fortuneteller from Qingming Festival painting

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Song period (960-1276) was a time of economic growth, population growth, and urbanization. Song cities, centers of government and commerce, were among the largest cities of the world...Buddhism flourished in the Tang and Song dynasties along with religious Daoism and a revival of Confucian thinking (referred to as “Neo-Confucianism”). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Many ways of living and acting that Westerners now see as most thoroughly “Chinese,” or even characteristically East Asian, did not appear before the Song. 1) The Chinese, we know, are rice eaters and tea drinkers; but most Chinese in the Tang and before ate wheat and millet and drank wine, in that respect looking perhaps more “Western” than “Eastern”; rice and tea became dominant food and drink in the Song. 2) China’s population, we know, is huge, and tends to “explode”; its first explosion occurred in the Song. 3) The Chinese, we know, are “Confucians”; but the kind of Confucianism that served as government orthodoxy throughout late-imperial times was a Song reinvention. 4) Chinese women, we may know, bound their feet; but they did not bind them until the Song. 5) Even the “Chinese” roof with its turned-up corners is by origin a Song Chinese roof.”

The world's first paper money was printed during the Song; it was in color and on special paper. The abacus and the compass were in common use. The practice of foot binding — the compression of the feet of girls with tight bandages to the feet are only a few centimeters long — originated in the Song Dynasty. Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History: “On the educational front, Emperor Song Taizu, whose earlier moniker was Zhao Kuangyin, encouraged printing. It was a cheap way to copy books, lots faster than charging someone with the task of rewriting them. As a matter of fact, it was so fast that one person could produce one thousand pages a day. This proliferation of the printed word increased scholarship and readership.” [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

“The elite of the city often formed clubs. A text written in 1235 mentions the West Lake Poetry Club, the Buddhist Tea Society, the Physical Fitness Club, the Anglers’ Club, the Occult Club, the Young Girls’ Chorus, the Exotic Foods Club, the Plants and Fruits Club, the Antique Collectors’ Club, the Horse-Lovers’ Club, and the Refined Music Society. Members gathered for lively discussions and socializing.

Good Websites and Sources Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; ; Chinese Text Project Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization

Song Dynasty Population Boom

The Chinese population, long stable at around 50 million people, doubled in 200 years during the Song dynasty with the introduction of fast growing rice, improved tools and double harvests. These innovations also helped China develop a large permanent urban culture. A census taken in 1086 recorded 108 million people, more than four times the number of people in all of Europe.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In 742 China’s population was approximately 50 million, very close to what it had been in 2 CE. Over the next three centuries, with the expansion of rice cultivation in central and south China, the country’s food supply steadily grew, allowing its population to grow as well. By 1100, the population reached 100 million. China was certainly the largest country in the world at the time. Its population probably already exceeded that of all of Europe, as it has in more recent centuries. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Philip D. Curtin wrote: “Between... 960 and... 1127, China passed through a phase of economic growth that was unprecedented in earlier Chinese history, perhaps in world history up to this time. It depended on a combination of commercialization, urbanization, and industrialization that has led some authorities to compare this period in Chinese history with the development of early modern Europe six centuries later.” [Source: Philip D. Curtin, “In Cross-Cultural Trade in World History” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)]

The great world cities in the year 1000 were Constantinople, Bagdad, Cordoba in Spain, Angkor Wat in Indochina, Tollán in Mexico, and Changngan and Kaifeng in China. In 1020, Kaifeng was home to around a half million people and featured tores that remained open all night, named streets and powerful merchants. Largest cities in the world in the year 1000 (estimated population): 1) Cordoba, Spain (450,000); 2) Kaifeng, China (400,000); 3) Constantinople (300,000); 4) Angkor, Cambodia (200,000); 5) Kyoto, Japan (175,000); 6) Cairo (135,000); 7) Baghdad (125,000); 8) Neyshabur, Persia (125,000); 9) Al Hasa, Arabia (110,000); 10) Anhilvada, India; 11) Rayy, near modern-day Tehran (100,000); 12) Isfahan, Persia (100,000); 13) Seville, Spain (90,000); 14) Dali, China (90,000); 15) Thanjavur, India (90,000).

Song Daily Life Depicted in "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

“Along the River During the Qingming Festival” (also known as “Up the River During Qingming” and “The Spring Festival Along the River”) is a painting by the Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145). It captures the daily life of people and the landscape of the capital, Bianjing, today's Kaifeng, from the Northern Song period. The Song original by Zhang Zeduan at the Palace Museum, Beijing is 25.5 centimeters in height and 5.25 meters long. Within the painting are 814 humans (of whom only 20 are women), 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, 8 sedan chairs, and 170 trees. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The countryside and the densely populated city are the two main sections in the picture, with the river meandering through the entire length. In addition to the shops and diners, there are inns, temples, private residences, and official buildings varying in grandeur and style, from huts to mansions with grand front- and backyards. People and commodities are transported by various modes: wheeled wagons, beasts of labor (in particular, a large number of donkeys and mules), sedan chairs, and chariots. The river is packed with fishing boats and passenger-carrying ferries, with men at the river bank, pulling the larger ships. In the famous bridge scene the crew of an oncoming boat have not yet fully lowered sails of their boat and are in danger of crashing into the bridge. +

The right section is the rural area of the city. There are crop fields and unhurried rural folk—predominately farmers, goatherds, and pig herders—in bucolic scenery. A country path broadens into a road and joins with the city road. The left half is the urban area, which eventually leads into the city proper with the gates. Many economic activities, such as people loading cargoes onto the boat, shops, and even a tax office, can be seen in this area. People from all walks of life are depicted: peddlers, jugglers, actors, paupers begging, monks asking for alms, fortune tellers and seers, doctors, innkeepers, teachers, millers, metalworkers, carpenters, masons, and official scholars from all ranks. +

Outside the city proper there are businesses of all kinds, selling wine, grain, secondhand goods, cookware, bows and arrows, lanterns, musical instruments, gold and silver, ornaments, dyed fabrics, paintings, medicine, needles, and artifacts, as well as many restaurants. The vendors (and in the Qing revision, the shops themselves) extend all along the great bridge, called the Rainbow Bridge. Where the great bridge crosses the river is the center and main focus of the scroll. A great commotion animates the people on the bridge. A boat approaches at an awkward angle with its mast not completely lowered, threatening to crash into the bridge. The crowds on the bridge and along the riverside are shouting and gesturing toward the boat. Someone near the apex of the bridge lowers a rope to the outstretched arms of the crew below. +

bridge in the Qingming Festival painting

National Palace Museum, Taipei description of version of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" attributed to Zhang Zeduan in their collection; “Many of these details are roughly corroborated by Song dynasty writings, principally the Dongjing Meng Hua Lu, which describes many of the same features of life in the capital...The version here traditionally attributed to Zhang includes such scenes starting from the right as a rustic countryside followed by a colorful bridal procession, the main arched bridge with a market, areas surrounding the city walls, and various bridges and waterfront activities.”

Farmer Housing in the Song Dynasty

Chen Pu wrote in “On Farming”: “The ancient kinds who reigned over subjects in all four directions and took advantage of the earth in the right seasons must have had good principles. They decreed that five mu of land should be set aside for housing, out of which two and a half mu were for a cottage erected in the center of the fields. [Source: “On Farming (Nongshu)” by Chen Pu (Chen Fu), 1076-1154, translated by Clara Yu from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 188-191 ]

“In the period of plowing and sowing, move into this cottage to facilitate management and provide supplies for the farm workers. At the same time start a garden and plant vegetables. Along the walls, mulberry trees can be planted for the breeding of silkworms. In this manner you will live up to the system exemplified by the ancients.

“When the ninth month has come, transform the vegetable garden into a harvest processing area. In the tenth month, when the harvest is done and the year’s work finished, you can rest as compensation for your labor of plowing and sowing in the spring. Now move the whole family, both old and new, back to the house. For if you stay too long in the cottage in the fields, your house will become dilapidated as a result of neglect.

Family, Women and Children in the Song Dynasty

The birth of Neo-Confucianism in the Song Dynasty re-emphasized by centrality of the family in Confucian teaching. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In Confucian teaching, the family is the most basic unit of society. Everyone should respect and obey his or her parents and put the interests of the family before personal interests. This attitude of “filial piety” extended also to ancestors. It was considered essential that everyone marry, so that family lines would continue and male heirs make offerings of food and drink to their deceased ancestors. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Gu Hongzong painting

“Girls left their families when they married. So long as they gave birth to sons, they would eventually gain a respected place in their family of marriage, and would be treated as ancestors by their sons and sons’ sons. Mothers and grandmothers had important and respected places in their families. The Song is often seen as a time when the status of women declined. Compared to Tang times, women were less active in politics and less commonly seen on the streets. Song Confucian teachers argued against widows remarrying, and footbinding began in Song times. On the other hand, women’s rights to property were relatively secure in Song times, and older women were often very powerful within their families. Li Qingzhao (1084-ca -1151) is a famous Chinese poet who wrote during the Song. She wrote poetry in a new form that had become popular at the time, with irregular lines that were inspired by musical lyrics.

“Children were highly valued in the Chinese family system. They were what made possible the continuation of the family. Although they were expected to learn to be filial, they were also indulged. Toy peddlers like the one in the scroll were sometimes depicted by painters surrounded by excited children.”

Book: “Family and Property in Sung China: Yuan Ts’ai’s Precepts for Social Life” translated by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Song Paintings That Depict the Lives of Women and Children

“The Song and Yuan periods are considered by many the high point of painting in China. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ In Song times, domestic life became an increasingly frequent subject not only for poetry and drama but for paintings as well. Under-represented in official written records, the lives and customs of people of all classes, were depicted in great detail in the visual arts. Women and children in particular became a focus for several academy artists who specialized in these genres. In many cases, the artists' sensitive treatment of personality and character, as well as careful attention to, say, the material distinctions between fine, elegant robes and the coarse textures of peasants' everyday clothing, gives useful data about how social class and status were expressed visually and the dynamics of social interactions.Paintings of children were popular at court and became a specialty of a handful of artists. This subject matter was considered auspicious, and was a favorite theme for New Year's pictures given as gifts. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“When women appear in official records in China, very little about their everyday lives, habits, and appearance is mentioned, so the abundance of paintings of women that lived during the Song and Yuan dynasties is of special interest to historians. Often painters portrayed upper class subjects larger than their servants. Performers at banquets were more likely to be professional musicians than the guests themselves. /=\

“Most paintings of women were made by artists who specialized in the genre of Palace Women and Children; Wang Juzheng, was best known for his portrayals of palace beauties. Views of women from the lower classes are quite rare, and this example shows sensitivity towards description of physical imperfections and maintains a sense of dignity in its treatment of the women's expressions.” /=\

"It Is Difficult for Widows to Entrust Their Financial Affairs to Others" by Yuan Cai

Women’s roles in imperial China varied with age, generational status, the bearing of sons, and with class. In both elite and commoner households, however, women were often in charge of managing the household — this involved the management and conservation of grain, cloth, and other goods, and the management of finances. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

In "It Is Difficult for Widows to Entrust Their Financial Affairs to Others", Yuan Cai (ca. 1140-ca. 1195) offers advice for family heads. He wrote: “Some wives with stupid husbands are able to manage the family’s finances, calculating the outlays and receipts of money and grain, without being cheated by anyone. Of those with degenerate husbands, there are also some who are able to manage the finances with the help of their sons without ending in bankruptcy. Even among those whose husbands have died and whose sons are young, there are occasionally women able to raise and educate their sons, keep the affection of all their relatives, manage the family business, and even prosper. [Source: "It Is Difficult for Widows to Entrust Their Financial Affairs to Others" by Yuan Cai, ca. 1140-ca. 1195 from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 168, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“All of these are wise and worthy women. But the most remarkable are the women who manage a household after their husbands have died leaving them with young children. Such women could entrust their finances to their husband’s kinsmen or their own kinsmen, but not all relatives are honorable, and the honorable ones are not necessarily willing to look after other people’s business. When wives themselves can read and do arithmetic, and those they entrust with their affairs have some sense of fairness and duty with regard to food, clothing, and support, then things will usually work out all right. But in most of the rest of the cases, bankruptcy is what happens.

Food in the Song Dynasty

Song Dynasty silver chopsticks, cup and spoon

Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History: “Reliance on rice increased during the Song Dynasty. Double-cropping came into fashion and rice use was able to increase. Some champa, rice, originally introduced from India, was coming to China as a tribute from the Champa state in Vietnam. Also growing in popularity, though less so, was red and black rices; these were grown locally. Thanks to the increase of and faster shipping of foods, litchi and sugar cane use spread throughout the country. Other foods did, as well. Some cities such as Hangzhou and Kaifeng set up special areas for the sale and distribution of these and other foods. Perishable foods were wrapped in lotus leaves for shipment; these were often the 'bags' used to carry them home from the marketplace. [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

“With increased quantity and availability, rich and poor had access to more kinds of foods, and they began to learn differences in food quality. They were now able to eat three meals a day, and large numbers of people did. Snacks became an adored item these days and many kinds were available for purchase, particularly during night markets.

“The variety of available dishes they offered, and one such boasted 100-Flavors Soup, Milk-steamed Lamb, Oven-strewn Hare, etc. One of these places listed two hundred thirty-four famous dishes their guests could choose from. 'Imitation' dishes became popular not just for Buddhist guests but for everyone who wanted to enjoy them. Barbecue shops increased as did oil-baked-pastry shops. ***

“Meat use expanded. Restaurants, more and more, used all parts of the pig, lamb, sheep, cows, and goats. Even horses, rabbits, deer, goat, frog, fish and other manners of seafood use increased during Song Dynasty times. Some meats were made into fermented pastes and sauces during the start of this dynasty, but near its end this use declined and virtually disappeared after the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (1280-1368 and 1368 - 1644 CE, respectively). But before they did, unusual foods such as yellow sparrows, mussels, crabs, and the heads of pigs were enjoyed fermented from raw or from their cooked states. During and after the Yuan and Ming dynasties, foods such as eggplant, radishes, ginger, melons, pears, and citron, and soy pastes were added to the fermentation process. These, too, eventually, went out of fashion. Only soy paste and sauce use remained; and that is still true today. However, while they were popular, these fermented meat, fish, and vegetable pastes and sauces were used with whole or pieces of chicken, fish, and other animal foods.” ***

Song Dynasty Cookbooks

Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History:“Many anecdotal food canons were published during” the Song Dynasty; “so were a few recipe books. The latter were a great improvement over earlier ones. One of these was the first ever to provide ingredients in measured amounts; it was called Madame Wu's Recipe Book and Wu Shih Ching Kuei Lu, in Chinese. This book was the first to offer more than simplistic generalized instructions, though they were a far cry from methods listed in steps, as they are these days. Instead, Madame Wu's book offered instructions such as 'bake on top of the stove' or 'drip oil over them' or 'cook... until very soft.' There was an oft quoted one that said 'cover the pot closely and add one or two mulberry stones which makes the meat tender.' Another frequently mentioned one is 'in summer, cook meat with only vinegar.' [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

“One poet, Yu Shipi, wrote about eating plain meat, brains, frog's legs, pigs' knuckles, fish maw, and other exotica. He liked them and said that these unusual foods were served to the Crown Prince. Some culinary, he discussed, included blanching kidneys and cooking them with wine and vinegar, sauteing quail with bamboo shoots, cooking crab legs with venison, preparing river prawns in soup with fish maw, and stewing whitefish in wine. How long any of these were prepared and/or cooked or how they should look when done, he mentioned not. That seemed to be left to the knowledge or imagination of each individual cook. ***

“Books of these times were more booklets than books, as we know them today. For example, one popular one was just a few pages. It was called Menu of Delectables. Others were a mite longer such as A Chef's Manual, or the Imperial Food List. A one hundred-plus page volume was titled Basic Needs of Rustic Living. There was another of one hundred fifty-pages titled Records of the Corrigible Studio. ***

“One can get a mental taste of foods then looking at the first two recipes below. They are from Madame Wu's Cookbook and written in paragraph form as they were in the original before translation. They are here to show how recipes were written then, not to cook them. 1) Shortbread: Mix four ounces butter, one ounce of honey, and a pound of flour. Make this into cakes and bake. 2) Pickled Shrimp: Use large shrimp and remove their tails and tiny legs. For each pound use five mace and salt and let them stand half a day (covered and in the refrigerator). Drain and place in an earthenware jar and top each layer with thirty grains of wild pepper to make the flavor interesting. Add three ounces salt for each pound of shrimp and first dissolve it in good wine. Pour it over the shrimp. Seal the jar with mud. In spring and autumn it will become tasty in five to seven days; in winter it takes ten days.” ***

Restaurants, Tea and Tea Houses of the Song Dynasty (960–1279)

restaurants depicted in the Qingming Festival painting

Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History: “More fermented wines, distilled alcohols, and other beverages were developed during Song times. Tea use increased in popularity and soon surpassed the consumption of alcoholic beverages. One of the latter that did increase considerably was koumiss, a drink made of mare's milk.” Places to enjoy foods and drinks “meant increases in places to consume them away from home, and that was why more restaurants were built. Some had housing for prostitutes next door when more men were eating away from home. Some had rooms within for guests to bed down before making their long journey home. Some of these eateries offered entertainment such as sing-song girls, poetry readings, and other delights. With these many more eateries came need for more folk to cook in them. [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “In both Song period capitals, in northern Kaifeng and in southern Hangzhou, there were large entertainment or “red light” districts (wazi, wa-tzû) offering any kinds of amusements. In the theater houses and in the teahouses it was possible to see mimes, dance spectacles, acrobatics, circuses with animals, and magic shows. Prostitutes lured customers by singing and dancing, and the alleys were lined with fortune-tellers and street musicians. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “When taking tea, the Song people would customarily crush the tea cakes into tiny tea powder, place the powder in the tea bowl and add water; after some stirring the tea would be ready for drinking. Therefore a layer of white foam would often float to the surface of the tea, which would have suited well the black glaze of this tea bowl. The Song people had developed the practice of "tea competitions", and the coloring and foam appearing after stirring of the tea were both important criteria considered by the judges. Black glaze on tea bowls set off the white tea particularly well, and for this reason these tea bowls became extremely popular during the Song Dynasty. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Photographs: Photographer's Journal: A Teahouse in Hangzhou (New York Times, July 2, 2006) A narrated slide show about the Tai Ji teahouse in Hangzhou, with 14 photographs by Times photographer Chang W. Lee.

Kaifeng: A New Kind of City Emerges

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “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). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

“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 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.

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.

Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times: “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.” [Source: 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]

Book: “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.

20080320-kaifeng brrok.jpg
Kaifeng, the city depicted in the Qingming Festival painting

Attractions of Hangzhou in 1235

The document excerpted below, by an unknown author, describes the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou — a city of between seven and eight square miles — in 1235: “Markets: During the morning hours, markets extend from Tranquility Gate of the palace all the way out to the north and south sides of the New Boulevard. Here we find pearl, jade, talismans exotic plants and fruits, seasonal catches from the sea, wild game — all the rarities of the world seem to be gathered here. [Source: “The Attractions of the Capital (Hangzhou)’ by Unknown Author, ca. 1235, from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 178-185]

“Commercial Establishments: Various businesses are designated by the word “company,” which is a taxation category imposed by the government and is used for all businesses dealing in commodities, regardless of their size. Even physicians and fortunetellers are included. … In general, the capital attracts the greatest variety of goods and has the best craftsmen.

“Restaurants: Most restaurants here are operated by people from the old capital, like the lamb rice shops which also serve wine. … The so-called southern style is a misnomer. These restaurants were originally established in the old capital to serve southerners who were not used to the northern diet. Now that they are in the south, the term southern style becomes misleading. At any rate, noodles and seafood are the specialty of these restaurants, and each has its own house menu.

Marco Polo on Hangzhou

Marco Polo described Hangzhou, capital of the Southern Song as "the greatest city which may be found in this world." Situated at the southern end of the Grand Canal about 175 kilometers from present-day Shanghai, Hangzhou was a natural center for trade. Marco Polo reported that it had a population of 1.5 million people, 15 times more than his native Venice” and had ten marketplaces, each half a mile long, where 40,000 to 50,000 people would go to shop on any given day, and 10,000 bridges (a later traveler could only find 347). There were also numerous restaurants, a "great quantity of rich palaces" and bathhouses with hot or cold water baths, where "a hundred men or a hundred women can well bathe". [Source: National Geographic, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Marco Polo statue in Hangzhou

According to Marco Polo: “When you have left the city of Changan and have travelled for three days through a splendid country, passing a number of towns and villages, you arrive at the most noble city of Kinsay [Hangzhou], a name which is as much as to say in our tongue “The City of Heaven,” as I told you before. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVI: Description of the Great City of Kinsay, Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi” and “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVII: Further Particulars Concerning the Great City of Kinsay,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. The excerpted text is from pages 179-180, 182, and 190-191 of this online text /]

“And since we have got thither I will enter into particulars about its magnificence; and these are well worth the telling, for the city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world.... First and foremost, then, [the city of Kinsay is] so great that it hath an hundred miles of compass. And there are in it twelve thousand bridges of stone, for the most part so lofty that a great fleet could pass beneath them. And let no man marvel that there are so many bridges, for you see the whole city stands as it were in the water and surrounded by water, so that a great many bridges are required to give free passage about it. /

“All the streets of the city are paved with stone or brick, as indeed are all the highways throughout Manzi, so that you ride and travel in every direction without inconvenience. Were it not for this pavement you could not do so, for the country is very low and flat, and after rain ’tis deep in mire and water. /

“You must know also that the city of Kinsay has some 3000 baths, the water of which is supplied by springs. They are hot baths, and the people take great delight in them, frequenting them several times a month, for they are very cleanly in their persons. They are the finest and largest baths in the world; large enough for 100 persons to bathe together...At the opposite side the city is shut in by a channel, perhaps 40 miles in length, very wide, and full of water derived from the river aforesaid, which was made by the ancient kings of the country in order to relieve the river when flooding its banks. This serves also as a defence to the city, and the earth dug from it has been thrown inwards, forming a kind of mound enclosing the city.” /

Marco Polo on Hangzhou Markets

cart repair in the Qingming Festival market

According to Marco Polo: In this part are the ten principal markets, though besides these there are a vast number of others in the different parts of the town. The former are all squares of half a mile to the side, and along their front passes the main street, which is 40 paces in width, and runs straight from end to end of the city, crossing many bridges of easy and commodious approach. At every four miles of its length comes one of those great squares of 2 miles (as we have mentioned) in compass. So also parallel to this great street, but at the back of the market places, there runs a very large canal, on the bank of which towards the squares are built great houses of stone, in which the merchants from India and other foreign parts store their wares, to be handy for the markets. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVI: Description of the Great City of Kinsay, Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi” and “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVII: Further Particulars Concerning the Great City of Kinsay,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. The excerpted text is from pages 179-180, 182, and 190-191 of this online text./]

“In each of the squares is held a market three days in the week, frequented by 40,000 or 50,000 persons, who bring thither for sale every possible necessary of life, so that there is always an ample supply of every kind of meat and game, as of roebuck, red-deer, fallow-deer, hares, rabbits, partridges, pheasants, francolins, quails, fowls, capons, and of ducks and geese an infinite quantity; for so many are bred on the Lake that for a Venice groat of silver you can have a couple of geese and two couple of ducks. Then there are the shambles where the larger animals are slaughtered, such as calves, beeves, kids, and lambs, the flesh of which is eaten by the rich and the great dignitaries. /

“Those markets make a daily display of every kind of vegetables and fruits; and among the latter there are in particular certain pears of enormous size, weighing as much as ten pounds apiece, and the pulp of which is white and fragrant like a confection; besides peaches in their season both yellow and white, of every delicate flavour. Neither grapes nor wine are produced there, but very good raisins are brought from abroad, and wine likewise. The natives, however, do not much are about wine, being used to that kind of their own made from rice and spices. /

“From the Ocean Sea also come daily supplies of fish in great quantity, brought 25 miles up the river, and there is also great store of fish from the lake, which is the constant resort of fishermen, who have no other business. Their fish is of sundry kinds, changing with the season; and, owing to the impurities of the city which pass into the lake, it is remarkably fat and savoury. Any one who should see the supply of fish in the market would suppose it impossible that such a quantity could ever be sold; and yet in a few hours the whole shall be cleared away; so great is the number of inhabitants who are accustomed to delicate living. Indeed they eat fish and flesh at the same meal.All the ten market places are encompassed by lofty houses, and below these are shops where all sorts of crafts are carried on, and all sorts of wares are on sale, including spices and jewels and pearls. Some of these shops are entirely devoted to the sale of wine made from rice and spices, which is constantly made fresh and fresh, and is sold very cheap.” /

Transportation in the Song Dynasty

Sedan chair

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ As the economy became more commercialized, the need for transport grew. In the scroll, we see goods carried in backpacks, larger wheelbarrows, wagons, and on donkeys and camels. Camels carried goods from Inner Asia or further west across large desserts. Water transport, however, has always been far cheaper than going over land. The South, with its many rivers and waterways, had an advantage in this respect, but northern cities, too, were served by water transport, often canals. The Grand Canal linked the North to the Yangzi River region. One section of the Beijing qingming scroll shows men unloading bales of grain from a river boat, as a merchant, seated, directs them. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Marco Polo was amazed at the boat traffic on the Yangtze River. He claimed to have seen no fewer than 15,000 vessels at one city on the river, and said other towns had even more: You must know that when you leave the city of Yanju, after going 15 miles south-east, you come to a city called SINJU, of no great size, but possessing a very great amount of shipping and trade.... And you must know that this city stands on the greatest river in the world, the name of which is KIAN [Yangzi].... This it is that brings so much trade to the city we are speaking of; for on the waters of that river merchandize is perpetually coming and going, from and to the various parts of the world, enriching the city, and bringing a great revenue to the Great Kaan. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXI: Concerning the City of Sinju and the Great River Kian,” in “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Chapter LXXI begins on page 167 of this online text /]

“And I assure you this river flows so far and traverses so many countries and cities that in good sooth there pass and repass on its waters a great number of vessels, and more wealth and merchandize than on all the rivers and all the seas of Christendom put together! It seems indeed more like a Sea than a River. Messer Marco Polo said that he once beheld at that city 15,000 vessels at one time. And you may judge, if this city, of no great size, has such a number, how many must there be altogether, considering that on the banks of this river there are more than sixteen provinces and more than 200 great cities, besides towns and villages, all possessing vessels?” /

Bridges and Pagodas in the Song Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “As in earlier cities, the highest structure in Kaifeng, the Northern Song’s capital, was a pagoda.” Pagodas dominated the skyline of many cities during the Song dynasty, as they had in the Tang dynasty. Like the spires of Europe’s cathedrals and churches, the city pagoda was often the first thing the traveler would see as he approached a city or town. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

According to “Youguo Temple Iron Pagoda in Kaifeng of Henan Province is also known as the Iron Pagoda in Kaifeng. Actually it is not made of iron, but of red, brown, blue and green glazed bricks. As the main hue is reddish brown, the pagoda looks like iron from afar and has thus been called the Iron Pagoda for hundreds of years. The pagoda is located in the northeastern corner of Kaifeng. The predecessor of the Iron Pagoda was a huge octagonal, thirteen-storeyed wooden pagoda called Lingwei. It was once very famous, but for a very short time. In 1044 during the Northern Song Dynasty the wooden pagoda was struck by lightning and burnt down. Five years after the wooden pagoda was burnt down, the emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty ordered another one built on the same site. This time it was built of fire-resistant glazed bricks that remain today. It has been almost one thousand years since the pagoda was rebuilt, but it remains firm despite fierce winds, torrential rains and earthquakes. In 1841 the Yellow River overflowed and the city of Kaifeng was flooded. The thousand-year- old temple collapsed in the flood, but the towering pagoda survived and stood firm. [Source: ***]

boats and shops

“The thirteen-storey brick structure, modeled after wooden counterparts, is 54.66 meters high. The glazed bricks are lined with ordinary bricks. The doors, windows, pillars, brackets, bracket supports, pent roofs and balconies on the pagoda's exterior are all modeled after wooden ones and pieced together from twenty-eight standard brick components. The outer walls, comer pillars, doors, windows and bracket supports are all composed of glazed bricks of various colors. Carved on these component parts are more than fifty ornamental designs, including images of Buddha, bodhisattvas, flying apsarases, heavenly kings, celestial guards, lions, unicorns, musicians, peony and lotus flowers and figurines, making the pagoda the oldest and largest artifact of glazed bricks and tiles in China.Under the main body is a high stone Sumeru pedestal that has been buried by mud because of frequent flooding by the overflowing Yellow River. The present pagoda has doors on four sides, but people can approach the pagoda only by the steps on the north side.” *** [Images: Kaifeng, pagode de fer (Kaifeng Iron Pagoda), Jacques-Edouard Berger Foundation: World Art Treasures Slide Library, has many detailed images of the Kaifeng “Iron Pagoda.”

“Rainbow” bridges, such as the one that occupies the dramatic center of the Beijing “Qingming” scroll, are so called because of the way in which the bridge arches, resembling a rainbow. The bridge pictured in the scroll is an elaborate wooden bridge that spans the river and offers room for peddlers to show their wares to the pedestrians crossing from one side of the river to the other. The technology of the bridge is impressive. In Song times one observer remarked that the bridge had no piers, but rather spanned the river using giant timbers curved like a rainbow. What keeps the bridge up is a series of interlocking horizontal and cantilevered beams.” [ Secrets of Lost Empires: China Bridge a 2000 PBS program documented the “effort by a NOVA-assembled crew of scholars and timber framers to design and build a Chinese bridge known only from an ancient painting [the Beijing qingming scroll].”

Song Dynasty Household Objects

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Southern Song enjoyed great economic prosperity. Their bustling, flourishing towns provided comfort and convenience; their everyday life was full of elegant delights. Incense burning, flower arranging, tea brewing, and paintings hanging — the so-called Four Arts of Life were practiced by all walks of life. A Southern Song lady's vanity cases, wardrobe, and jewelry spoke of ultimate fashion and fine workmanship. Either large banquets or family gatherings were served in fine table services of gold and silver with exquisite carvings and elaborate motifs. Articles at once utilitarian and creative graced gentlemen's studies and appealed to their aesthetic taste. As jade was scarce, miniature carvings made of smallest available pieces as thin as fingertips exhibited marvelous form and innate essence. The Southern Song connoisseur did not seek conspicuous exaggeration; rather he appreciated sudden realization, after attentive contemplation, of subtle beauty that was in the details. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

National Palace Museum, Taipei description of a jade water dish in the shape of a lotus leaf with turtle décor, Southern Song to Yuan dynasties: “The texture of this water dish vessel is clear and transparent, and an entire piece of jade is used to carve out a large lotus leaf and the small lotus leaf by it. The edge of the lotus leaves curl up slightly, and the veins are finely carved out in intaglio. At center of each lotus leaf stands a turtle, gazing at each other. Legend has it that thousand-year-old turtles would stand on lotus leaves, and therefore symbolize longevity of life. The interlinked water plants under the lotus leaf are not only delicately carved decorations but also serve the functions of supporting and enabling lifting of the vessel, further enriching and enlivening the overall design. Another jade brush wash vessel with a lotus leaf theme that is unearthed from the Southern Song ancestral grave of Shi Sheng in Quzhou. \=/

“Water dish vessels are used by the literati to hold water for dampening or washing of writing brushes. These vessels are usually placed by the ink stone and are a necessary piece of desk stationery. Intellectual pursuits being so popular during the Song Dynasty, brush wash vessels were naturally fashionable items at the time, not only a practical writing implement but also a work of art for appreciation. Just imagine: as the literati fill this vessel with water, the two turtles would appear as if swimming in the water, playing amongst the lotus leaves; when the brush is washed in the vessel, the ink would flow between the lotus leaves, the black ink perfectly counter-balancing the delicate, green-white jade leaves, adding to the natural interest of the piece.


National Palace Museum, Taipei description of a silver-gilt cup and saucer with a story scene, Southern Song dynasty, 1127-1279 Excavated from the cache of Gu County, collection of Shaowu Museum, Fujian: “This octagonal cup has a matching tray. The silver cup is gold-plated, the combination of silver and gold giving the impression of extravagance. Silver and gold wine-drinking vessels were important to the Southern Song people, whether in large banquets or just a couple of friends having a drink. On the inner base of this silver cup is etched the lyrics to "Ta Sha Xing", which mentioned that being awarded top position in an imperial examination is like climbing a long ladder or a magical cinnamon tree, taking one right to the clouds; not only would one gain the admiration of others, one might also win an excellent marriage. The lyrics to this song vividly portray the scene and joyous atmosphere of a person receiving the top position in an imperial examination. \=/

“The spaces separated by the eight sides of the cup also depict in turn the examination results notice, the messenger, climbing the long ladder, climbing the cinnamon branches, and riding a horse across town – all scenes from the song. The tray depicts well-dressed characters in a garden; there is a pond in the center, and a dragon and phoenix soar in the sky, earnestly depicting the longing of the Southern Song people to win an official position and begin a governmental career through the imperial examination system. \=/

Image Sources: Kaifeng, Brooklyn College; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.