Rises and Falls

China Scenic - - Feature -

On May 13, 1127, the vic­to­ri­ous Jin marched out of the ru­ins of Kaifeng, head­ing north to es­cape the heat of sum­mer. Their tro­phies did not just in­clude count­less trea­sures, but also more than 17,000 pris­on­ers, which in­cluded 3,000 mem­bers of the royal fam­ily and two em­per­ors.

This day was de­scribed by a his­to­rian as: “North­ern wind has swept through, cold and suf­fer­ing now reign”.

And suf­fer­ing and mis­ery did reign. The ru­ined Kaifeng was al­most de­pop­u­lated, at the be­gin­ning of 1126, be­fore the sack by the Jin, the pop­u­la­tion of the city was 1.2 mil­lion, but by the time the Jin troops with­drew, there were merely 300,000 left in the city. Apart from the im­pe­rial palace, which was left rel­a­tively in­tact, the rest of the city’s build­ings were

doned and grad­u­ally turned into ru­ins.

In 1214 the Jin Em­peror of­fi­cially moved the cap­i­tal to Kaifeng, the city’s vi­tal­ity and pros­per­ity re­turned and its pop­u­la­tion grew to over a mil­lion. How­ever, noth­ing is per­ma­nent in the world, and the course of his­tory soon drew Kaifeng back into the whirlpool of war and de­struc­tion.

On April 13, 1232, the ris­ing Mon­gols sent an army south, en­cir­cling and be­sieg­ing Kaifeng. The Jin, once the be­siegers and in­vaders them­selves, were now the city’s de­fend­ers, but, just like it had been the case with the North­ern Song, the Jin had lost their mar­tial prow­ess and were in­ca­pable of pre­vent­ing Kaifeng from be­ing sacked. Three months pre­vi­ously, the main Jin force had been soundly de­feated by the Mon­gols, and Jin, in des­per­a­tion, despatched 10,000 con­scripted la­bor­ers to breach the dykes on the Yel­low River to save the city. How­ever, the la­bor­ers were at­tacked by the Mon­gol cav­alry, be­fore they got to the dykes, and mas­sa­cred — only two or three hun­dred men made it back alive to Kaifeng. This was dur­ing the high­est heat of sum­mer, and epi­demics soon broke out in the be­sieged Kaifeng, and, with the sit­u­a­tion dis­as­trous both out­side the city walls and within them, the city fell.

The Mon­gols, just like the Jin had done pre­vi­ously, did not oc­cupy Kaifeng for long as there was not enough pas­ture for their horses. They with­drew north­wards, and the South­ern Song was thus able to re­cover the lost ter­ri­to­ries. Sixty thou­sand Song troops re-en­tered the dev­as­tated Kaifeng, which was at that time still known as Bian­liang, but their joy was not too last long. The Mon­gols soon launched an­other raid, break­ing the dykes of the Yel­low River ten kilo­me­ters north of Kaifeng, in­un­dat­ing the city and the Song army. Within the city walls the wa­ter was waist-deep, up to the neck in the sur­round­ing low ly­ing ar­eas, and so the pow­er­less Song army with­drew from the city yet again. The city was again laid to waste, com­plet­ing a fa­mil­iar pat­tern of brief pros­per­ity fol­lowed by the rav­ages of war, epi­demics and floods.

More than a cen­tury later, the dev­as­tated city wel­comed a man called Zhu Su (1361–1425), the fifth son of Em­peror Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dy­nasty. Zhu Su was de­clared Lord Zhou and Kaifeng was to be­come the seat of his power.

Zhu Su was to live in Kaifeng for 42 years. Un­der his rule the city grad­u­ally re­cov­ered and once again be­came a flour­ish­ing trade and trans­port hub of the Cen­tral Plain of China.

This time the pe­riod of pros­per­ity was to last over two cen­turies, right un­til Li Zicheng’s rebel army laid siege to Kaifeng for the third time in 1642. The city’s de­fences re­pelled the first two sieges, with the last one cost­ing the rebel leader an eye.

The siege dragged on, de­spite pro­vi­sions run­ning short in Kaifeng, the de­fend­ers were tena­ciously hold­ing out, to Li Zicheng’s great frus­tra­tion. How­ever, the sit­u­a­tion was get­ting more and more des­per­ate for the be­sieged, and with re­in­force­ments not forth­com­ing, Kaifeng called on “Gen­eral River” — us­ing the wa­ters of the Yel­low River to in­un­date the be­sieg­ing rebel army.

A group of de­fend­ers sneaked out of the city on July 10, 1642, on a mis­sion to open the main dyke on the river, but were spot­ted by Li Zicheng’s scouts. The rebel leader, im­me­di­ately or­dered his peo­ple to open the dykes up­stream of Kaifeng, to un­leash the wa­ters of the Yel­low River on the de­fend­ers.

The two sides went to work on the iden­ti­cal plans, but the river was run­ning low at that time due to the on-go­ing drought. When the dykes were fi­nally opened, the flood­wa­ters posed no dan­ger to Kaifeng, and the ad­ver­saries qui­etly aban­doned their plan to use the force of na­ture against each other.

Two months later, the events took a dra­matic turn. Heavy rains started in Au­gust and con­tin­ued un­abated for a month, swelling the Yel­low River. On

As the ar­chae­ol­o­gists dug deeper into Kaifeng’s past, they could not be­lieve their eyes — not only city walls from suc­ces­sive eras were stacked upon each other, there was road upon road, gate upon gate, horse way upon horse way…

Just be­neath the Zhong­shan Road, the cen­tral street of the mod­ern Kaifeng, co­in­cides with the main thor­ough­fare (also the cen­tral axis) of the city dur­ing the North­ern Song. Fur­ther­more, the Qing and the Ming cen­tral av­enues are also buried deep. We can’t help but won­der, why did the rulers of the suc­ces­sive dy­nas­ties were so at­tached to this city, what was their mo­ti­va­tion to re­built it again and again from the ru­ins?

The Bian River con­nected the Yel­low River and the Huai River, and was a key sec­tion of the Grand Canal. For this rea­son Kaifeng be­came a key transportation hub, with a huge vol­ume of trade go­ing through it, which ex­plains the bus­tle and the dy­namism of the city de­picted in the Alongth­eriver Dur­ingth­e­qing­mingfes­ti­val .

Fol­low the his­tory of the city, and you will be taken on a cruise along the canals that it was built on.

How­ever, wa­ter and wa­ter trans­port was not al­ways the rea­son why Kaifeng was never aban­doned. In 1662 Kaifeng was yet again a waste­land with canals dried up, but the Qing de­cided to re­build the city. Why? This time the de­ci­sion was based on the strate­gic lo­ca­tion of the city. By the time the Qing came to power, Kaifeng had been a cap­i­tal of sev­eral pre­vi­ous dy­nas­ties, and so it came to be more than just a city, for the peo­ple of China it had be­came a sym­bol of the sta­bil­ity of the very core of the Chi­nese state, of the Cen­tral Plain. For this rea­son, the newly in­cum­bent Qing, seek­ing le­git­i­macy, started to build on the ex­ist­ing Ming walls, and not even the risk from the ever-capri­cious wa­ters of Yel­low River could de­ter them.

The rivers were both the source of Kaifeng’s wealth and pros­per­ity, but also, in equal mea­sure, of dev­as­ta­tion and dis­as­ter. Kaifeng’s strate­gic lo­ca­tion and its sta­tus at­tracted one con­queror af­ter an­other and brought the rav­ages of end­less wars onto the city’s cit­i­zens. These cit­i­zens, in turn used their old foe, the Yel­low River, to safe­guard them­selves against the in­vaders, but of­ten this brought about even more tragedy and loss of un­count­able lives.

The great Song paint­ing Alongth­eriver­dur­ing the­qing­mingfes­ti­val , a dy­namic snap­shot of life in Kaifeng nine hun­dred years ago, is now as rel­e­vant as ever. Un­like many an­cient cities of China, Kaifeng still stands in the same place where it was founded, as busy and bustling as it was cen­turies ago, and the soil on which it was built, and the mud of the rivers flow­ing through it, are both filled with in­ex­haustible records of the mil­len­nia of Chi­nese his­tory.

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