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Unearthed bridge reveals splendor of ancient capital

By Wang Ru and Wang Kaihao Source: China Daily Updated: 2022-09-30


The ruins of Zhouqiao Bridge of the ancient capital of Dongjing in Kaifeng, Henan province, on Sept 20, 2022. [Photo by Bai Zhoufeng/For China Daily]

As the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), Kaifeng in present-day Henan province has left a plethora of legends hailing its cultural splendor and social prosperity. The 12th-century monumental scroll painting Along the River During Qingming Festival is probably one of the most famous demonstrations of that.

Now, though the river seems to have ebbed throughout the long course of time, it still provides physical evidence for people to imagine the golden era of Kaifeng. New archaeological findings of the ruins of Zhouqiao Bridge were unveiled at a news conference by the National Cultural Heritage Administration on Wednesday in Beijing.

As a landmark work of architecture at the junction of Yujie Street — a major road on the central axis of the imperial city of Kaifeng, then called Dongjing — and the Bianhe River section of the Grand Canal, the bridge was built between 780 and 783 during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and was renovated several times. It was finally buried in mud in 1642 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

According to Wang Sanying, director of the Kaifeng Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, the latest round of archaeological work on the site from 2018 to 2022 will help better study and protect the ruins of Dongjing.

Archaeologists have found the embankments on the north and south sides of the Bianhe River in the Tang and Song (960-1279) dynasties, and the river courses of Bianhe from the Tang to Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

There are historical records on the Zhouqiao Bridge during Northern Song, but the extant bridge was rebuilt on the abutment of the Song bridge in the early Ming Dynasty, Wang said.

The arch bridge is nearly 50 meters long from east to west, and 25.4 meters from north to south. During the late Ming, a temple worshipping a god of water transport was built on the east side of the bridge. The temple has a very clear layout and researchers have unearthed three bronze statues there.

"The biggest discovery this time is the giant Song carvings on the walls of the embankments of the Bianhe River, to the east side of the bridge," Wang said. The carvings are 3.3 meters high and altogether 30 meters long, showing patterns of mythical sea beasts, cranes and clouds, all considered auspicious in traditional Chinese culture.

"The carvings are the largest stone-made murals of the Northern Song ever found in China, representing the highest level of stone-carving techniques at that time, and witnessing achievements of culture and art during that period," said Wang.

The stone carvings echo recordings in Dongjing Menghua Lu (The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor), a 12th-century memoir depicting the thriving Northern Song capital.

More than 60,000 cultural relics have been unearthed from the site, including pottery, porcelain, jade, bone, gold, silver and bronze wares, among which porcelain plays a major part, numbering over 56,000 pieces.

Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain dominates the varieties found at the site. Other types include white ceramics of the Song and Jin (1115-1234) dynasties, celadon produced in the Jin, Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming dynasties and famille-rose porcelains of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

"This archaeological work reveals the complete form of the Kaifeng section of the Bianhe River from Tang to Qing, including its rise and fall," Wang said. "It's an epitome of the evolution of the city, and provides a reference for studying ancient bridge-building techniques."

Wang also said the findings were crucial to understand the cultural meaning of the Grand Canal in a bigger picture. As the world's longest artificial waterway, the Grand Canal was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.