Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), was the most populous city in the early medieval world. Because the city’s physical destruction and geographical inaccessibility was central to its reproduction in cultural memory, the collective commemoration of Kaifeng’s sites was suffused with nostalgia for a glorious past that lingered after the city fell to Jurchen invaders in 1127.
Consequently, memory is not a transparent window into the past: Kaifeng’s urban spaces became a social construction of the pre-conquest past, shaped by the concerns of the post-conquest present. Refugees and their descendants carried with them a shared sense of the past that overlaid, augmented, and overrode their visual perceptions and remembered experiences of the city. For cultural historians, reconstructing memories of trauma and collapse will require us to rigorously reconstruct historical epistemologies: the native categories and culturally-embedded metaphors for how the mind remembers.