Pingyao is the greatest surviving walled city in the Far East. As in the west, many of China’s greatest cities were defended by walls in the Middle Ages. But few of these survive intact to the present day. This makes Pingyao the best preserved medieval city in China, and one of that country’s greatest historical sites. The walls and towers of Pingyao are massive and very well preserved, and are second in size only to those of Avila in Spain. The Wall of Pingyao is part of the Historic City of Pingyao UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city of Pingyao has been an important center of government and trade in China since ancient times. It was established as a capital city of the Western Zhou dynasty during the Warring States Period. Although its fortunes waxed and waned over the years, Pingyao consistently remained one of China’s strategic and commercial centers throughout all of the subsequent dynasties that ruled over the northeastern areas of the country.
Pingyao’s climb to become one of China’s greatest cities began in the 14th century with the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. Also known as the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang united China and drove out the Yuan dynasty, ending nearly a century of foreign rule. Although Zhu Yuanzhang became a national hero for defeating the Mongols, he was also well known for his ruthlessness in defending his throne from enemies both foreign and domestic.
In order to both protect China from future invasions and maintain his own control over local populations, Zhu Yuanzhang instituted an immense program of building fortifications throughout China. One of his most important and longest-surviving projects was the construction of the city walls of Pingyao. This was designed in part to make Pingyao overshadow nearby Beijing, which had been the capital city under the hated Mongols. For a brief period Pingyao was the most important city in northeastern China.
Pingyao actually reached its height in the late 19th century. Close enough to the coastal cities to be commercially important but far enough inland to escape the ravages of European colonial powers, Pingyao became China’s financial center. It is estimated that more than half of China’s banks at the time were headquartered here, safe behind the city’s massive walls. Although Pingyao’s star has faded, the walls remain and are kept in very good repair in order to accommodate the hordes of tourists who visit every year.
The Walls of Pingyao are among the best preserved in the world, and appear much today as they did when they were completed in the 1370s. The general layout is like that of a turtle. Six giant, heavily fortified gates jut out from the walls: one at the north end (the head), one at the south end (the tail), and two each on the east and west sides (the legs). Because of this Pingyao is sometimes refered to as Turtle City.
The statistics of the brown-bricked wall are unmatched: it runs for four miles around the city, at an average height of sixty feet and thickness of over ten feet. In addition to the six gatehouses, there are four corner towers and a mind-blowing 72 watchtowers that are each like a small fortress unto themselves. The fortifications were once surrounded by a moat, but are now surrounded by trees and walking paths.
The Walls of Pingyao stretch around the old city center of Pingyao, about 200 miles southwest of Beijing. They are accessible at numerous points and much of the perimeter can be walked. Although there are no regular hours for walking on the wall, a museum ticket is required for access. Admission is Y120. Web: www.cnto.org (official tourism website of China).
China once boasted many excellent walled cities, but few now remain, and none are as intact or impressive as Pingyao. However, a close second is the Walled City of Xi’an, which thanks to that city’s other attractions are probably even more visited. Also nearly intact is the Walled City of Nanjing. Small portions of the Ming-era Walls of Beijing are still standing as well.