Space in Chinese vs Western cities

Even without the painting there are great written descriptions of Kaifeng from that time like the Dongjing Meng Hua Lu, which describes the sights and sound of the city in extreme detail (even giving lists of food shops, teashops, wineshops, inns, etc.). The overall picture those accounts give is of a modern big city set up to accommodate large numbers of people. As for an exact population number, I don't know it offhand but I'm sure those stats still exist somewhere.

There's also still some debate over whether "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" shows Kaifeng literally or just an idealized simplified version.

Some later versions of the scroll show more crowded streets.
Last edited:
Feb 2011
The opening theme song to the classic Water Margins TV show depicts snapshots of the Song painting "Along the River During the QingMing festival". Not only that, but the opening of Episode 1 shows the life sized reproduction of the city as according the same painting, to the point where you can see which portion of the reproduction belongs to which portion of the painting:

Likes: stevapalooza
Ah ok, I found the figures. It seems that Kaifeng still maintained a large population even after the Jin conquest because late in that dynasty the metropolitan prefecture had a population of 1,746,210 families-- basically about a quarter of the entire Jin population of 53 million people. That's the whole prefecture, not just the city, but it's easy to accept population numbers of 1 million people for the city alone. In the south after Hangzhou became the new Sung capital that city's population also surpassed a million. By the end of the Sung dynasty it contained 391,259 families or 1,240, 760 people. Population stats of other big cities like Fuzhou and Guangzhou put them between 100,000 and 300,000 families, so a million people isn't unthinkable at all.
Last edited:
Mar 2012
If sieges are frequent , a more densely packed city is easier to defend, less wall length needed to surround the city, and hence fewer defenders needed to man the wall, less wall to construct and maintain.

After the Warring State period, China was mostly united, and there were relatively fewer sieges, so there was less incentive to make the Chinese cities more compact and densely populated. The Warring State period was a period of intense warfare by all accounts.

I have yet to see a strong correlation between city density and how easy it is to defend. Some of the hardest cities to take in history had little population. Besides, Linzi in Han times was just as populous.

In the Western Han, Zhufu Yan told Han Wudi that "Linzi has 100,000 households, the tax in the city amount to a thousand gold, there are a lot of people and it is very wealthy, larger than Changan, it can only be the resident of the younger brother or the loving son of the son of heaven."

However it should be noted that in the Han Shu, the population of the Qi prefecture where Linzi is recorded as follows: 154,826 households and a population of 554,444. So there was only around 3.58 people per household in that prefecture. Assuming some errors in counting and that there were actually over 4 people per household, Linzi in Han times probably still had between 400,000-500,000 people.

The average density of common residents in Han cities has been estimated at 70-80 sq meters (Zhou Zhangshan, Handai Chengshi yanjiou 2001).
Here's a birds-eye view of old Kaifeng to give you a sense of how space was used.


There are also model recreations of the city during the Sung dynasty

Kaifeng (14).JPG

And models of other cities like Zhou dynasty Linzi


And Sung dynasty Hangzhou




And Tang Chang'an


Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
Here's a birds-eye view of old Kaifeng to give you a sense of how space was used.

View attachment 14942

There are also model recreations of the city during the Sung dynasty

View attachment 14941

And models of other cities like Zhou dynasty Linzi

View attachment 14943

And Sung dynasty Hangzhou

View attachment 14944

View attachment 14945

View attachment 14946

And Tang Chang'an

View attachment 14947
Those models don't show densely packed cities, but cities have rather low.population density. Also, on what were the models based? Modern models are just someones opinion of what they thought the ciies looked like, which might or might not be accurate. Are any of the models or illustrations of from the Song dynasty itself?
I'm not arguing for or against overcrowding. I'm just giving the original poster an idea of how Chinese cities were laid out. Population numbers were always in flux based on political events and natural disasters. Chinese city planning definitely favored open spaces and breathing room, but mass influxes of refugees or merchants could fill those open spaces pretty fast.

I'm not sure what the builders of the models used as their sources but I'm assuming it was written records, archeological evidence, and in some cases maps and diagrams from the periods.

Similar History Discussions