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.
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.
1.beg for 乞求
Those words bring nothing but pain and yet we beg for it.
If, however, you want to give them something, give no more than alms, and let them beg for that!
2.prove to 给…证明
But I would like to prove to them that I can do something for this area —at least, for the women.
All this is needed so they can prove to the new administration that they are viable in the long-term.
3.succumb to 屈服于
And yet I succumb to watching it.
But we will not succumb to division or suspicion.