Debra Bruno

One of China’s last walled cities is having an identity crisis.

One of China’s last intact walled cities is undergoing something of an identity crisis. Pingyao, in China’s Shanxi province, has endured for 2,700 years, escaping the destruction of the Cultural Revolution because the city was too poor and too remote to be trashed by the Red Guards.

Fanjia Jie Historic Street, by Debra Bruno

But the city that escaped the purge under Mao’s regime struggles today against two different and disturbing futures. The first: Pingyao’s aging infrastructure could crumble into the dust of the coal-mining region, beset by pollution, rain, hoards of tourists, and a population trying to carve out living space inside 2.4 square kilometers.

The second scenario is in some ways even more distressing: Pingyao could evolve into a perfect and tidy Disney version of itself, jammed full of souvenir shops selling mass-produced junk next to bars and restaurants, not that much different from the Temple of Heaven pavilion at Epcot. In fact, Pingyao is being compared to Lijiang, a city in Yunnan province that conservation purists say is overly restored, a fake version of an ancient city, a Potemkin village rather than real.

What’s a preservationist to do?

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Pingyao does seem to be escaping the fate of modernization that has bedeviled cities like Beijing. In fact, Pingyao has been on the preservationist radar for some 30 years. Shao Yong, a professor at Tongji University in Shanghai, says that around 1980, Pingyao planned to widen West Street in the city’s heart. Professor Ruan Yisan, head of the National Research Center for Historic Cities at Tongji, convinced Pingyao planners to "conserve the ancient city and develop the new city" outside the centuries-old walls of rammed earth, says Shao Yong.

Then, in 1997, UNESCO named the city one of its World Heritage Sites, calling it "an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city" with close to 4,000 Ming and Qing-era courtyard buildings. Today, the organization is working with the non-profit Global Heritage Fund, the China Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Pingyao county government to develop guidelines for conserving and repairing historic residences in the city, according to Dr. Du Xiaofan, a cultural heritage conservation specialist from UNESCO’s Beijing office.

In 2008, Global Heritage Fund, working with Tongji and the Pingyao government, took on its first preservation project, the restoration of Mijia Xiang, a courtyard complex that had been the home of a kindergarten from 1963 until 2009. The school had changed the layout by adding a modern two-story building and plastering over the brick walls with cement, which were then painted with children’s murals. Today, a beautifully restored Mijia Xiang serves as a community center, with a photography exhibit from the Global Heritage Fund showing its restoration work and a lecture hall where elderly Pingyao residents offer up their memories of old Pingyao to visitors.

Reconstructed Mijia Xiang in Pingyao, by Debra Bruno

More recently, GHF began a larger project: the restoration of Fanjia Jie Historic Street, an entire neighborhood of courtyard homes. Kuanghan Li, GHF’s China heritage program manager, says it was important to take on more than just one courtyard. After restoration, some of the homes will be returned to residents who had lived there previously and some places will be turned into community centers. “Even if they turn it into some kind of space that’s open to the public, this is something that will be servicing the entire community, or, if not, a kind of educational place for teachers to understand the local life,” she says.

For the future residents of Fanjia Jie, the goal is not to create an exact restoration of an ancient building, but to create a living space possibly using efficient building and heating that could be duplicated in other renovation projects, says Li.

Even with the improvement of living conditions for Pingyao’s people, the city’s master plan calls for a reduction in residents. Today the city squeezes 40,000 residents inside a place that housed 15,000 during its Han dynasty peak. That’s in addition to the more than 1 million tourists who visit each year. The city’s goal is to whittle the number of residents down to 20,000.

Of course that raises other issues. "The exodus of indigenous residents and the loss of confidence in local Pingyao cultural traditions" may be the single biggest threat to Pingyao today, says UNESCO’s Du. "There are threats that the Pingyao could become nothing but a city full of souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels,” adds Tongji University’s Shao Yong.

Scenes from Pingyao, by Debra Bruno

A recent visit to Pingyao proved that tourism is clearly the city’s main economic driver. Tourists crowd into the Rishengchang – one of the first banks in China – and along streets dotted with Buddhist temples, storefronts offering foot massages for 40 RMB ($6.29), and souvenir shops selling carved wooden plaques, hand-woven scarves, and miniature bicycles fashioned out of wire. Although the city is free of cars and buses, electric carts careen through many streets, music blares from loudspeakers, and tourists jostle to get the best photos of the ancient market tower that is lit up at night like an amusement park. Meanwhile, mules pull carts loaded with human waste from some of the unreconstructed courtyard homes’ outhouses that lack running water.

The ancient architects of Pingyao designed the city to resemble a tortoise – the symbol of longevity in China – with gates representing the animal’s head, tail, and legs. Besides longevity, the tortoise also stands for support, endurance, wealth, a happy family, many generations, good luck, and fortune. In the end, Pingyao may need all of those things.

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