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Rebirth of an Ancient City

By Liang Peiyun and Bai Xuhong Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-10-28

Just before the 2022 Spring Festival, President Xi Jinping made a special trip to the ancient city of Pingyao during a tour of Shanxi Province. He walked through the ancient city to take in its history, climbed the city wall for a panoramic view of Pingyao, and learned about its long history at the site of old Pingyao County Government Office. He pointed out that it was important to respect history, culture, and the environment; to fully protect our historical and cultural heritage by coordinating the development of tourism, operations of distinctive local businesses, and protection of ancient cities; and to safeguard the red lines for protecting cultural relics so as to preserve the precious assets left to us by our forebears.



A modern lifestyle in old streets

In the early morning, 48-year-old Guo Xiaoqiang is cleaning his yard at No. 12, Yaomen Lane in the old city of Pingyao. The courtyard has a history of more than 300 years, and Guo Xiaoqiang's parents, now in their 80s, have lived here most of their lives. "Over the years, living conditions in the ancient city have steadily improved," explained Guo. "Before we had a non-flush toilet, which was inconvenient for my elderly parents. Now we have a flushing toilet." "The government also provided a subsidy of more than 60,000 yuan to straighten the second floor of our home, which had leaned to the west. That has allowed us to continue living here with peace of mind." Guo proudly showed off the sign reading "historical building," which hangs at the entrance of his home.

Pingyao Ancient City is one of the most well-preserved ancient cities in China and is listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. The city's essence and cultural soul reside in its traditional residences. There are about 3,800 courtyards similar to Guo's throughout the city. However, due to wear and tear over the years, some dwellings fell into disrepair and posed a serious threat to people's safety and lives. Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, Pingyao County has ramped up protection efforts, including granting financial subsidies to preserve and repair traditional dwellings under private ownership. Hao Shizhong, head of the ancient city section of the Pingyao County Natural Resources Bureau, explained, "Since the launch of the project, public investment in the subsidy scheme has exceeded 15 million yuan, helping to fund repairs on more than 1,000 houses and benefiting more than 900 residents. The project was awarded an 'Outstanding Project Award' by UNESCO at the Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2015."

Underneath the city, a major transformation is also ongoing. Since 2019, steady progress has been made in a 1.3-billion-yuan project for infrastructure upgrading and transformation. The project focuses on the comprehensive transformation of underground conduit networks for electricity, communications, rainwater, sewage, gas, and fire protection. When the project is complete, problems that have plagued the city for years such as the drainage of rainwater and sewage, waterlogging, and power shortages will be fully resolved. "I really never thought that we residents of the ancient city would get to enjoy such a convenient way of life," said Guo Xiaoqiang.

Time-honored brands and a new generation of Shanxi merchants

While he was at the Rishengchang Financial House Museum in Pingyao, President Xi stressed the importance of strengthening cultural self-confidence and tapping into the ancient culture of the Shanxi merchants to better carry forward the best of traditional Chinese culture, serve economic and social development, and ensure high living standards for people.

President Xi's instructions were a source of encouragement for Pang Zhongyuan, general manager of Pingyao County Jinsheng Food Company. Pang's specialty baked food store is inspired by Shanxi's traditional baked food culture. Located on South Street, the business was founded over 100 years ago during the late Qing Dynasty by Pang's great-grandfather. "My father, who wasn't very familiar with branding or marketing, eventually ran into roadblocks that affected the development of his business. After graduating with a master's degree, I mulled it over for some time and finally decided to return to my hometown to go into business and retrace the steps of the Shanxi merchants of the past," said Pang. After returning to Pingyao in 2014, Pang completely upgraded and rebranded the baked food store. He blended the culture of traditional Shanxi baked goods with modern elements to adapt his business to the health needs of modern people. Now the store is crowded with customers every day and is even trading online. When talking about how to keep alive and carry forward the Shanxi merchant spirit, Pang Zhongyuan mentions two aspects he believes are key: preservation and innovation. The essence of the Shanxi merchant spirit, that is to earn profits with integrity, must be preserved. While protecting the values of commerce championed by Shanxi merchants, it is also vital to keep making innovations that will meet both the needs and mission of the day.

Making new creations with old crafts

During his visit to Pingyao Ancient City, President Xi pointed out that we should carry forward outstanding traditional culture, protect and promote cultural treasures such as Tuiguang lacquerware, and showcase such distinctive Chinese cultural industries on the world stage. Xi's emphasis on Pingyao's Tuiguang—or polished—lacquerware filled Xue Xiaodong with excitement. Xue, a provincial-level inheritor of Pingyao's lacquerware craft, believes that "traditional skills can also capture modern themes." Xue points to a Covid-themed lacquer painting. The piece is a touching portrait of a group of medical staff at work. The figure in the center of the picture is facing the other way, signifying the bravery of medical personnel in confronting danger. The silhouettes and spines of the figures are lined with gold leaf, and the folds of their clothes are inlaid with white shells in parts, creating a three-dimensional effect. "To carry forward the craft of lacquerware, we need to combine traditional skills with innovative ideas and give fresh life to traditional crafts."

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 13-16, 2022)