The Siege of Kaifeng

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Li Zicheng’s peasant revolt against the declining Ming dynasty in 1642 laid siege to the city of Kaifeng for six months. His forces attempted to penetrate the city’s walls in various ways—barraging them with cannon-fire, digging under them to subvert their foundations, and setting off barrels of gunpowder to blow an entrance into the city. Despite these efforts, the walls held strong, and as Li’s frustration mounted, the city’s defenders ran increasingly low on food and water. As their desperation grew, both sides resorted to an extreme and risky course of action — one which would prove incredibly costly — diverting the Yellow River to burst onto its banks and engulf their enemy.

Popular mythology of Li held that his leadership of the peasants’ revolt was born from an incident in 1630, when he was 24. Numerous accounts report that he was shackled in public for failing to repay a high-interest loan from a magistrate named Ai Zhao. A guard tried to offer Li shade and water, but was struck down by a Ming official. This, however, angered the local peasants, who rebelled and freed Li, proclaiming him as their leader. This story encapsulated his reputation as a man of the people, combatting the late Ming Dynasty’s corruption and greed. The unpopular Ming grain taxes, for instance, allowed Li a foothold to gain popularity, branding his campaign with the slogan “dividing land equally and abolishing the grain taxes payment system”. Indeed, he was widely celebrated and popular among the peasants, who soon gave him the title of ‘The Dashing King’, a name inherited from Gao Yingxiang, the previous leader of the revolt, upon his death in 1633.

By 1636, Li had rallied a force of over 30,000 peasants, and had begun seizing Ming strongholds to weaken Emperor Chongzhen enough to attack Beijing. Kaifeng was a significant city for a number of reasons. It held huge political and historical significance, having served as China’s imperial capital for eight former dynasties, most notably the Northern Song Dynasty. In 1642, it was the capital of Henan province and was enormously populous. Estimates for the total population of Kaifeng vary from around 350,000 to around 600,000, yet regardless, its significance as a military target for Li was unquestionable.

Kaifeng’s strategic importance and prosperity was largely due to its position on the Southern bank of the Yellow River, providing ample opportunities for trade and transportation. However, its proximity to China’s second longest waterway proved both a blessing and a curse; known as ‘China’s Sorrow’, the temperamental river frequently burst its banks with disastrous results. Five major floods devastated the city between 1375 and 1416, and flooding events occurred more than 300 times near Kaifeng from the time of the Southern Song Dynasty to the late Qing dynasty. It was clear, therefore, that the city required protection from the floods, and in the mid-15th century a solution was implemented: a complex series of dikes along the river. The project to install these dikes was a titanic feat of civic engineering, and allowed Kaifeng to expand without the constant threat of complete inundation. This was a threat that Kaifeng’s citizens were reminded of by the very foundation upon which the city stood, which were formed by the remains of such an event in 225 BC.

It was in October of 1642, then, that Gao Mingheng, the Governor of Henan, and Li Zicheng simultaneously realised the destructive power of the Yellow River. Gao feared that starvation would soon drive the people of Kaifeng to open the city gates, and when it became clear the city could not hold out any longer, the governor ordered the waters of the Yellow River to be unleashed in hopes of destroying the rebel army. At the same time, Li was determined that this, his third attempt to take Kaifeng, would succeed by any means necessary. With both forces destroying different parts of the flood control system, the resulting disaster was more powerful and unpredictable than either side anticipated. Harry Miller of the University of South Alabama notes that “both sides tried to puncture the dikes on the Yellow River, in order to enlist flood as an ally”. Finally, on October 7, the rain-swelled river burst through the weakened dikes in two places.

The destruction of the dikes allowed the overflowing water to surge in full force and speed, and the two resulting streams soon converged in a single rampaging torrent that smashed into the north wall of the Kaifeng. The destruction of the flood was amplified by the strength of the city’s own walls—Dr Michael Storozum of Fudan University describes how the thick walls withheld the water after the initial surge of the flood. Li was able to prepare his forces for the coming disaster and evacuated most of his formations, suffering minimal casualties. The citizens of Kaifeng, however, trapped inside its walls with the rampaging floodwater, were left entirely vulnerable. Professor Xu Xin describes that “the raging waters swept over the low-lying city, drowning a citizenry that was completely unprepared.” 

After the water settled, 300,000 were dead, making the flood the seventh deadliest natural disaster in history, though the catastrophe cannot be attributed to nature alone. Li’s victory at Kaifeng formed a crucial part of his campaign. A year later, he captured Xiangyang and name himself ‘King of Xinshun’, and only a year after that, he attacked Beijing, prompting the suicide of Emperor Chongzhen. Li immediately proclaimed the end of the centuries-old Ming dynasty and the birth of his own Great Shun Dynasty to replace it. However, this dynasty proved to be incredibly short-lived, with Li being defeated in battle by the armies of the Manchus from the north and fleeing barely a month later, paving the way for the founding of the Qing dynasty which ruled until 1912.

At Kaifeng itself, another layer of mud was left behind, forming the foundation for the city to be rebuilt in 1662. Archeological excavations of Kaifeng today reveal six such layers, with the inundation of 1642 forming a three-metre slice of the twenty metres of bedrock formed from the remnants of the city’s ancient iterations, each built upon the last. The flooding of Kaifeng in 1642 was one of the most brutal catastrophes ever recorded, and indeed the sediment deposited in the city by the Yellow River preserved it in a burial process similar to that caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, forever enshrining the history of the city in strata which historians and archaeologists are only now beginning to decipher. 

Michael Storozum’s 2020 archaeological study of Kaifeng focussed on five sites of excavation and uncovered over 11,000 square metres of these foundations, discovering skeletons, buildings, pottery and written tablets. He was looking for the causes of the overwhelming destructive power of the city’s floods, and the well-preserved layers of ancient cities provided clear answers. Focusing on its governors’ underestimation of the power of the river and overconfidence in the strength of the city walls which would ultimately seal their fate, he concludes “the combined archaeological and paleoenvironmental record of exceptional floods, like the AD 1642 Yellow River flood, can provide an important reminder that unexpected events have happened in the past and will likely happen again”.

Lorge, Peter A. War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795, p. 147. Routledge, 2005.

Wu P, Liu D, Ma J, Miao C, Chen L, Gu L, Tong J. A Geoarchaeological Reading of the City-Overlap-City Phenomenon in the Lower Yellow River Floodplain: A Case Study of Kaifeng City, China. Sustainability, 2019.

John W. Dardess, Ming China, 1368-1644: A Concise History of a Resilient Empire. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

Harry Miller, State Versus Gentry in Late Ming Dynasty China, 1572-1644. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Xu Xin. The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion, p. 47. Ktav Publishing Inc, 2003.

Storozum, Michael J., et al. Geoarchaeological evidence of the AD 1642 Yellow River flood that destroyed Kaifeng, a former capital of dynastic China. Scientific Reports, 2020.