Relive the era of the Song Dynasty in Kaifeng, Henan Province

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/25 5:03:40

A view of Millennium City Park in Kaifeng, Central China's Henan Province Photo: VCG

When talking about Kaifeng, the first name that always comes to my mind is Justice Bao, or Bao Zheng, the legendary Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) magistrate of the city.

One of the most popular Chinese songs celebrating the beloved official is the theme song to the 1993 Chinese TV series Justice Bao. Its first line goes:

There is a Justice Bao in Kaifeng;

He is just and upright;

And can tell good from bad…

The series and its sequels were nationwide hits in the 1990s. Nearly every kid in China was familiar with this dark-skinned guy with a crescent-shaped scar on his forehead who was capable of detecting all forms of wrongdoing, from homicide to even truancy.

Aside from Bao, the city was also home to historical figures including patriotic generals from the Yang family and Wei Dynasty (220-265) poet Ruan Ji, a member of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Groves - a famous group of unconventional artists and writers. Legends and stories surrounding these figures still serve as a great inspiration for local Yu Opera today.

At the beginning of May, I had the chance to explore more about these legends myself when I visited the city during the Labor Day holiday.

Looking at the traditional-style residences as well as the trees and cars covered in a thick layer of dust as they flashed past the bus window, I immediately felt the historical atmosphere that surrounded Kaifang, a city that once served as the imperial capital for seven ancient Chinese regimes starting as early as 2,700 years ago.

Meeting 'Justice Bao'

To fulfill my childhood dreams about Justice Bao, I headed to the ancient Kaifeng City Hall - the feudal government office where Bao once worked - for my trip's first stop.

The current Kaifeng City Hall, rebuilt in 2003 upon the ruins of the old one, has become one of the city's five-star tourist attractions bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors from home and abroad every year.

The front gate to this red-walled, square traditional building is flanked by two fierce-looking stone lions. Walking through the gate, I was immediately transported back a thousand years, to a time when Kaifeng was one of the largest and most developed cities in the world.

I arrived there just in time to catch the gate-opening ceremony that kicks off at nine every morning. A team of actors dressed up as ancient guards walked out of the gate, waving whips, beating gongs and holding up flags and banners featuring Chinese characters that warned onlookers to keep clear and remain silent as the governor entered the building to start his day.

The admission fee is around 60 yuan ($9.40) and as an added bonus you can take a picture with "Justice Bao" himself after the performance - the actor is often more than happy to take a shot with tourists for free.

If you're not interested in watching the performance, you can go wander around the nearby lake. Named after Bao, the lake also numbers among the city's hottest tourist spots.

I strongly recommend exploring the site's main hall as soon as the door-opening performance is over, because it gets crowded very quickly as visitors rush in to see the three executioner's swords that are stored in three animal-shaped sword holders that have been placed at the center of the main hall. First-class instruments of execution during Bao's time as governor, they remain the most popular must-see items at the site.

Aside from these ghastly tools of execution, there are also numerous examples of ancient Chinese interrogation instruments on display in the site's cell area. For anyone who is interested in learning about ancient Chinese jails and means of interrogation, especially those used during the Song Dynasty, this is a place you should not miss.

The past restored

Walking out of Kaifeng City Hall, my next stop was Millennium City Park, a huge local theme park built according to the famous Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, a legendary painting scroll that depicts the people living in the Northern Song capital of Bianjing, the name by which Kaifeng went by at the time.

Many of the buildings in the park were designed to look exactly like those depicted in the scroll. Decorated with ancient street banners, the park's pathways are dotted with small snack stalls. Park workers clad in Song-era clothing can be seen walking around the park, peddling snacks, guiding visitors and taking part in numerous live performances.

Some people might think new buildings look a bit too fake to convincingly pass as an old royal city with a rich history. That was also my first impression, but the truth is that many of Kaifeng's popular tourist sites that can be seen today were actually built within the past few decades. 

It was not until some of my local friends told me more about the city's history that I started to see things in a different light.

The city, sitting some 10 meters lower than the Yellow River, has suffered from flooding since ancient times, as such many of its historical sites have been destroyed by floods over the centuries. Archaeologists have found abundant remains of cities from a total of six dynasties that were built one upon the other - something rarely seen around the world.

A city that continues to stand back up after severe natural disasters is certainly worthy of our respect.

After learning about this, I looked at things differently as I toured around the park. It made me a bit sad to think of all the hidden history that people would probably never see that lay under the roads that I was walking on.

It is just not the best way of how the city's thousand-year-old history should be remembered.

Besides historical buildings, the park also boasts a fully-packed nighttime schedule that includes a 70-minute outdoor performance. Combining songs, dancing and a laser light show, the performance held on the park's giant artificial lake every night involves a team of 700 performers. 

If you would like to visit some places that have an even longer history, I recommend heading to Longting Park, which is located several kilometers away from the Millennium City Park. The park is a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) site built upon remains of royal palaces of the Northern Song and Jin dynasties.

For the hardcore fans of the Generals of the Yang Family - probably one of the most well known group of tragic heroes in Chinese history - Tianbo Fu, the place where the family lived, is a place you must visit. Rebuilt in 1994, the site is not far away from Longting Park.

Local food

If you want to grab some local cuisine after a tiring day of touring around the city, I recommend you try the famous Hu La Tang, a kind of spicy soup mixed with pepper, sliced dough and beef or mutton.

The soup base is made by boiling sheep bones for several hours. The rich flavor produced is strengthened by the addition of chili peppers. For many who try it for the first time, Hu Lang Tang is definitely a fresh new and exciting experience for their taste buds.

Another delicacy that the city is famous for is its steamed buns stuffed with mutton or beef.  Almost the size a person's palm, the smell of the stuffing is so rich that you can smell it even before you rip the bun open.

For other local snacks, I suggest heading to Gulou Street, which is located in the city center. Make sure you go there at night as the market doesn't open until dusk. Once there, you will find numerous food stalls alongside the street, which is decorated with traditional Chinese red lanterns. Peanut cakes, soybean jelly and huimian, a type of boiled noodles, are among the most popular choices.

Rules of Thumb

Getting there: There are shuttle buses from the Kaifeng Train Station to the city's major tourist attractions, but normally they don't depart until the bus is full. If you don't want to waste your time waiting for one, you may want to take a cab instead.

Where to stay: There are abundant choices of comfortable hotels around the city center. If you would like to experience a night's stay at a traditional Song Dynasty-style residence, you can easily find one near Gulou Street.
Newspaper headline: Ancient capital


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