Map showing borders of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126) and its neighbors, the Xi Xia and Liao, with major cities in green, and the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) and its neighbors, the Xi Xia and Jin, with major cities. in orange.


A New Kind of City Emerges

The quickening of the economy in Song times fueled the growth of cities. Dozens of cities had 50,000 or more residents, and quite a few had more than 100,000. As in previous dynasties, the Song’s largest cities were its capitals — first Kaifeng in the North, then Hangzhou in the South. Both capitals are thought to have had about a million residents. (The population of London at the time was around 15,000). (1)


Urban Life

Like the city in the scroll, the Song capitals boasted a lively street life, with markets, shops, restaurants, and houses right on the street. Some of these buildings were multi-story.

Kaifeng did have an external wall, but its population spilled beyond it. Unlike previous capitals, such as the Tang dynasty’s Chang’an, the Song capitals did not have walled wards. The wall we see in the scroll had no military purpose, but its gate (see images below) still formed an impressive entrance into the city.

To combat fire in the city, the government stationed 2,000 soldiers at 14 fire stations within the city and more outside it.


Get a closer look at the street life around the city gate as depicted in the Beijing Qingming Scroll...


Poverty was more of a problem in crowded cities than in the countryside. The Song government not only distributed alms, but operated public clinics, old age homes, and paupers’ graveyards.


Kaifeng, Prosperous Capital of the Northern Song

“An ancient 17-foot painted scroll, now in the Palace Museum in Beijing, shows the bustle and prosperity of ancient Kaifeng. Hundreds of pedestrians jostle each other on the streets, camels carry merchandise in from the Silk Road, and teahouses and restaurants do a thriving business.

Kaifeng’s stature attracted people from all over the world, including hundreds of Jews. Even today, there are some people in Kaifeng who look like other Chinese but who consider themselves Jewish and do not eat pork.” (2)

— Nicholas D. Kristof


For Further Reading

• “Recollections of the Northern Song Capital,” in Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, translated by Stephen West, edited by Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 405-422.


(1) Nicholas D. Kristof, “China, the World’s Capital (From Kaifeng to New York, Glory Is as Ephemeral as Smoke and Clouds,” New York Times, May 22, 2005.
(2) Idem.


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