China’s Song Dynasty’s Capital of Kaifeng and Its Hinterlands: An Environmental History, 960-1127

China’s Song Dynasty’s Capital of Kaifeng and Its Hinterlands: An Environmental History, 960-1127
Yuan Julian Chen


This dissertation investigates the intimate environmental links between the Song dynasty’s capital Kaifeng and its diverse hinterlands in China and its nomadic neighbors, the Kitan Liao empire and the Tangut Xi Xia kingdom. Examining Kaifeng’s urban culture and ecology, the Song dynasty’s transportation network and resource deployment, and the water, grassland, and woodland ecosystems in Kaifeng’s hinterlands, I show that the rise and fall of the million-population Kaifeng is not an isolated story of people living inside the city walls, but a grand narrative that engaged many non-human actors –– receding mountain forests, perished livestock animals, and silted waterways that eventually disappeared. The Song people drew connections between human activities and noticeable landscape changes, such as deforestation, and pointed out the unsustainability of some of the most heavily consumed natural resources that fueled the empire’s economy and industry. The Song people’s search for alternative, sustainable energies to mitigate the human footprint on the environment, in its essence, is the same as the current concern of modern environmental activists. While scholars have variously dubbed the Song period as China’s “early industrial revolution” and “medieval commercial revolution,” I argue that this period also marked the onset of China’s aggressive ecological expansion into the world and the dawn of China’s environmental modernity. This dissertation provides a comprehensive yet nuanced picture of a flourishing but unsustainable premodern metropolis. It demonstrates that if a city’s prosperity overly relies on its connections with other productive regions, such prosperity would be ephemeral once these connections are severed. Illuminating the precarity of transregional supply chain and interregional interdependence, the rise and fall of medieval Kaifeng offer lessons and caution to an increasingly flat modern world.


Yuan Julian Chen

Defended in


PhD defended at

Yale University




Central Asia
East Asia


Urban / Rural
War / Peace