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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Local Histories of the Yellow River
2: The Yellow River, the Bian Canal, and Kaifeng under Jurchen Rule
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Yale University, United States
In 1128, one year after the fall of the Song capital Kaifeng to the Jurchen Jin army, the Song loyalists remaining in North China breached the Yellow River dike to attack the Jin troops. While the flood failed to deter the Jurchens, the massive silt deposits it brought from the Yellow River heavily clogged the channels of the Bian Canal and many waterways in the Huai River system. This paper studies the aftermath of this human-induced flood in Kaifeng and other towns along the original channel of the Bian Canal. I show that this manmade disaster not only permanently changed the course of the Yellow River, but also fundamentally altered Kaifeng’s environmental linkages to the rest of the world. With the north and south under separate regimes, the Jin government lost motivation to dredge the silted channels of the Bian Canal, which once brought enormous wealth to Kaifeng from productive regions in South China during the Northern Song period. The loss of Kaifeng’s primary import channel, combined with the city’s shortage of local resources, stymied the Jin effort to rebuild Kaifeng and pushed the city down the path of long-term decline. Drawing on sources from both the Jin and Song, I demonstrate how environmental fragility and overreliance on interregional interdependence could only provide ephemeral prosperity for a city or a country. More than a microhistory of one flood disaster, this study illuminates the crucial role of water, an environmental force, in elevating (or eliminating) a region’s significance in global history.