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Kaifeng / Kaifung / Dongjing / Bianjing / Pienliang

China History Map - Kaifeng / Kaifung Of China's seven ancient capital cities, Kaifeng was formerly an important city, but many misfortunes crippled it and for a long time it had little commerce or industry. It had been overwhelmed 14 times by flood, 9 times by earthquake, 6 times by fire, and 11 times taken by assault.

Kaifeng has been the capital of the country on several occasions. The Northern Sung dynasty reigned here, when the place was known as Pieu-liang, from 960 to 1129. It was also the eastern capital of the Mongols. It had been a center of great wealth. At one siege, Kuan Li-pu demanded an indemnity of five million ounces of gold, ten thousand horses and as many oxen. While this enormous exaction showed the wealth of the capital, the fact that it was paid explains the rapid decline afterwards and one reason why it was abandoned in favor of Nanking.

In 364 BC, the state of Wei during the Warring States Period founded a city called Daliang as its capital in this area. During this period, the first of many canals in the area was constructed; it linked a local river to the Huang He. When the State of Wei was conquered by the Qin, Kaifeng was destroyed and abandoned except for a mid-sized market town, which remained in its place.

Early in the 7th century, Kaifeng was transformed into a major commercial hub when it was connected to the Grand Canal as well as a canal running to western Shandong Province. In 781 (Tang Dynasty), a new city was reconstructed and named Bian. 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, and shortly afterward, they further expanded the city.

Kai-fengDuring the Song Dynasty, called Dongjing or Bianjing then, Kaifeng was the capital with a population of over 400,000, living both inside and outside the city wall. Typhus was an acute problem of the city. In 1049, Youguosi Pagoda, or Iron Pagoda as it is called today, was constructed, which measures 54.7 m in height. It has survived the destruction of wars and floodings and become the oldest landmark in this ancient city. Another Song Dynasty pagoda, Bo Ta, from 974, has been partially destroyed. The famous painting Qingming Scroll is believed by some to portray daily life in Kaifeng. The painting, of which several versions are extant (the above is an 18th century remake), is attributed to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) artist Zhang Zeduan.

A well-known sight was 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 hydraulic-powered (i.e. by waterwheel and clepsydra clock), yet it incorporated an escapement mechanism two hundred years before they were found in clockworks of Europe, and featured the first known endless power-transmitting chain drive.

Kaifeng reached its peak of importance in the 11th century, when it was a commercial and industrial center at the intersection of four major canals. During this time, the city was surrounded by three rings of city walls and probably had a population of 600,000 to 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 and came subsequently under the rule of the Jin Dynasty. While it remained an important administrative center, 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's "southern capital" from 1157 (other sources say 1161) and was reconstructed during this time. But they kept their main capital further north, until 1214, when they were forced to move the imperial court southwards to Kaifeng in order to flee the Mongol onslaught. In 1234 they succumbed to combined Mongol and Song Dynasty forces. Mongols took control, and in 1279 they conquered all of China.

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, Kaifeng was made the capital of Henan Province. In 1642 it was inundated by its own friends, having been besieged for six months by 100,000 rebels. The Ming general who came to its relief conceived the idea of raising the siege by laying the surrounding country under water. With this end in view he broke down the embankments by which the Yellow River is kept in its course (the bottom of the river being higher than the surrounding country), and, while he succeeded in drowning the rebels, the city was overwhelmed and 300,000 of the inhabitants drowned.

After this disaster, the city was abandoned again. Under the Mings, Kaifeng was destroyed by robbers and floods, but rebuilt. Under the celebrated Qing emperor Kangxi (1662), Kaifeng was rebuilt. However, another flooding occurred in 1841, followed by another reconstruction in 1843, which produced the contemporary Kaifeng.

By the late 19th Century the population was small and except for a few ancient temples, the city had no places of interest. By the end of the 19th Century it covered a considerable area; its most noticeable feature is a 13-story pagoda of brown glazed brick. The suburbs, where the business was mostly done, were large and had a large transit trade with Fancheng and other ports on the Han River. Kaifeng was on a branch line a little east of the Hankow-Peking Railway, completed in 1905, at which time the population was about 200,000.

Kaifeng was then a has-been. It produced a worse impression than the wretched quarters of Constantinople. It had no streets, only broad, straight stretches which on rainy days are seas of mud, on dry days clouds of dust. It had no trade, no manufactures, no imports of any consequence; a local market-town it may have been, but it seemed to have the value of a big, casual village. Kaifeng is also known for having the oldest extant Jewish community in China, the Kaifeng Jews. Kaifeng was noted as the location of a Jewish colony, discovered in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. The Jews came to China many generations ago and had since intermarried with the Chinese until it was impossible to distinguish them from the native population, though they regarded themselves as aliens. The Jews did not prosper here, and their synagogue was pulled down and all their books sold many years ago. The Kaifeng Jews eat no pork, but it would be difficult to say whether this was because of their religious beliefs, or because their poverty made the price of that Chinese delicacy prohibitive.

There is no doubt but that there was a great influx of Jews into China during the Han dynasty, about the beginning of this era. There had probably beenmany Jewish traders in China many years before that, for the main route by which Chinese silk passed into the Roman Empire was through Antioch in Syria. In all probability they were Jewish traders, who brought these goods from China, and for this purpose they would follow the main caravan route from Bagdad across Khorasan, Samarakand and Chinese Turkestan into Kansuh, Shensi, Honan and the other provinces of China proper.

In early times there were many synagogues throughout China, and the Jews were both numerous and wealthy. From Chinese records we gather that there were four, if not six, synagogues in the city of Changan (now Sianfu); two, and probably three, in the city of Kaifeng; one at least in Chinkiang, Hangchow, Ningpo, Loyang (Honanfu), Nanking and Peking, and possibly one in Ninghsai, Canton and Shehung.

In 1105 the Emperor of the Sung dynasty, whose capital city was Kaifeng, gave permission to the Jews to build a new synagogue in the national capital in which to observe the customs of their ancestors and to hand down their doctrines to their descendants. This does not mean that the Jews' colony was only established in Kaifeng at this time, for there is a reference in Chinese records to a synagogue which was in the Ningyuen square of Kaifeng, which was traditionally reported to have been erected about the time of the incursion of the Western Tartars during the Tsin dynasty (3rd to 5th century).

Later they had taken to eating pork, and were scarcely distinguishable from the Chinese population. They had but a confused recollection of their ancient traditions. The Chinese called them the Blue Mohammedans, also Tiao Kin Hwug (the sect which plucks out the sinew), in allusion to a well-known Jewish custom. Probably there is no similar instance in history where a strong Jewish community such as the Jews of China undoubtedly were, after a continuous existence of nearly 2,000 years, in the midst of a strongly idolatrous people, and without much persecution to speak of, should finally succumb and as a religious entity become non-existent.

China History Map - Kaifeng / Kaifung

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:14 ZULU