In banking's shadow
A former financial hub now begs for the patronage of tourists
The town Mao forgot
ITALIAN cities such as Florence and Venice have long made a mint from the architectural wonders built when they were financial centres. China has been slower to capitalise on the physical remains of past commercial glory in Pingyao, an urban backwater in inland Shanxi province, which was China's banking hub in the 19th century. Today tourists flock to the walled city, with its unusually well-preserved houses built between the 17th and 19th centuries. But restoring its former wealth remains elusive.
The most-visited attraction in modern Pingyao is the Rishengchang Draft Bank, which in 1823 became the first in China to issue cheques. The city lay on the path of a lucrative trade route. The bank's manager spied a business opportunity when he saw silver shipments passing each other in opposite direction. He replaced pricey security, wagons and pack animals with a clearing house.
The bank spawned around 50 competitors across Shanxi (nearly half in Pingyao) with hundreds of branches across the empire. At the time Chinese bankers were held in lower esteem than peasants and tradesmen. They tried to keep staff honest by making them pledge their homes and even to surrender their families as slaves if they committed fraud; investors had no control over the banks' daily operations.
But it was not the staff that did for the banks. They collapsed soon after the Qing dynasty's demise in 1911. The government withdrew its remittance business, currency unification removed the need for the silver trade between cities and competition grew from modern banks.
Pingyao's ensuing poverty proved to be its saviour. Its picturesque grid of traditional imperial houses survived when most elsewhere succumbed to Mao's hatred of the old and his successors' love of the new. Now it has reinvented itself. Around 1.5m people visited Pingyao in 2013, up from around 50,000 in 1997 when UNESCO named it a world heritage site.
而后的穷困反倒拯救了这座小城。当全国上下都屈服于太祖对旧物的憎恨，以及后继者们对新物的狂热的之时，平遥安然躲过了这一切，风景如画，星罗棋盘的旧帝国式建筑群也得以保存。如今平遥又重拾自我。2013 年共有约150 万人来到平遥，当1997 年联合国教科文组织认定其为世界文化遗产时，这个数字只有五万。
Hope that the streets would again be lined with silver are overblown. The benefits of the tourist boom are spread only narrowly. A small, spruced-up central area thrums with visitors enjoying the curved rooftops, traditional fa?ades, red lanterns and, strangely, Mao memorabilia. Beyond the centre, many streets look like slums: roofs slump, walls are crumbling and waste is carried away by a horse rather than sewers. Few can afford to fix up their homes, even with financial support from the government and the California-based Global Heritage Fund, a charity that is helping to preserve some of China's historical sites.
To declutter the town, four-fifths of the city's population have been moved outside the city walls since 1997. But the new town's hotels and karaoke halls are often empty. A high-speed rail link that opened in July running from the nearby provincial capital, Taiyuan, to Xi'an (home of the crowd-pulling Terracotta Army) should draw the crowds. But ease of access also means ease of retreat: most sightseers come only for the day. Making money from moving people around China may prove harder than profiting from the movement of silver.
为整理市容，自1997 年起，平遥城五分之四的人口已迁出城外。不过在面貌一新的古城，旅馆与KTV 却经常空空如也。七月开通了从省会太原到西安(兵马俑所在地)的高铁，会为平遥古城带来游客。但人方便过来，也方便出去：观光客们一般就在城里逗留一个白天。从人来人往中赚钱，的确比运输白银更为艰难啊。