Pingyao

July 18, 2008 China Preservation, Historic Districts Comments (0) 249

The Global Heritage Fund invited me to Pingyao as a new member of their Senior Advisory Board, so I was able to tag the trip on the back end of my work with the US China Arts Exchange Yunnan Sustainability Conference in Dali. All it required was a long layover in Beijing (not that bad, found a cool spot with an outlet and edited my book) and then a flight to Taiyuan, and then an hour ride with Han and Han to the loveliest hotel – a traditional Chinese courtyard house outfitted with all of the latest luxuries. I experienced what I like to call “The Dingle Effect” which is the arrival at a lovely, welcoming hotel after a long and arduous journey – it happened to Felicity and I in 1997 when we arrived in Dingle and it happened again in Pingyao.Pingyao was a place I always wanted to see – the only Chinese city with a completely intact city wall hundreds of years old, running for more than 2.5 km around the historic town, which features over 3000 courtyard houses and a number of excellent temples. By contrast, our lovely Weishan in Yunnan – which lost most of its wall – has perhaps 100 original courtyard houses. Han Li is the new China project director for Global Heritage Fund, and I got the chance to see her EXCELLENT work at organizing a bunch of planning and architecture professionals to do a survey of courtyard houses there. Having done a similar project in Weishan in 2006, I was duly impressed with GHF’s careful and intelligent planning process under Han’s leadership.

Han was very generous showing me the project and also showing me the town. We got a special tour of the Shuanglin Temple, 6 km outside of the walls, which has the most amazing collections of THOUSANDS of sculptural pieces in multiple temples. How these things survived the Cultural Revolution is amazing – apparently the local Party Secretary told officials the temples were being used as granaries.

The current Party Secretary took us on a tour, and it was well nigh overwhelming, even during a month in which I saw the terra cotta army at Xian, the adjacent Hanyangling figures, the Buddhist murals at Baisha in Yunnan and the Shanghai museum. Architectural elements and naturalistic clouds formed the backdrop for sculptural groups that filled the interior of the temples in insistent undulations of exuberance and minutiae…

Not only that, but Pingyao has an amazing collection of reclaimed sculpture in its Taoist temple- from Taoist immortals to ancient Tang stelae. It is a bit of a jumble, but I truly felt I had stumbled into the best collection of sculpture in China…

Not to mention architecture – the duogong at the Gingxu temple I just mentioned were particularly exciting – evidencing the earlier Song influence much more than typical Qing rigidity and formalism…

And all of this was ON TOP OF the things Pingyao is known for: namely, its wall, its courtyard houses, and its draft banks that basically created a national banking system in the 19th century.

So, many thanks to GHF and Han Li and Jasmin Arneja (and other Han and Mr. Ji!) for their hospitality. It was a quick but very impressive visit and being located basically halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, a must for every traveler interested in architecture and sculpture. Final image (for now) Han and I on the wall near the east gate:

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Pingyao

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