[Urban Conservation] Historic Context of the Ancient City of Pingyao

By Pearl Wang

The Ancient City of Pingyao in the Shanxi Province is the birthplace of the draft banking/financial system in China, and is the hometown of Jin Merchants Faction, the major business group in northern China. Many picturesque buildings were built by Jin Merchants and the gentries in the Ming and Qing Dynasty. After the Jin Merchants culture declined around 1911, Pingyao was neglected by the public and private sectors because it lacked the natural resources necessary for industrial development. However, this saved the city from major destruction and kept the city intact until the present. When China started its economic and political reform in 1978, domestic and international tourism became possible. Its historical significance and architectural integrity enabled the Ancient City of Pingyao to be inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997. Now the city has become a domestic and international tourism destination. It has experienced different social and cultural impacts, both directly and indirectly, from the development of heritage tourism, since the walled city started its preparation for the World Heritage nomination. 

From a successful financial city during the Qing Dynasties to a living city of 45,000 people during the Communist era, Pingyao was a self-sufficient city with much historical richness and was planned according to traditional ritual canons and Feng Shui rules. When China opened its market, Pingyao, with little attention from the central government, was faced with the chance to generate local revenue and to compete with other cities. For inland cities like Pingyao with no natural resources, heritage tourism is the most popular developing trend. Although the walled city was the typical city plan in ancient China, it has become an ‘endangered species’ (Bruce & Creighton 2006: 238) in modern society. The designation as a World Heritage Site emerged as a trophy for local government, earning recognition from the central government and from local residents of the economic benefits that tourism would bring in. This recognition has increased Pingyao’s reputation worldwide and has brought the chance for transformation of its social, cultural, financial, and physical environment.


The entire Shanxi province was famous for its Jin Merchant culture and the banking system, and the Ancient City of Pingyao was famous for its establishment of the first draft bank. In order to maximise the economic value of the site and to attract domestic and international tourism, the city has been developed into a collection of museums representing commodity and money convoy services (biao ju) and financial banks from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The delineation of the tourist district has turned the city centre into a tourist-only place, characterised by tourism-oriented businesses and newly restored buildings. Indeed, the entire tourist district exists more as a cultural industry than a cultural heritage site. The tourism-driven preservation and interpretation in the district is extremely symbolic and political. The rapid economic growth has caused the economic value of cultural heritage to be confused with its cultural value at both the national and local levels.