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October 20, 2009

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City characters add warmth to picture-perfect Pingyao

WALKING the cobbled streets of this ancient walled city in Shanxi Province, meet the colorful inhabitants who preserve customs and welcome visitors, Li Jianping and Dong Jing report. Pingyao is a tiny ancient city located in central Shanxi Province. It was originally built in the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-770 BC), having a history of over 2,700 years.

There are three key national protected relics in Pingyao, namely Pingyao City Wall, Shuangxiu Temple and Zhenguo Temple. Due to its sound preservation of the urban landscape in China's Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Pingyao was added to the UNESCO's World Heritage List on December 31, 1997.

Pingyao is now renowned especially for its well-preserved ancient city walls, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The current city walls of Pingyao were constructed in 1370.

The walls have six barbican gates. The north and south sides have one gate each while the east and west sides have two gates each. This pattern is similar to that of a turtle (the head, tail, and four legs), earning Pingyao the nickname "The Turtle City."

The walls measure about 12 meters high, and visitors can walk around on top of them for 6 kilometers. A 4-meter-wide, 4-meter-deep moat can be found just outside the walls. In 2004, part of the southern walls collapsed but was reconstructed.

However, the rest of the city walls are still largely intact and are considered among the best-preserved ancient city walls on this scale. This makes them the centerpiece of the heritage site.

Pingyao was the financial center of China in the late Qing Dynasty.

It was the cradle of banking and commerce in the late 19th century, with as many as 20 banks in the city's heyday, comprising more than half the nation's financial institutions. Rishengchang Banknote Exchange Shop, which still stands, is considered the first bank in China.

Pingyao still retains its city layout from the Ming and Qing dynasties, with winding streets concealing grand gateways and courtyard houses.

More than 300 sites in or near the city have ancient ruins, and the attractive grey bricks with tiled roofs form a backdrop to the region's agricultural economy.

Don't forget to bring some delicious beef home as a souvenir, or try plums, grains, cotton, and lacquer ware.

People in the 2.25-square-kilometer city are closely interrelated. Cheng Shuxian, the home inn owner, is a colleague of paper-cutting master Wen Tao's younger brother. "County magistrate" Zhang Yuren is "banker" Fan's neighbor and close friend; the mooncake vendor on the street may be a relative of the one selling hand-made shoes in a shop.

Their combined efforts have preserved the city and kept its traditions alive. Fan Shaozu, 'bank clerk'

An old man in a traditional robe sits quietly behind an antique desk with his wife by his side. When a visitor arrives, he slowly takes out a piece of yellowish paper and writes a couple of artistic characters on it with a brush pen.

Fan Shaozu, 90, is writing checks in the building that was China's first bank, Rishengchang, which was built in 1824 on a street in world heritage city Pingyao in north China's Shanxi Province.

His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all bank managers.

The checks were written to show how banks worked in China centuries ago and no modern bank will cash them.

But it is the work of Fan and others that is keeping alive the charm of this 2,700-year-old city. Zhang Yuren, magistrate Zhang Yuren, 72, a student of the renowned late Chinese artist Qi Baishi's son, has a gallery on a street of Pingyao. His workshop is in the country's only completely preserved ancient local government office from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Every morning, Zhang arrives at the gallery where he dons the hat and robe of an ancient official and later walks the streets to his office.

"Ah, are you the county magistrate?" one visitor asks curiously. Zhang answers: "Yes, I'm making my rounds to see if my people are happy."

Zhang may be the lowest paid "county magistrate" in China with a wage of only 20 yuan (US$2.90) a day, but he is very devoted to his job.

"I enjoy reading history in my leisure time to make my performance more realistic," he says.

"I love the county magistrate. He's so funny, especially when he blends ancient stories with sarcasm and brings them to bear on modern problems, such as corruption and unemployment," says local resident Wang Xing. "Sometimes I laugh so much that tears come into my eyes."

Zhang is also a kung fu master and has published one book on the martial art of cudgelling.

Wen Tao, paper-cut master

Paper-cutter Wen Tao, in her 40s, thought she was too shy to run a business. "I could only dream about people coming to see my works," she says. But her dream came true.

The first time Wen set up a street stand was on the second day of the first Pingyao International Photography Festival held last month. Shyness kept her home the first day.

"When I finally got to the street, I just buried my head in the stand and kept cutting," Wen says.

Her business was bad until a foreigner came to her stand. As an antique shop owner helped her bargain with the customer, Wen stood quietly by the side like a passer-by.

"120 yuan," Wen heard the price but she couldn't believe it. Nor did her townsmen.

It became a legend. "120 yuan for a piece of paper, can you believe it? I can't," villagers say.

What they didn't know was that Wen took a whole week to cut the artwork which was 1-meter-long and 35-centimeter-wide.

Wen inherited her workmanship from her family. The edges of her scissors, an heirloom from her grandmother, were worn.

Wen's small shop on the street is flooded by customers every day.

She has bought a laptop and a digital camera. "I take pictures while touring the country. They're my inspiration," Wen says. She is now better equipped but she still insists on cutting the papers with her own hands.

Only now she has morepatterns in mind. Cheng Shuxian, traditional inn keeper After much hesitation, two customers ask Cheng Shuxian, owner of the Tianyuankui inn in which they are staying, if he could lend them an antique table for their exhibition.

"Of course," Cheng answers immediately, and then he asks: "Do you need chairs?" Before they can answer, Cheng tells two inn workers to carry the table and chairs into his truck for transportation.

"Often customers find it embarrassing to ask for help. So we have to be considerate and proactive," Cheng says.

The hotel features age-old tradition. Cheng used to be an antique dealer. As it became increasingly difficult to collect real antiques, he turned his shop back into what it used to be 300 years ago: a small hotel of seven rooms. The furniture, vases, stone lions and calligraphy posters, which add to the inn's charm, were all stock he collected as an antique dealer.

Cheng says he still remembers the words of his first customer, a Frenchman. "Tradition is what attracts the customers while comfort is what keeps them."

"Our inn has accommodated many celebrities, including an Italian president, the Canadian ambassador to China and his wife, the Austrian ambassador to China and the wife of the US ambassador to China," says Cheng.


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