a bicycle riding along the top of the wall, which was rebuilt in 1370 and stretches nearly four miles.

In olden days, newcomers entered the city through a gate that leads into a deep, open chamber. From atop the wall, soldiers looked down to determine whether visitors were friend or foe. Awaiting enemies was a board suspended above the chamber and lined with metal spikes.

The city fathers seem to have put a lot of thought into the wall, which is lined with 72 watch towers and 3,000 crenels -- the spaces along battlements through which archers fire arrows. The numbers 72 and 3,000 refer to the number of disciples and students of Confucius, the father of ancient Chinese thought.

Standing along the rampart, one gazes out across acres and acres of sloped, brown-tile roofs and into the courtyard homes and small businesses that lie otherwise hidden from the street.

Inside one courtyard, two men use an in-ground tub of boiling water to wash hundreds of orange socks. At another home, sheep nudge open a wooden gate and pour out into a dusty road.

A splash of color occasionally interrupts the sea of brown tile that blankets the city. Laid out in a diamond-shaped pattern, aquamarine and yellow tiles cover an old temple roof. Wide-eyed ceramic dragons sit at either end.

The temple complex, which is falling apart, houses dozens of state workers and their families. The main courtyard serves as an open-air recreation center where old men play cards and shoot pool on about 20-odd tables.

Signs of restoration dot the city, which is 2,700 years old. As red, yellow and blue flags whip along the wall, a man pushes a wheelbarrow filled with freshly fired roof tiles to rebuild a pagoda.

Along Ming Qing Street, the main drag, red Chinese lanterns hang above the dark wooden facades of shops and old bank buildings. Far from anywhere, Pingyao was the nation's banking capital during the second half of the 19th century.

The city was once so prosperous that superstitious residents stuck coins inside the walls of their homes in hopes of satisfying devils they believed would rise from the underworld to steal their fortunes. Today, many of the old financial firms with names such as the One Hundred Rivers Flow Together Bank have been converted into small museums.

Pingyao's economy now centers on light industry, coal mining, beef processing and tourism -- though the latter is in its infancy. The city's relative isolation has kept it from being overrun by vendors and tourist sideshows such as those that have sprung up along the Great Wall, which now features a mile-long alpine slide.

Arriving at the railway station, the few foreign visitors are swarmed not by cabbies, but by desperate crowds of pedicab drivers. The city offers just a few postcards. Rooms in the best hotel -- a simple but lovely courtyard house -- can be had for about $12 a night.

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