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

The New York Times profiles the town of Pingyao, which was once the financial capital of China and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site:

At Pingyao’s height, 22 banks here thrived on the flourishing trade in Shanxi Province, as silk and tea moved north to Mongolia and Russia from southern China, and wool went south.

Compared with the excesses of today, scholars say, the early days of banking were a time of solid business ethics. There were no toxic mortgages, no opaque financial instruments. Trust among businessmen was so strong that the banks were able to start a system of remittances, credit and check writing, the first of its kind in China. Currency was in silver ingots.

Yet, some of the banks’ practices might raise eyebrows today.

Still visible in the two-story courtyards of the defunct banks here are opium dens and mah-jongg tables, as well as rooms where prostitutes hired by the banks plied their trade to win over potential customers.

See photos of Pingyao via flickr.

March 17, 2009 9:39 PM
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