Kaifeng

 
Kaifeng, in northeastern Henan Province, was the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Like Xi’an under the Tang emperors, it was the centre of power and learning in a glorious period of Chinese civilization. The city had previously served as the capital of several dynasties before the Song, but today, sadly, little of that imperial heritage has survived. The city has suffered a number of disasters, such as its sacking in 1127 by the Jin Tartars who moved into north China from Manchuria, causing the Song court to flee southwards; another was the deliberate flooding of the city in 1644 by Ming loyalists, desperate to push back the Manchu troops threatening the city. Kaifeng also suffered from periodic floods when the Yellow River—10 kilometres (six miles) to the north—overflowed its banks, so it is perhaps not surprising that the city has never developed into an influential metropolis in recent centuries.

The original city walls still remain, however, revealing that the Song city was laid out in three concentric circles. The city architects of the later Ming dynasty built their cities on a rectangular plan.



Iron Pagoda  
Visitors to Kaifeng must include a stop at the Youguo Temple Pagoda, also known as the Iron Pagoda, which can be found in the northeastern part of the city. The exterior of the pagoda is inlaid with ironcoloured glazed bricks. Its eaves, pillars and lintels are made from bricks glazed to resemble wood. The bricks have been carved in a very naturalistic style, with motifs of Buddhist immortals, musicians, flowers, plants and animals. Built in 1044 on the site of an earlier wooden pagoda which had been struck by lightning, the tower has an elegant octagonal shape and rises 13 storeys. Its base was badly damaged in a flood in 1841, but its fabric has survived very well. Close to the pagoda stands a small pavilion which shelters a Song dynasty bronze statue of a minor deity. It is considered to be one of the finest surviving masterpieces of Song bronze casting.  




Xiangguo Monastery

 
 
 
The Xiangguo Monastery, though founded in the sixth century, didn’t come into its own as a centre of Buddhist learning until the Northern Song dynasty. It was completely destroyed by the flooding of the city during 1644 and the present buildings, close to the city centre, date from the Qing dynasty. One of the temple halls is octagonal, with a small six-sided pavilion rising from the centre of the roof—a curiosity, since temple halls are usually rectangular.

Within the old city walls, Yuwangtai—sometimes known as the Old Music Terrace—can also be visited. It is set in landscaped gardens and is named after the legendary Emperor Yu, who tamed a great flood in prehistoric times—an appropriate tribute from a city bedevilled by floodwaters. (The bed of the Yellow River, held between high dykes, is several metres higher than the ground on which the city is built.) More recently, the temple was popular with poets of the Tang dynasty who came here to compose and carouse.

 




Dragon Pavilion

 
 
 
Northwest of the city, but close to the old walls, is the Dragon Pavilion (Long Ting). Set on a series of rising terraces overlooking lakes and gardens, it stands on the site of a Song dynasty imperial palace and park. Like much of Kaifeng, the site was flooded in 1644, and all earlier buildings were lost. Prior to its redevelopment in the Qing dynasty, the site was known simply as Coal Hill. Its present name, Dragon Pavilion, is believed to be derived from the magnificent cube of carved stone which stands inside the pavilion. The four sides of the stone are carved with curling dragons.

Kaifeng has earned some international interest in recent years with its historic ties to Judaism. During the Northern Song, Sephardic traders from the Levant made their way to Kaifeng with some settling and intermarrying with Chinese women. A small but influential community of Chinese Jews was established that flourished through the Qing dynasty. A synagogue existed, as did a Torah. During the 19th century American Christain missionaries converted many of the community and with the upheavals of the 20th century the community faded into obscurity. American Jewish scholars have researched the history of the community and there are stele in the city museum referring to the Jewish presence.