The rapid modernization of China’s cities has amazed the world with its scale and speed, but it has come at a great cultural cost, especially when considering the one thing that almost all Chinese cities once had in common – massive, imposing city walls.
Now, most cities’ ancient walls and their gates live on in place names only. Beijing’s Chaoyangmen – or “Rising Sun Gate” – was once a gate on the eastern side of Beijing’s legendary city wall. Today it is the name of a station on the number two subway line.
On the other side of the country in the bustling city of Kunming, Beimen Jie – or “North Gate Street” – is the only reminder left of the city’s towering north gate, while Xiaoximen – “Little West Gate” – is now the name of a busy commercial area.
Luckily, one city managed to keep its ancient city wall, and now people from all over China and the world come to marvel at this piece of ancient China’s past. The ancient city wall of the old city of Pingyao in Shanxi province was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
Within the walls, which are lined with moats and dotted with 72 watchtowers, much of the old city of Pingyao is as it once was, with reconstructed portions adhering to strict guidelines to maintain consistency with older architecture. Built in the 14th Century, these walls have seen a lot.
Pingyao is home to China’s first bank – the old town within the walls was a warren filled with high-profile Qing financiers who controlled the country’s wealth by day and retired to stately courtyard mansions at night.
The influential film Raise the Red Lantern by renowned director Zhang Yimou was filmed in Pingyao. Despite the star power of actress Gong Li, it could be argued that Pingyao stole the show.
For photographers, Pingyao is firmly on the map as one of China’s must-visit destinations. Its city wall and the old city within are brimming with innumerable classic photos waiting to be taken. This weekend the city is hosting the 10th annual Pingyao International Photography Exhibition, which attracts top photographers from around the world.
The warm sun and cool breezes of Pingyao in the autumn are a pleasant interlude between the hot summers and frigid winters of this north Chinese city.