北宋 Northern Song Dynasty

960-1127

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

 
First Emperor of the Song Dynasty - Emperor Song Taizu (宋太祖赵匡胤, 960-976).  [Public Domain]

First Emperor of the Song Dynasty - Emperor Song Taizu (宋太祖赵匡胤, 960-976). [Public Domain]

The Northern Song Dynasty was a time during which Chinese culture was granted large importance but military was given little emphasis. The relatively weak military of the Northern Song was unable to properly keep the Silk Road in check so that merchants could travel safely; with the predominant land route losing traction, trading between China and Central Asia took place mostly on sea routes, via the Indian Ocean, reaching China’s Southern seaports such as Ningbo (宁波). 

While Tang had its capital in Xi’an which was at the terminus of the Silk Road, the Song government moved its capital 550 kilometres eastward, to the city of Kaifeng due to its geographical proximity to the Yellow River. The Grand Canal (大运河) helped to transport goods from China’s Southern seaports to Kaifeng. Since China’s main rice fields and silk production facilities were all in the South, the canal played a significant role in facilitating domestic trade and tax collection. Soon, Kaifeng flourished. Kaifeng, being the capital of China, could be argued to have been the most important city in the world at the time, given the immenseness of the Chinese empire.

Parts of the Qingming Shanghe Tu (清明上河图), a Song dynasty artwork depicting life in the bustling city of Kaifeng. It is the most renowned of all Chinese paintings, holding the status equivalent to Mona Lisa of the West in China. Original scroll measured 24.8 x 528 cm, capturing the daily life of over 500 people.  [Public Domain]

Parts of the Qingming Shanghe Tu (清明上河图), a Song dynasty artwork depicting life in the bustling city of Kaifeng. It is the most renowned of all Chinese paintings, holding the status equivalent to Mona Lisa of the West in China. Original scroll measured 24.8 x 528 cm, capturing the daily life of over 500 people. [Public Domain]

The political atmosphere in the west during this period was dominated by the Christian Crusades, targeted at recovering the Holy Land from the Muslims. When the Crusaders recaptured Jerusalem in 1099, they ruthlessly slaughtered Muslim residents; Jewish communities in the vicinity were caught in the commotion and had a choice between surrendering and facing their untimely death. Many Jews fled instead and made their way to China.

During the early part of the Song Dynasty, the conservative elite of China wore clothes made of silk; however, silk was extremely difficult to produce and expensive – especially given the demand for silk from aboard – and therefore inaccessible to a majority of Chinese citizens. The less wealthy wore clothing made of hemp, a rough fabric, particularly uncomfortable during the summer, due to its insulating properties. The use of cotton gained traction during this dynasty, as it combined the comfortable properties of silk and the easy production of hemp. 

 Since many Jewish merchants at the time specialised in trading cotton produced in India and Pakistan, plenty of traders settled down in China while bringing cotton to the far east, thus becoming another wave of Jewish immigrants arriving in China. Indeed, given that Kaifeng was the capital of China at the time, most of the traders would end up finding their way there.

 In 998, the Kaifeng Jews presented Emperor Song Zhenzhong (宋真宗赵德昌, 997-1022) a multi-hued cotton as a tribute. Emperor Zhenzhong was greatly pleased and in response bestowed 12 blessed words to the entire Kaifeng Jewish community:归我中夏,遵守祖风,留遗汴梁 (Be a part of our country, practice your traditions, and live in Kaifeng).