Cities Alive
urban life in the capital of China

Set B, Module 4: Cities Alive
by Ryan Bradeen, 2002
designed for students of world history, geography and Asian studies at the secondary level and beyond.
Estimated project time: 2 days


Thus far in this unit, you have examined cities from above, from city plans and maps. These documents are empty of people. But cities are, before anything else, places where thousands and millions of people live, work, raise families and die. In this activity you will fill our images of ancient China's cities with people. You will examine paintings and documents from two of China's imperial capitals which describe the everyday life of people in those cities. You will observe the rhythm of their lives and compare them to your own. You will:

  • use artwork as primary sources;
  • deduce and sythesize historical data from several types of primary sources;
  • compare urban life today with urban life in the capitals of imperial China.

capital of the Northern Sung Dynasty (960- 1127 CE)

"Kaifeng (map), which had been a political and administrative center since [500 BCE], was originally walled. "By reason of its strategic location in the midst of the North China Plain and its access to converient water transport, it grew in importance as Tang power ebbed..." Chu Wen, the general who toppled the Tang dynasty in 907 CE, established his capital in Kaifeng to replace Chang'an. It later became the capital of the Sung dynasty.

aing ming scroll"Kaifeng was the first Chinese capital that was basically a 'natural' city. It drew rich revenues from the south and east, but it was also a bustling industrial and commercial center located at a key point in the burgeoning internal commerce of Sung times...Kaifeng became a multi-functional urban center, quite possibly unsurpassed by any metropolis in the world before the 19th century. Shops invaded every corner of the city, and trading went on day and night. Huge cargo vessels...sailed into the heart of the city on numerous waterways.

The unplanned and utilitarian character of [Kaifeng] was appropriate [for the capital of Sung China. Unlike the Tang] there was no longer glory in overwhelming military power and expanded frontiers; instead within narrowed frontiers China bent her efforts to maintain nearly twice the population. Life involved continuous and intense competition in every realm." - Wright 60

Qing Ming Festival at Kaifeng

Qing ming scrollOne of the most important paintings in Chinese art depicts the urban life of Kaifeng during the Northern Sung period (960 -1127 CE). The long water color landscape scroll on silk entitled, "Upper River during Qing Ming Festival" was created by the royal artist Zhang Zeduan. The painting vividly depicts the festival of Qing Ming in Kaifeng. Zhang was from the school of realism, and so the painting has minute detail of the life of the city on the day.

"The scroll starts with a depiction of people paying respects at the gravesite outside the city. From this simple beginning, the painting reveals life in the city from busy commercial scenes to life on the river. There are sedans, mules and camels, carts and yolks – indeed all forms of transportation for both people and goods. There are shops, temples, stalls and houses, restaurants and teahouses. Merchant ships, coasters and tugs. Shoppers, merchants, coolies and traders. In short everything and everyone.

What is particularly staggering about this painting is its scale. There are some 1,643 people shown, 208 animals, 20 ships and more than 30 buildings – all in detail. It is a priceless record of the ordinary life of the people of the time, showing the full range of social backgrounds. "Upper River during Qing Ming Festival" is not just a scenic landscape but a historical snapshot of the people and society at that time." (from Chinatown-online)

Examine the scroll for yourself and see people filling the streets of Kaifeng. The included viewing guide will help focus your attention onto this massive and impressive work of art.

capital of the Southern Sung (1127-1276 CE)

daily lifeUpon the defeat of the Northern Sung by nomadic invaders, the Chinese empire and its capital moved south of the Yangtze River. Hangzhou (map) was initially perceived as a bad location for the capital. "It is narrow, crowded and noisy...a mean little place, lost in a corner of the empire and most unworthy of becoming a capital." But further defeats in the north made it capital by necessity.

"The town had begun like others on the southeast coast, as a fort. In Han times it was a fortified outpost in a semibarbarian region. The land was low and subject to flooding by high tides until...a dike was built to control the tides and a lake created behind the town...The town grew into a thriving commericial centre after it became the terminus of the...Grand Canal." -Wright 64

Accounts of life in the city have survived. They tell us a great deal about the life of the average person in China's capital when it was the wealthiest city in the world. Read these accounts to get descriptions of the same type of scenes you saw painted in the Qing Ming scroll.

Imagine that you were preparing to create a Qing Ming type scroll of your own modern community. Based upon what you have seen in the scroll and read in the accounts, create a list of the types of people, places and things that would appear in your scroll painting.

    • Identify the location that you would depict.
      The Qing Ming artist couldn't show the entire city. He had to chose a particular part of his community that was representative of the city. Choose one part of your community that captures the broadest cross-section of your community;
    • Identify the time of year you would depict.
      Again the Qing Ming artist had to chose a special time of year that would bring the most people out on to the streets;
    • List at least ten types of occupations who you would depict in your scroll. Pick three and describe how you would indicate their profession;
    • List at least five types of buildings that you would include;
    • List at least five objects that you would include;
    • Write a description of three types of stores;
    • Describe at least three ways in which the scenes of Hangzhou and Kaifeng are similar to the scenes you would paint of your community.

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