Old Version

Abridged History

Ongoing excavations of the once-lost Zhouqiao Bridge reveal the former opulence of the Northern Song Dynasty capital – and the mysteries it still holds

By Ni Wei Updated Apr.1

View of the excavation site of Zhouqiao Bridge in downtown Kaifeng, Henan Province (Photo Courtesy of the Institute of Heritage and Archeology of Kaifeng)

Throughout Chinese history, the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) has been known as a pinnacle of prosperity and culture. The famed painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Song painter Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145), gives a panoramic view of the lively street scenes of the dynasty’s capital Dongjing, present-day Kaifeng in Henan Province.  

Dongjing’s landmark was Zhouqiao Bridge. Built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the bridge crossed the Bian River, a section of the Grand Canal that connected the empire’s north and south. The bridge was on “Imperial Street,” the capital’s north-south axis, its vicinity the city’s most flourishing and bustling business district.  

The bridge was prominent in Song poetry and prose. Wang Anshi (1021-1086), an influential politician, thinker and one of the greatest literati in ancient China, described a beautiful moonlit scene in his poem “On Zhouqiao Bridge”:  

“Once I walked on the Zhouqiao Bridge under the moonlight, while my mind wandered back to Zhongshan Mountain in Nanjing / The rapid wail of the running mountain spring seemed so close to my ears / This night on Zhongshan Mountain I walked, listening to the sobbing spring / I looked up to the mountain moon, and my thoughts traced back to that quiet evening on the Zhouqiao Bridge.”  

The bridge not only witnessed the dynasty’s splendor but also its fall. In 1127, a Jurchen-led army captured the Northern Song capital. The Jurchen, a semi-nomadic people from the Siberian steppes, founded the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). The Song court fled south to Hangzhou, where it continued to rule for another 150 years as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). ��
Southern Song poet Fan Chengda also wrote a poem called “On Zhouqiao Bridge,” where he mourned the fallen Northern Song:  

“The thoroughfare of the lost capital runs north and south of Zhouqiao Bridge / Year in, year out, the elders there long for the emperor’s return / Choked in sobs and in a hoarse voice, with the envoys they plead: / When shall we see the arrival of our armies?”  

The bridge was renovated after the fall of the Northern Song. However, the Bian River, a manmade canal that connects to the Yellow River, had accumulated silt after years of floods – capped off in 1642 when Ming Dynasty troops flooded the city, inundating and burying the Bian River canal and Zhouqiao Bridge.  

A small corner of the bridge was discovered in 1984, but excavation did not continue. In 2014, UNESCO listed China’s Grand Canal waterway system as a world heritage site, which prompted the unearthing of the Bian River ruins. Officially launched in 2018, the project began with excavations of the ancient rivers. Work on the bridge began in March 2020. On September 28, 2022, the National Cultural Heritage Administration announced that excavations of Zhouqiao Bridge were complete. 

Chiseled Looks 
What surprised archeologists most was the enormous and exquisitely carved stone mural along the Bian River’s banks to the bridge’s east.  

They include clusters of clouds, among which gallop three winged horses with antlers, their manes and tails gracefully blowing in the wind. Around them fly cranes, their wings spread among the clouds. The carvings are 3.3 meters high and 25 meters long – a giant stone scroll of celestial beauty.  

The carvings were recorded in The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor, the memoirs of Meng Yuanlao (c.1090- 1150). “The bridge’s pillars were made of blue stone; the embankments were covered with murals that depicted marine horses, oceanic beasts and auspicious clouds.” Written in his 60s, Meng described every facet of court and daily life in the lost capital, along with its architecture, economy, customs, rituals and rites.  

Scholars debate whether the winged horses on the murals are celestial or marine beasts. Liu Qingzhu, former director of the Institute of Archeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told NewsChina that Zhouqiao Bridge, on Imperial Street, was made for the emperor to cross. It is more likely that artisans carved celestial horses and heavenly scenes to represent the emperor, whose reign was mandated by heaven.  

Although the carvings remain as they appeared in the Northern Song, much of Zhouqiao Bridge was renovated according to Ming Dynasty designs.  

The unearthed bridge has a single arch, its concourse measuring 30 meters wide and 26.5 meters long. Large vessels could pass below. The original Northern Song bridge was much lower, with enough clearance for small boats.  

Wang Sanying, director of the Institute of Heritage and Archeology of Kaifeng told NewsChina: “When the bridge was unearthed, we were disappointed to discover that it was a Ming Dynasty renovation. But we were extremely delighted, as the murals were Song Dynasty originals.”  

If they had been completed on the bridge’s west side, experts estimate the total length of the stone murals would have stretched about 100 meters and covered 300 square meters.  

The Northern Song was a pinnacle of Chinese sculpture. Archeologists note similarity in style and technique to the Zhouqiao Bridge murals with those found on animal sculptures at the Song Imperial Mausoleums in Gongyi, Henan Province. The same artisans likely made the bridge murals.  

Wang told NewsChina the Zhouqiao Bridge carvings are by far the largest of their kind from the Northern Song, made with the most advanced techniques of their time. 

Axis of Emperors 
Around the bridge, watercourse and river banks, archeologists also found the remains of nearly 100 houses, tombs, wells and pits, and around 50,000 ceramic shards, along with another 10,000 pieces that include copper coins and wares made from iron, jade, bone and glass.  

Archaeologists also unearthed large quantities of human remains, mostly scattered inside the silt deposits created by the great deluge in 1642 – evidence that they died in the flood.  

Although the stone murals are the most exciting find so far, Liu Qingzhu argued that the excavation’s contributions to research into the former Northern Song capital are more significant.  

Zhouqiao Bridge and the Bian River ruins verify that Imperial Street was the ancient capital’s central axis. Most dynastic capitals had a north-south axis, and a bridge on it usually separated social classes.  

“Why is the Gold Water Bridge at the top of Tiananmen Square in Beijing? The design informs people that across it is the imperial palace, while the world of the common people is on the other side. It demarcates this boundary. In ancient times, this architecture was a manifestation of order and ritual,” Liu said, citing similar examples in other former dynasty capitals, as seen in modern-day Luoyang in Henan and Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.  

“Similarly, Zhouqiao Bridge was not merely a bridge, but a significant architectural symbol that embodied the order and rituals of the capital,” Liu told NewsChina.  

The Zhouqiao Bridge ruins are at the mid-point of Zhongshan Road, the central axis of today’s Kaifeng. For years, vehicles would have to detour around the excavation project. In October 2022, the municipal government ordered the preservation of Zhouqiao Bridge and the construction of a museum and heritage park above it. New roads to bypass the ruins are now in the works.  

“This plan was met with lots of opposition,” Wang Sanying said. “Many people believe that a city’s axis is a main road for transportation that should not be severed. But, in ancient times, the city axis was of greater political and cultural significance than traffic.” 

Water Under the Bridge 
The Bian River determined the rise and fall of ancient Kaifeng.  

After the completion of the Grand Canal during the late Sui Dynasty (581-618), the Bian River boosted the development of Kaifeng (then called Bianzhou). During the Tang (618- 907) and the following Five Dynasties (907-960), the boom in canal transport boosted the city’s importance. During the Northern Song (when it was called Dongjing), one-third of the water of the Yellow River was diverted to the Bian River canals. With a population of nearly 1.2 million, the capital became the most prosperous city of the dynasty.  

In 1194, after the collapse of the Northern Song, the Yellow River’s course moved closer to central Kaifeng. The years that followed saw constant floods and wars. In 1642, instead of surrendering to the peasant rebel army led by Li Zicheng, Ming troops stationed in Kaifeng destroyed it. They tore down the levees on the Yellow River that created the Bian, and the resulting floods instantly consumed the city, killing hundreds of thousands of people and completely filling the Bian River with silt and earth.  

Centuries of sediment have made the excavation difficult. Between 3-14 meters below the surface of present-day Kaifeng, experts discovered the remains of six historic cities built on top of one another over two millennia: Kaifeng of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Kaifeng of the Ming, Bianjing of the Jin, Dongjing of the Northern Song, Bianzhou in the Tang and Daliang during the Warring States period (476-221 BCE). They found the ruins of Dongjing 10 meters below the surface. These layers, formed by centuries of floods, make Kaifeng unique among ancient city sites in China.  

The toughest part of the excavations was dealing with groundwater issues. “Often, water seeped out as soon as we dug about one or two meters deep, which prevented us from continuing,” Wang Sanying told NewsChina, explaining why the project was slow-moving compared to excavations of ancient capitals such as Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) and Luoyang. 

But as the water table in North China dropped over the past decade because of municipal construction projects, archeological excavation could continue. Archeologists dug down nine meters before reaching water. Pumps allowed them to reach 13.5 meters below the surface.  

Many mysteries about this enigmatic city are yet to be solved. Wang told NewsChina there has never been an attempt to excavate the Northern Song imperial palace, which experts believe is buried beneath the city’s Longting Lake – perhaps a tremendous challenge for future archaeologists.

A section of the Zhouqiao Bridge relief (Photo Courtesy of the Institute of Heritage and Archeology of Kaifeng)