Grassroots cultural elite keeping ancient city traditions alive

pingyao travel guide

An old man in a traditional robe sits quietly behind an antique desk with his wife by the side. When a visitor arrives, he slowly takes out a piece of yellowish paper and writes a couple of artistic characters on it with a brush pen.

Fan Shaozu, 90, is writing checks in the building that was China’s first bank, Rishengchang, which was built in 1824 on a street in world heritage city Pingyao in north China’s Shanxi Province. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all bank managers.

The checks were written to show how banks worked in China centuries ago and no modern bank will cash them. But it is the work of Fan and others that is keeping alive the charm of the 2,700-year-old city.


Zhang Yuren, 72, a student of the renowned late Chinese artist Qi Baishi’s son, has a gallery on a street of Pingyao. His workshop is in the country’s only completely preserved ancient local government office from Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).

Every morning, Zhang arrives at the gallery where he dons the hat and robe of an ancient official and later walks on the streets to his office.

“Ah, are you the county magistrate? ” one visitor asked curiously. And Zhang answered, “Yes, I am making my rounds to see if my people are happy.”

Zhang may be the lowest paid “county magistrate” in China with a wage of only 20 yuan (2.9 U.S. dollars) a day but he is very devoted to his job.

“I enjoy reading history in my leisure time to make my performance more realistic,” he said.

“I love the county magistrate. He is so funny, especially when he blends ancient stories with sarcasm and brings them to bear on modern problems, such as corruption and unemployment,” said local resident Wang Xing, “Sometimes I laugh so much that tears come into my eyes.”

Zhang is also a kung fu master and has published one book on the martial art of cudgelling.


Paper-cutter Wen Tao, in her 40s, thought she was too shy to do business. “I could only dream about people coming for my works,” she said. But her dream came true.

The first time Wen set up a street stand was on the second day of the first Pingyao International Photography Festival. Shyness kept her home the first day.

“When I finally got to the street, I just buried my head in the stand and kept cutting.” Wen said.

Her business was bad until a foreigner came to her stand. As an antique shop owner helped her to bargain with the customer, Wen stood quietly by the side like a passerby.

“A hundred and twenty yuan.” Wen heard the price, she couldn’t believe it. Nor did her townsmen.

It became a legend. “A hundred and twenty yuan for a piece of paper, can you believe it? I can’t,” villagers said.

What they didn’t know was that Wen took a whole week to cut the artwork which was a meter long and 35 centimeters wide.

Wen inherited her workmanship from her family. The edges of her scissors, an heirloom from her grandmother, were worn by 15 cm. Wen’s small shop on the street is flooded by customers every day.

She has bought a laptop and a digital camera. “I take pictures while touring the country. They are my inspiration. ” Wen said. She is now better equipped but she still insists on cutting the papers with her own hands. Only now she has more patterns in mind.


After much hesitation, two customers ask Cheng Shuxian, owner of the Tianyuankui inn in which they are staying if he could lend them an antique table for their exhibition.

“Of course,” Cheng answered immediately, and then he asked, “do you need chairs?” Before they can answer, Cheng tells two inn workers to carry the table and chairs into his truck for transportation.

“Often customers find it embarrassing to ask for help. So we have to be considerate and proactive.” Cheng said.

The inn features age-old tradition. Cheng was an antique dealer. As it became increasingly difficult to collect real antiques, he turned his shop back into what it used to be 300 years ago: a small hotel of seven rooms. The furniture, vases, stone lions and calligraphy posters, which add to the inn’s charm, were all stock he collected as an antique dealer.

Cheng said he still remember the words of his first customer, a French gentleman. “Tradition is what attracts the customers while comfort is what keeps them.”

“Our Inn has accommodated many celebrities, including an Italian president, the Canadian ambassador to China and his wife, the Austrian ambassador to China and the wife of the U.S. ambassador to China,” said Cheng.

People in the 2.25-square-kilometer city are closely inter-related. Cheng, the home inn owner, is a colleague of paper-cutting master Wen’s younger brother; “county magistrate” Zhang is “banker” Fan’s neighbor and close friend; the mooncake vendor on the street may be a relative of the one selling hand-made shoes in the shop.

Their combined efforts have preserved the city and kept its traditions alive.

Source: Xinhua