Ghosts of a Faded Gilded Age Haunt a 19th-Century Chinese Banking Hub

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PINGYAO, China It was a time of new wealth, a gilded age in which entire families came into fortunes overnight.

To move the money, businessmen here in this city in northern China opened banks, the first in the nation’s history. Soon branches sprang up across the country, and they began making loans. Money flowed this way and that.

Then, as quickly as it started, the entire system crumbled. The banks shut down and the city fell into ruin.

So went the history of China’s first banking capital, which bloomed here in dusty Shanxi Province in the mid-19th century, during the Qing dynasty. With the global economy now reeling from the banking crisis that began in the United States, and as the explosive economic growth of China begins to slow, the rise and fall of Pingyao could be read by some as a cautionary tale.

But the present-day financial crisis has reinforced the sense of nostalgia surrounding Pingyao, which with its 33-feet-tall Ming dynasty walls is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the country.

“The banks tell a history of Chinese financial development, like how China started to transform from feudalism to capitalism,” said Ruan Yisan, a retired professor from the architecture department of Tongji University in Shanghai who has been instrumental in the restoration of Pingyao. “The staffs of the banks were trained to be objective and highly responsible to the accounting of the banks. Now, corruption is common and people don’t place much value in moral qualities.”

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