Kaifeng is one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China, and holds the distinction of having been the capital of seven dynasties. No other city in China can boast of such a feat. The city began in 364 BC during the Warring States Era and was founded by the state of Wei. The city served as their capital and was originally called Daliang.
When the state of Wei fell to the victorious state of Qin, the city was destroyed, although a portion of it still continued to exist as a market town. Kaifeng began anew in the seventh century Tang Dynasty when it became connected via a smaller canal to the Grand Canal. During the time of the Tang Dynasty the city was called Bian.
It reached its zenith as the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty in the eleventh century. At that time, Kaifeng had a population of over 600,000-700,000 living both inside and outside the city wall, making it one of the most populous cities of the ancient world. Some scholars believe that Kaifeng was the largest city in the world from 1013 to 1127. The city was protected by a threefold city wall, and each of the city gates was protected by a tower and a counter-tower, which made it very difficult for invaders to attack the walls or the gates. The inner city wall enclosed the imperial palace, the city administration, monasteries and temples, residences of princes, and the houses of the common folk. The Imperial Palace was located in the northwest of the inner city and was protected by large towers and a heavily protected gate called the "Red Phoenix Gate". One of the largest halls of the imperial palace was the Daqing Hall where the great court audiences were held. The highest ministers met with the emperor in the Zichen Hall. In the northeastern corner of the Imperial city was an imperial garden with a hill called Genyue Hill and an artificial lake called Jinming Lake. Regretably, none of these buildings have survived into the present day.
In 1127, the city fell to Jurchen invaders from the north and what remained of the Song Dynasty court fled south to Hangzhou, setting up the Southern Song Dynasty. Based on the capital city, the Song Dynasty is divided into two parts by modern scholars. When Kaifeng was the capital, the dynasty was called the Northern Song Dynasty. When Hangzhou was the capital, the dynasty was called the Southern Song Dynasty.
At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, Kaifeng was made the capital of Henan Province. In 1642, Kaifeng devastated with the retreating Ming army flooded the city with water from Yellow River to prevent the peasant rebel Li Zicheng from taking over. After this disaster, the city was abandoned again.
Under the Qing emperor Kangxi (1662), Kaifeng was rebuilt. However, another flooding occurred in 1841, followed by another reconstruction in 1843, which produced the contemporary Kaifeng.
Kaifeng is interesting in that it is the home of the oldest extant Jewish community in China. According to historical records, a Jewish community with a synagogue existed at Kaifeng from at least the 12th century until the late 19th century. Some accounts suggest they in fact had lived there since the 9th century.
It is surmised that the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews came from Central Asia. The uninterrupted existence of this religious and ethnic group, lasting for more than 700 years in totally different socio-cultural surroundings strongly dominated by Confucian moral and ethical principles, is a unique phenomenon, not only in Chinese history, but also in the thousands of years of Jewish civilisation. The existence of the Jews in China was still largely unknown to the rest of the world until Matteo Ricci –- an Italian Jesuit missionary in China -- met a Jew from the Kaifeng community by accident at the beginning of the 16th century. It was then that European research on the Jews in Kaifeng began, mostly carried out by European missionaries. Ricchi's manuscripts indicate that there were only in the range of ten or twelve Jewish families in Kaifeng in the late 16th–early 17th century, and that they had reportedly resided there for five or six hundred years.
Although isolated from the Jewish diaspora outside China, the Jews of Kaifeng still managed to keep alive Jewish traditions and customs for centuries. They were no subjected to discrimination nor persecution from their Chinese neighbors, but instead were gradually assimilated into the surrounding community. In the 1860s, the Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng collapsed, and along with it the traditions of this peculiar community. Today, modern Jews are attempting to learn more about their forefathers who lived in Kaifeng for so long.
Sights to See:
Youguosi Pagoda (Iron Pagoda): Constructed in 1027, it stands 54.7 m in height. It has survived the destruction of wars and numerous floodings. It is not really made of iron, but of red, brown, blue and green glazed bricks. From a distance, the pagoda appears reddish brown, giving the impression that it is made from rusted iron and so it has been called the Iron Pagoda for centuries. The outer walls, corner pillars, doors, windows and bracket supports of the pagoda are all composed of glazed bricks. Carved on these component parts are more than fifty ornamental designs, including images of Buddha, heavenly kings, celestial guards, lions, unicorns, musicians, and peony and lotus flowers. It is the oldest landmark in this ancient city.
Xiangguo Temple: The first temple on this site was built in 555AD during the Northern Qi Dynasty, and under the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) Xaingguo was one of the Empire's leading Buddhist institutions. During the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) the temple's monastery grew to house over 1000 monks in some 64 different Buddhist colleges. In 1644 the temple was destroyed when the retreating Ming army opened the flood gates of the Yellow River to slow the advance of the Manchu invaders. Xiangguo was rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty and has been renovated a few times since. The temple's current structure includes the Shanmen Gate, the Heavenly King Hall, the Grand Hall, the Great Treasure House, the Sutra Library, the Drum Tower and the Bell Towers. The Great Treasure House is home to a number of Buddhist relics and artifacts, including a Song Dynasty bronze Buddha and a ten foot high gold covered statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.
The Bao Zheng's Memorial Temple :Occupying a floorage of about 10000 m 2 on the bank of Baogong Lake, the Bao Zheng Memorial Temple was built to commemorate the respectable and morally lofty official Bao Zheng, who is considered as one of the most honest and upright judges in Chinese history. The architecture style is simple and unsophisticated, but solemn and stately.
Kaifeng offers a wide range of delacicies such as steaming pie and chinese dumplings. In the evening, the city's streets turn into restaurants when hundreds of merchants open their stands and begin selling their food in a night market. Often people from the nearby Zhengzhou come to Kaifeng to spend an evening with their family. Particularly famous is Kaifeng's five-spice bread (wuxiang shaobing) which, like pita, can be opened and filled with all kinds of delicious things.