The city of Kaifeng (开封市) is located 10 kilometers south of the renowned Yellow River (黄河), the second longest river in China (second only to the Yangtze River) as well as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Covering much of the heartland of the Middle Kingdom, spanning all the way from Qinghai province (青海省) to Shandong province (山东省), the Yellow River facilitates trade on a large scale.
Hence, by the turn of the Song Dynasty (宋朝), Kaifeng was already a bustling hub of commerce and therefore chosen to be the capital of China. The extensive trade made Kaifeng not only the economic powerhouse of China, but arguably of the entire world, given the vastness of the Middle Kingdom at the time. The economic prosperity brought with it political stability as well as a golden age, as the city flourished in terms of arts, music, culture, and philosophy.
Although Kaifeng, in the 21stcentury, is relatively unheard of, especially to the western countries, rest assured that its position as the capital of Northern Song – as well as six other feudalist dynasties – has earned it a place on the shelf. Along with Beijing (北京), Xi’an (西安), Nanjing (南京), Luoyang (洛阳), and Hangzhou (杭州), Kaifeng is one of the ‘six great capitals’ of China.
However, Kaifeng’s proximity to the Yellow River brought to it more than just prosperous civilizations; along with people and settlements the Yellow River brought to Kaifeng floods – quite frequently, in fact. Throughout China’s 4,000-year history over 1,000 major floods that brought cities to their knees have been recorded, and a large fraction, albeit unknown, took place in Henan province, where Kaifeng is located.
It might be mentioned that there were in fact benefits brought to Kaifeng by the flooding, such as a need for advancements. The potential of a flood meant that governments had to become more systematic, insofar as planning defensive mechanisms to combat the floods. However, Kaifeng did still suffer much devastation, most notable being the 1642 Yellow River Flood.
In more recent history, Kaifeng has, however, become less suitable a place to house anything of large significance. The advancements in architecture has brought China out of the wood & bricks phase of short-term structures, and into the steel and concrete phase of modern skyscrapers. In the past, to rebuild houses and buildings destroyed by the Yellow River was an endeavour that was neither financially draining nor overly time-consuming; however, now, a major flood could leave a city like Kaifeng with billions of dollars’ worth of destruction. Moreover, China’s increased level of international maritime trade and improved railways and roads means that incentive to locate a city right by a river bank has fallen, for there are many locations much more efficient and less damage-prone.
As such, in 1954, the newly established People’s Republic of China made the decision to move the provincial capital of Henan province from Kaifeng to Zhengzhou city. Subsequently, Zhengzhou became the heart of northern China’s railway transportation system and an economically dominant powerhouse in many aspects. Today, Kaifeng in almost all aspects falls short to its more prosperous neighbour Zhengzhou.
If you make the (unlikely) decision to take a trip to the once renowned city of Kaifeng, you will find a flat, smog-covered town with minimum industrial outputs. The friends you will make there will likely be in their later stages of life, as most young people in Kaifeng, seeking potential job opportunities, have left for larger cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and, of course, Zhengzhou.