Located on the alluvial plains in the middle reaches of the Yellow River 70km east of Zhengzhou, KAIFENG (开封, kāifēng) is an ancient capital with a history stretching back over three thousand years. However, unlike other ancient capitals in the area, the city hasn’t grown into an industrial monster, and remains pleasingly compact, with most of its sights in a fairly small area within the walls. While not an especially attractive town, its low-key ambience and sprinkling of older temples and pagodas encourage a wander, and the longer you stay, the more you register the town’s distinctive local character. In all, this a worthwhile place to spend a couple of days, especially if you’ve grown weary of the scale and pace of most Chinese cities.
Central Kaifeng, bounded by walls roughly 3km long at each side, is fairly small, and most places of interest lie within walking distance of one another. The town is crisscrossed by canals, once part of a network that connected it to Hangzhou and Yangzhou in ancient times.
First heard of as a Shang town around 1000 BC, Kaifeng had its heyday during the Song dynasty between 960 and 1127 AD, when the city became the political, economic and cultural centre of the empire. A famous 5m-long horizontal scroll by Zhang Azheduan, Qingming Shang He (Along the River at the Qingming Festival), now in the Forbidden City in Beijing, unrolls to show views of the city at this time, teeming with life, crammed with people, boats, carts and animals. It was a great age for painting, calligraphy, philosophy and poetry, and Kaifeng was famed for the quality of its textiles and embroidery, and for its production of ceramics and printed books. It was also the home of the first mechanical timepiece in history, Su Song’s astronomical clock tower of 1092, which worked by the transmission of energy from a huge water wheel.
Some of this artistic heritage survives – the nearby town of Zhuxian Zhen is still known for its New Year woodblock prints – but Kaifeng’s Golden Age ended suddenly in 1127 when Jurchen invaders overran the city. Just one royal prince escaped to the south, to set up a new capital out of harm’s reach at Hangzhou beyond the Yangzi, though Kaifeng itself never recovered. What survived has been damaged or destroyed by repeated flooding since – between 1194 and 1887 there were more than fifty severe incidents, including one fearful occasion when the dykes were breached during a siege and at least 300,000 people are said to have died, among which were many of Kaifeng’s Jewish community.
A number of families in Kaifeng trace their lineage back to the Jews, though these origins remain a mystery. It’s likely that their ancestors came here from central Asia around 1000 AD, when trade links between the two areas were strong. The community was never large, but it seems to have flourished until the nineteenth century, when – perhaps as a result of disastrous floods, including one in 1850 that destroyed the synagogue – the Kaifeng Jews almost completely died out. However, following the atmosphere of greater religious tolerance in contemporary China, many Jews have begun practising their faith again. You can see a few relics from the synagogue in the museum, including three steles that once stood outside it, but most, such as a Torah in Chinese now in the British Museum, are in collections abroad.