Rises and Falls
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.