China Insight Series - Kaifeng (开封)

The Insight Series for 2014 continues! This series focuses on the Eight Great Ancient Capitals of China as defined by the China Ancient Capital Society.

These capitals include the cities of Luoyang, Xi'an, Beijing, Kaifeng, Nanjing, Anyang, Zhengzhou and Hangzhou. Each of these cities has served as the Capital between 216 and 1,309 for various governments in China. 

Kaifeng (开封)

Kaifeng (simplified Chinese: 开封; pinyin: Kāifēng), known previously by several names, is a prefecture-level city in east-central Henan province, People's Republic of China. It was the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1126) and once one of the greatest cities in the world.

There are currently nearly 5 million people living in its metropolitan area. Located along the southern bank of the Yellow River, it borders the provincial capital of Zhengzhou to the west, Xinxiang to the northwest, Shangqiu to the east, Zhoukou to the southeast, Xuchang to the southwest, and the province of Shandong to the northeast.

Kaifeng is one of the Eight Ancient Capitals of China. As with Beijing, there have been many reconstructions during its history.

In 364 BC during the Warring States period, the State of Wei founded a city called Daliang (大梁) as its capital in this area. During this period, the first of many canals in the area was constructed linking a local river to the Yellow River. When the State of Wei was conquered by the State of Qin, Kaifeng was destroyed and abandoned except for a mid-sized market town.

Early in the 7th century, Kaifeng was transformed into a major commercial hub when it was connected to the Grand Canal as well as through the construction of a canal running to western Shandong.

Daliang City Gate

In 781 during the Tang Dynasty, a new city was reconstructed and named Bian (汴). Bian was the capital of the Later Jin (936–946), Later Han (947–950), and Later Zhou (951–960) of the Five Dynasties Period. The Song Dynasty made Bian its capital when it overthrew the Later Zhou in 960. Shortly afterwards the city underwent further expansion.

During the Song Dynasty when it was known as Dongjing or Bianjing, Kaifeng was the Chinese capital with a population of over 400,000, living both inside and outside the city wall. Typhus was an acute problem in the city. The historian Jacques Gernet provides a lively picture of life in this period in his book Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, which draws on Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital), a nostalgic memoir.

Imperial Street of Song Dynasty

In 1049, the Youguosi Pagoda (佑國寺塔), or Iron Pagoda (铁塔) as it is called today was constructed measuring 54.7 metres (179 ft) in height. It has survived the vicissitudes of war and floods to become the oldest landmark in this ancient city. Another Song Dynasty pagoda, Bo Ta (繁塔), dating from 974 has been partially destroyed.

Another well-known sight is the astronomical clock tower of the engineer, scientist, and statesman Su Song (1020–1101 AD). It was crowned with a rotating armillary sphere that was hydraulically powered and incorporated an escapement mechanism two hundred years before they were found in the clockworks of Europe. It also features the first known endless power-transmitting chain drive.

Iron Pagoda

Kaifeng reached its peak importance in the 11th century when it was a commercial and industrial centre at the intersection of four major canals. During this time, the city was surrounded by three rings of city walls and had a population of between 600,000 and 700,000. It is believed that Kaifeng was the largest city in the world from 1013 to 1127.

This period ended in 1127 when the city fell to Jurchen invaders during the Jingkang Incident. It subsequently came under the rule of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, which conquered most of northern China in the Jin–Song wars. While it remained an important administrative centre, only the city area inside the inner city wall of the early Song Dynasty remained settled and the two outer rings were abandoned.

One major problem associated with Kaifeng as the imperial capital of the Song Dynasty was its location.

While it was conveniently situated along the Grand Canal for logistic supply, Kaifeng was militarily vulnerable due to its position on the flood plains of the Yellow River.

Kaifeng served as the Jurchen "southern capital" from 1157 (other sources say 1161) and was reconstructed during this time. The Jurchen kept their main capital further north until 1214 when they were forced to move the imperial court southwards to Kaifeng in order to flee from the Mongol onslaught. In 1232 they succumbed to the combined Mongol and Song Dynasty forces in the Mongol siege of Kaifeng. The Mongols captured the city, and in 1279 they conquered all of China.

The famous painting Qingming Scroll is believed by some to portray life in Kaifeng on a Qingming Festival day

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, Kaifeng was made the capital of Henan province.
In 1642, Kaifeng was flooded by the Ming army with water from the Yellow River to prevent the peasant rebel Li Zicheng from taking over. After this disaster the city was abandoned again.

In 1662, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor in the Qing Dynasty, Kaifeng was rebuilt. However, further flooding occurred in 1841 followed by another reconstruction in 1843, which produced the contemporary Kaifeng as it stands today.

Kaifeng is also known for having the oldest extant Jewish community in China, the Kaifeng Jews.
It is also a Muslim enclave, and contains what is thought to be China's oldest surviving mosque.

In 1969, the former President of the People's Republic of China Liu Shaoqi, died from medical neglect while under house arrest in Kaifeng.

Confucian Saying Of The Month



Zhìzhě yào shuǐ, rénzhě yàoshān;

zhìzhě dòng, rénzhě jìng; zhìzhě lè, rénzhě shòu

The wise delight in water, the virtuous delight in mountains. The wise are active, the virtuous stay still. The wise are happy, the virtuous have a long life.

Chinese Character Of The Month


wisdom; intelligence; resourceful; wise

This Chinese character is a phonogram made up with two elements. The upper part (知zhī) means knowledge; the other element (日) means the sun. The character can be used as a noun and an adjective. As a noun, it refers to wisdom or wit; as an adjective, it means wise or clever.

聪明才智 Cōngmíng cáizhì - ability and cleverness

急中生智 Jízhōngshēngzhì - show resourcefulness in an emergency

智者 Zhìzhě- sage; wise man

智囊团 Zhìnáng tuán – brain trust, think tank

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