Visual and tactile sensations transcend the bounds of time: Pingyao Old Town

By By Yuan Nianxing / 08-01-2013 /

Pingyao Old Town

In the process of cultural preservation and protection, we should bear in mind the ways in which people develop attachments to particular spaces.  Preserving a space requires recognition of that space’s essential qualities and a dedication to resisting invasive elements.Pingyao, a town in Shan’xi, is a foremost example of keeping the local sensation. Its old town has been restored into a lively district for native residents. Along the streets and alleys, vendors entice travelers’ pallets with “Guanyun” beef, “Changshengyuan” millet wine, “Cao Family” smoked meat, “Jinsheng” fried-flour soup and a unique local vinegar.

The local features of Pingyao Old Town not only bestow on visitors the intense  visual impact of unadulterated cultural scenery, but also a instill a profound feeling of sensate experiences in daily life.  Most houses in Pingyao are siheyuan, quadrangl dwellings composed of a set of several courtyards along a medial axis. The courtyards are separated by low walls and decorated housegates forming a layout in the patterns of  “日” and “目”. The earthy aroma of fresh plants and a unique, traditional wooden scent fill the courtyards. By touching the old-fashioned windows, door knockers, stair railings and furniture in the old houses, one can  feel the quality and wisdom of traditional life.

Wearing hand-made shoes, slowing one’s gait, and climbing the town tower, one enjoys more than the simple comfort of individually crafted shoes; one cannot help but be struck by the Shan’xi merchants of old who wore these style shoes in their courageous travels to northern grasslands and deserts and southern water town and tea mountains—adventures that made them the financial leaders of China.

Pingyao currently holds special events and festivals to promote Shan’xi merchant culture, such as “Pingyao Business Month” in the spring, “Imperial Examination Festival” and “Wushu Cultural Events” in the summer, “Pingyao International Art Festival” in the autumn and “Pingyao China Year”, a festival celebrating Pingyao’s native traditions in the winter. These festival celebrations invigorate the dormant cultural scenery and further explore the value of intangible cultural heritage.


Yuan Nianxing is from Department of Sociology, Peking University.

Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 306, May 21, 2012.


Translated by Feng Daimei

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