At the grand age of 2,700 years, Pingyao is one of the oldest cities in China and was once the financial centre of the entire country. The city was established during the reign of King Xuan (827-782 BC) of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BC), although it had to be largely rebuilt in 1370, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was during this time that the city was expanded and its famed city walls were constructed. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was home to more than 20 financial institutions, which represented more than half of the total number in the entirety of China.


The Jin merchants who owned these institutions swiftly rose to prominence and became the most important economic influence on Shanxi province. You could say their sudden wealth meant they were laughing all the way to the bank! Nowadays it is home to some of the most well-preserved ancient structures in the country, many of which are located on its picturesque Ming-Qing Street, and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The City Walls

The city was built according to the typical layout of ancient Chinese towns, but also conformed to a traditional theory known as Bagua or the “Eight Trigrams”. To this end, the temples and government offices were located on both sides of the central axis, while the residential houses and commercial markets were in the town centre. This layout has been retained to this day, and the city is still home to some 50,000 residents. The ancient part of the city is surrounded by the city walls, which are 12 metres (39 ft.) high and stretch for 6 kilometres (4 mi) in length! The wall itself is heavily fortified, with four towers at its corners, 72 watchtowers, over 3,000 battlements, and a 4-metre (13 ft.) deep moat at its feet.

The walls are punctuated by six barbican gates in total, with one each on the north and south sides, and two each on the west and east sides. From an aerial perspective, this supposedly makes Pingyao look like a tortoise, with the west and east gates as the legs, the north gate as the tail, the south gate as the head, and the criss-crossing lanes within as the patterns on its shell. This has earned it the nickname the “Tortoise City”!

This resemblance is no accident, as tortoises are a symbol of longevity in traditional Chinese culture. It was believed that, by having city walls in the shape of a tortoise, this would ensure that the city would remain secure in perpetuity. Much like the tortoise and the hare, the slow and steady pace in Pingyao meant it definitely won the race! The city walls are in such great condition that visitors can still take a leisurely stroll along them to this day.

Exchange Houses

In ancient times, these city walls protected not only the people, but also the financial institutions that Pingyao eventually became famous for. Among these, the most renowned is known as Rishengchang or “Sunrise Prosperity”, which was established in 1823 and is thought to have been the first bank in China. During its heyday, Rishengchang controlled nearly half of the silver circulating in the country. It may have traded in silver, but it was worth its weight in gold!


The need for piaohao or “exchange houses” such as Rishengchang arose when traders began using silver coins during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Rampant banditry meant it was unsafe for merchants to carry large sums of silver with them as they travelled, so these exchange houses were able to provide money transfers, accept deposits, and give out loans. While Rishengchang’s base was in Pingyao, it founded branches in major cities throughout China, Japan, Singapore, and Russia, and used bank drafts to move money from one branch to another.

It managed to maintain its prosperity for a staggering 109 years, until it tragically went bankrupt in 1932 due to the advent of modern banking. The development of Rishengchang is considered so integral to the economic history of China that its original head office was restored and converted into a museum in 1995. It was even immortalised in the 2009 film Empire of Silver, about a wealthy banking family living in Pingyao during the turn of the 20th century. From the silver trade to the silver screen, Rishengchang was destined to shine!  (Find more stories about Jin Merchants.)

Temple of the City God

Alongside the city walls and Rishengchang, the other major attractions within the ancient city are the County Government Office and the Temple of the City God. While the County Government Office was designed to rule the “yang” of the human world, the Temple of the City God held sway over the “yin” of the spiritual world. These two buildings were placed on the same street in order to balance each other out, with the office in the west and the temple in the east. The County Government Office was originally built in 1346, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and is the largest of its kind in China. It represented a vast complex containing the home of the local magistrate, various offices, a prison, a court, meeting rooms, and a scenic garden.

In the same vein, the Temple of the City God is comprised of several decorative courtyards and magnificent halls. This Taoist temple was constructed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and, unlike other city god temples in China, it honours the God of Wealth and the Kitchen God as well as the City God of Pingyao. While it is a popular tourist attraction in the city, it should be noted that it remains an active house of worship and is frequently visited by residents eager to appease their local deity!


Outside the city walls, two other temples have been included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Shuanglin Temple and Zhenguo Temple. Shuanglin Temple was built in 571 AD and is renowned for the more than 2,000 coloured clay statues that bedeck its halls, which were crafted between the 13th and 17th centuries. Similarly, Zhenguo Temple was constructed in 963 AD and boasts a number of magnificent sculptures that date all the way back to the Northern Han Dynasty (951–979). In short, Pingyao may not have the notoriety of the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, but its historical pedigree is beyond compare!


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Jin Merchants

Jin Merchants photo

“Jin” is the shortened name used to refer to Shanxi Province. Thus the term “Jin merchant” is the general appellation used for merchants from Shanxi Province. The Jin Merchants were prominent businessmen from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) through to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the Han imperial court built military defences along the Great Wall to guard against the Mongolian army. The biggest problem for those large garrisons was supplying them with sufficient food. So the imperial court commissioned a division of the police force, named Kaizhongfa, whose primary responsibility was to supervise the salt trade. The Kaizhongfa then allowed merchants to do business in salt in certain areas if they, in exchange, sent food to the frontier.  In the south of Shanxi, there used to be a large salt mine. However, the fields in Shanxi were too barren to support a successful agricultural industry. In order to fulfil the agreement with the imperial court, the salt merchants from Shanxi had to purchase food from their neighbouring provinces, Henan Province and Shandong Province. This was the first step taken by the Jin merchants’, which eventually led to their future success.

When the Qing Dynasty began, the astute Emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661) bestowed his honour onto the Jin merchants. He added some of the Jin merchants to the ‘imperial merchants’ list. The Jin merchants improved their social position and the salt market was flourishing then, so they decided to make a contribution to this new imperial court. During the reign of the Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735), the Qinghai Rebellion broke out outside of the Great Wall. The battle was far away and thus caused the same problems as before with regards to supplying food to the battlements. A Jin merchant named Fan Yubin volunteered to take on the mission. However, once he had transported the supplies to the frontier, all of it was stolen by the rebel army. Fan Yubin spent almost all of his earnings re-purchasing the stolen goods and sending them to the frontier once again. His actions were greatly appreciated by the Emperor Yongzheng. Thus Yongzheng gave Fan Yubin the privilege to do business in the Mongolian area.

In 1727, the Qing imperial court signed the “Treaty of Kyakhta”1 with the Russian Empire, which meant that Kyakhta was opened up as an international business market between China and Russia. Tea was the most popular product among the Russian purchasing agents, and the business generated by their custom helped the Jin merchants and led to their most prosperous era. From then on, the Jin merchants were able to open up a much larger market and the merchant cartel grew stronger and stronger. The merchant trade attracted more and more people, thus allowing it to grow stronger and stronger

There is a famous Shanxi folk tale named “Westbound”, which indicates in its story that it was common for Shanxi people to find a way to survive in western areas. Shanxi is a long way away from Mongolia. In fact, many people died on the way to Mongolia because of the bandits, the cold and even from starvation.


With the merchants’ business developing and prospering, the demand for silver rose higher and higher, as silver was the main form of trade currency at the time. It was dangerous to transport large amounts of silver as part of a merchant convoy. Thanks to these merchant convoys, bandits and other criminal gangs were rife and made an enviable living off of their stolen spoils during those days. In 1820, the first ‘Chinese bank’ was set up in Pingyao, Shanxi, and was called Rishengchang. This solved the issues merchants had once had with transporting silver, as clients could now bring postal orders from the bank on their business trips rather than large amounts of silver.

The appearance of this early form of “bank”, named “Piaohao” in Chinese, lead the Jin merchants into their second era of prosperity. During the late Qing Dynasty, there were eight large Piaohao that were owned by Jin merchants, which together had almost a stranglehold on the financial industry in China at the time. However, their overwhelming success only lasted for a hundred years.

The Jin merchants had close relationships with the imperial court. The imperial court gave them several privileges when it came to doing business and, in exchange, they had to help the imperial court with its financial problems. However, in 1905, the Trans-Siberian Railway was put into use. It reduced the transport fee required to import tea from Vladivostok. This meant that the Jin merchants lost their market. After the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, debt began to rise and the merchants faced insurmountable competition from international banks. With the advent of these international banks, business in the Piaohao of Shanxi declined quickly. Finally, when China entered an era of political unrest, the Jin merchants faced further unrecoupable losses and gradually disappeared altogether.

The controversy surrounding the Jin merchants

The Jin merchants built up a legitimate and prosperous market in China and reaped a great amount of wealth from it. However, many historical records suggest that during the late Ming Dynasty the Jin merchants may have also profited from traitorous activities.

The Houjin regime (1616-1636), which was the predecessor to the Qing Dynasty, waged many wars against the Ming regime during the late Ming Dynasty. The Houjin regime was not rich enough to support the cost incurred by these numerous wars, but they did have luxury goods such as ginseng, deer antlers and furs. The Jin merchants supposedly committed treason by exchanging such luxury goods with the Houjin regime for food, clothes and other goods that were necessary for war. They received a huge amount of profit from this kind of business. Some historians theorise that the Jin merchants may have even sold military information to the Houjin regime.

Qiao's family compound 02

The wealthy Jin merchants built many fabulous mansions for their families. Some of them have been well preserved and are still in almost their original condition today. All of these huge courtyards exhibit the art of northern Chinese architecture perfectly. (Read more about Shanxi Grand Compound)


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Amazing towns on the Ancient Tea – Horse Road (the second Silk Road)

There is a mysterious, ancient road hiding in the mountains of southwest China. Hoof prints are imbedded into the narrow trails along the high cliff edges and turbulent rivers flow under precariously suspended chain bridges. This is the road that was once treaded by merchant caravans.

The Tea – Horse Road was developed because of the ancient Tea – Horse Mutual Trade, which was established 1300 years ago in China’s southwest region. However, the Ancient Tea – Horse Road was not only a passage for trade, but also a thoroughfare for cultural exchange.

Along the Ancient Tea – Horse Road there are many plateaus. Trading posts were established on these plateaus and were used by merchant caravans to do business and trade with one another. These trade points were developed gradually thanks to the prosperity and increasing length of the Ancient Tea – Horse Road. Eventually some of them grew into flourishing towns.

Most of these towns are in Yunnan Province, Sichuan Province and Tibet. They are beautiful and worth a visit not only because of their fantastic scenery and architecture, but also because they are home to many unique cultures. Most of the towns have been developed to accommodate tourists so it’s relatively easy for travellers to visit these towns alone. However, it is still vital that you have a well-prepared travel plan. After all, it is a region dominated by ethnic minorities who won’t speak English and who probably won’t even speak much Mandarin. If you want to gain an in-depth knowledge of their culture, we advise that you do some research and learn about some of the history behind the towns and the ethnic minorities before you travel there.  If you need any help planning your fantastic tour of these mysterious towns, please do not hesitate to contact us at: