The Attraction of the Capital: Local Social and Economic Activities

Urban life has always been a reliable reflection of the most important cultural, social, economic and political processes that take place at some particular country or region. Cities usually function as mediums that offer many opportunities for the development of social and commercial contacts as well as for the advancement of scientific thought and technologies. Some of the most crucial urban centers of the Song dynasty in China were Kaifeng and Hangzhou, both of which had used to be capitals of China. There are many different ways of studying social and economic activities of these cities, including archeology and modern methods of scientific analysis; however, the documents created at the time when these cities were blooming cultural centers offer the information that cannot be found in any other way. This essay is devoted to the analysis of the description of Hangzhou written in 1235 and will focus on the study of social and economic activities and their significance for the city as much as for the Chinese civilization in general.

To begin with, the provided description of Hangzhou is very detailed and well-structured. The text is divided into several sections that tell the audience about markets, shops, restaurants, gardens, warehouses and other important places. Although, the author of this document is unknown, it is obvious that it was a traveler or an educated official who visited Hangzhou at the time of its height. The author describes the period when Hangzhou was a city of between seven and eight square miles, which was considered to be a huge place for the Song dynasty China. It is not likely that the author was a native or an inhabitant of Hangzhou as the text abounds in examples of amazement and surprise caused by the rapid economic and urban development of the city. In 1235 Hangzhou was one of the world’s largest cities and it was sure to produce a great impression on the visitors and guests of the capital.


When the work was written Hangzhou had already been the capital for about a century. It was chosen to replace Kaifeng and Nanjing as, slowly beginning to lose their power over the northern territories, the dynasty retreated to the south of the Yangtze. Hangzhou became the center for all significant projects of the Song dynasty and it could boast of a large variety of attractions that differed the city from the previous capitals and smaller towns.

The social life in Hangzhou, according to the document, was centered mainly in restaurants, teahouses and clubs. They were the places where people could freely communicate, establish new contacts and develop the existing ones. The atmosphere of these places proves that due to strong connections between the capitals Hangzhou inherited many features from Kaifeng. The author writes that “most restaurants are operated by people from the old capital”. He also adds that a lot of restaurants, which were originally established in Kaifeng and Nanjing to serve the visitors from the south, had moved to Hangzhou counting on better profits and more useful contacts. The writer suggests that Hangzhou could offer restaurants of different types, even small fast food restaurants located all over the city. It signifies that the inhabitants of Hangzhou had a busy life and needed places to stop for a snack, not wasting time needed for other purposes. The large number of fast food venues is usually traditional for large megalopolises and Hangzhou of the thirteenth century surely was one of such.

Another place for social interactions was teahouses that were very important for the Chinese civilization as the culture of drinking tea is a significant element of their national identity. While describing teahouses, the author mentions that the visitors could see various “paintings and calligraphies by famous artists on display”, thus, both restaurants and teahouses functioned not only as places where visitors could eat and drink, but also as crucial cultural connection points. Moreover, it means that the Song dynasty was a very developed civilization with high technologies and rather stable economy as only that allows the society to pay as much attention to art as it was described in the analyzed text.

In addition to restaurants and teahouses, Hangzhou had many clubs that provided facilities for different cultural and social activities. The author mentions such clubs as West Lake Poetry Society, Physical Fitness Club, Occult Club and others, which names give useful information about popular hobbies and interests of Hangzhou’s inhabitants. They also show high literacy and education levels that many of the capital dwellers had achieved. Hangzhou had a variety of gardens, both public and private, where people usually met after visiting restaurants or teahouses.

Economic activities in Hangzhou were mainly carried out at markets, wine and specialty shops, commercial establishments and warehouses. These places were especially important in the capital as the Song dynasty at the given period witnessed an unprecedented economic development accompanied by large pace of urbanization. Although the Song dynasty had lost its northern territories, it had a positive impact on the commercial situation in the south, as having settled there, businesses started focusing on the in-depth development and not on the extension of the territorial activities. As is evident from the list of goods the author mentions – “pearl, jade, talismans, exotic plants and fruits, seasonal catches from the sea”, international trade was also vital for Hangzhou. Trade was also boosted by regular cultural and political events that were organized in the capital and attracted both visitors from other Chinese cities and representatives of other states. One of such events was the Lantern Festival, of which the writer describes the rich decorations of the city, impressive parades and other significant activities.

Particular attention was paid to wine and specialty shops. Wine shops did not only sell wines and corresponding goods, but also functioned as restaurants. However, some of the wine shops that were called luxurious inns provided the services of prostitutes. Hansen argues, “Prostitutes and concubines joined the new commodities, creating a trade”. Such places often served as venues for important negotiations, both official and informal. The author also mentions “more than one hundred gold, silver and money exchanges” in the section of “Specialty stores”, what signifies a high level of economic activity in Hangzhou and the rest of the territories controlled by the Song dynasty. He also suggests that “most deals made here involve over ten thousand cash”. The ability of people to operate with such large amounts of cash means that the Chinese civilization had a strong class of wealthy people, and, it stands to reason that the majority of those lived in the capital and in other large cities.

Many different commercial establishments were located in Hangzhou. The author tells the readers not only about the nature of these businesses, but also about the system of taxation during the Song dynasty. He says that if the enterprises fell into the category of companies, they were taxed regardless of their size. It proves that the Chinese authorities of that time did not create any favorable conditions for the development of small business promoting large companies that could even monopolize the market. Warehouses also played a very important role in Hangzhou and similar cities, which gathered significant commercial activities. Talking about the system of warehouses, the author mentions that the city is “densely populated and prosperous in commerce as well as in agriculture” that leads to a necessity of storing goods. The work tells about a great number of warehouses near White Ocean Lake surrounded and protected from thieves by water, etc. These warehouses were mostly owned by rich families and contained over a hundred rooms for goods and commodities. He also says that “in other commercial centers such as Shashi and Huangchi of Taiping prefecture there are no such facilities”, thus highlighting the unprecedented scale of trade conducted in the capital. It leads to believe in the stability of the economic forecasts for the Song dynasty, as they justified the investment of large amounts of money into the construction of such huge storage systems.

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To conclude, The Attractions of the Capital written in 1235 is a reliable source of valuable information about the social and business life in Hangzhou, the then capital of the Song dynasty. The author of this work tells his readers about the centers of social and economic activities in Hangzhou, such as restaurants, wine shops, warehouses, etc. His writing is not biased and gives a clear detailed account of important aspects of the life in the capital. They are of special importance as they provide the study of Chinese urban life from the perspective of the contemporary that allows modern readers to learn information that could not be extracted otherwise.

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