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53. The Jaws of Death in Hong Kong during 1200 to 1300CE

JUN. 09, 2022


Pack your crocodile-repellent because you’re about to join Ryan and Pete as they set off to 13th Century Hong Kong! They will discover the fall of the final Emperor of the Song Dynasty, fear for their lives on the track of man-eating tigers, alligators and crocodiles (oh my!) .. and find out just why the fin of a shark is considered a special but controversial treat.

Hong Kong is not actually a country in itself. In fact it is officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (HKSAR). Hong Kong is on the coast Southeast Asia at the near bottom part of South China, roughly halfway between Macau to the West and Taiwan to the East. It is found at the mouth of the Pearl River estuary and surrounded by the South China Sea.

Hong Kong is approximately 1,104 square-kilometres (426 sq miles) with a subtropical warm and humid environment. Much of the urban development is concentrated on the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island where many of the 7.5 million residents live in 7687 high-rise buildings and 303 skyscrapers - the largest number of skyscrapers of any city in the world.

Fitting for a global financial centre and one of the most developed cities in the world. Hong Kong is the world's tenth-largest exporter and ninth-largest importer, the Hong Kong dollar, is the eighth most traded currency in the world and there are more Rolls Royces per person in Hong Kong than any other city in the world

Despite the high-rise reputation, though, three-quarters of Hong Kong is countryside, with a total of 24 country parks.

The toilets of Hong Kong make use of seawater to flush, to conserve its scarce water supply

Hong Kong Island is famous for having super steep hills and there you will find the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator, the Central–Mid-Levels escalator. At 2,600 feet (800 meters) long it transports more than 55,000 people every day from the lower Central neighborhood to the upper mid-levels, a vertical climb of 443ft (135 meters)


Hong Kong has been inhabited since the Old Stone Age, with stone tools found which date back 35-40,000 years ago. Around 4000BC it was widely occupied by semi-coastal people called the Che people.

1,000 years later, the Yuet people arrived, heading south from Northern China, they assimilate the Che people on their arrival.

There are also the Tanka people, also known as ‘Boat people’ and later ‘sea gypsies’ by the British, who can still be found in the area and are considered to be some of the few indigenous inhabitants remaining.
Around 200 BCE – the area became part of the first Chinese dynasty led by Qin Shi Huang and over 400 years the population increases as salt production and pearl hunting becomes industrialised.

Then the Qin dynasty collapses and the Jin Dynasty take over, lasting until the Tang dynasty take over, making the region an international trading centre.

In 960AD the Song dynasty took over and ruled until the late 13th century when the Mongols invaded, starting the century long Yuan Dynasty .

During this Yuan period, population numbers in the territory exploded as South Chinese refugees fled the mongols.

In the early 19th Century the British became a large presence in the area trading clocks, watches and, um, opium for tea, silk and porcelain.

Eventually China bans opium and impounds British stocks of the drug, but the British, far from being impressed at this anti-drug approach, fear the loss of income from their trafficking and the Opium War erupts.

Britain occupies Hong Kong in 1841 as a base for their military, planting the Union flag on 26 January. At that time there were 7,450 people there, mostly Tanka fishermen living in several coastal villages.

The opium war ended three years later with British victory and Hong Kong became a Crown colony of the British Empire on 29 August 1842.

During the 1850s an influx of Chinese immigrants arrive escaping floods, typhoons and famine in mainland China increases the population and under the British major transformations are made to Hong Kong, industries, education, transport, and more.

Hong Kong’s population booms to 725,000 in the 1920s and the economy grows.

Then, in 1984, the British and Chinese sign a Joint Declaration, with the British agreeing to return Hong Kong to China, and China promising to implement a "One Country, Two Systems" regime, under which, for fifty years Hong Kong citizens would be allowed to continue to practice capitalism and have political freedoms that were otherwise forbidden on the mainland.

And so, on 1st July 1997 the UK transferred control to the People’s Republic of China. Statues of Queen Victoria remain, but the queen’s image was removed from stamps and banknotes, and ironically Red post boxes were replaced with green ones.

Today in Hong Kong things are unsettled.. Despite the agreement for fifty years of capitalism, China has tightened its grip in recent years, cracking down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, such as trying to amend the school curriculum to focus on Chinese national identity, imposing a national security law in 2020 that could be used to punish or silence any critics and dissenters and implementing a new electoral system in 2021 ruling that only “patriots” who “respect” the Chinese Communist Party can run in elections.

This started a series of mass protests across the city which were met with reports of police brutality, including the excessive use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Thousands fled the city and Internationally, the Chinese actions in Hong Kong have been condemned, but still, hopes are fading that it will ever become a full democracy.

But still, we hope.

The Jaws of Death – the end of the Song dynasty

The Song began ruling China in 960, founded by Emperor Taizu of Song, and became something of a golden age for China. The population grew rapidly and were responsible for many innovations in agriculture, iron-working, and printing. They were the first in world history to issue banknotes or true paper money and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent navy.

They were also the team in charge of the first recorded chemical formula for gunpowder, developing gunpowder weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance!

But despite the power of gunpowder, the Song state was constantly under pressure from non-Chinese peoples to the north and west.

In 1127, after years of fighting, the Song were overran by the Jurchen people who set up a new dynasty called the Jin. The remaining Song fled south – and created the Southern Song.

Later, in the early 1200s, in the North, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan was leading his people on what he described as their great expansion - ruling over an empire which stretched from Europe, Russia and Persia to the border with Korea.

Eventually he had few places left to conquer – except South China. So the Mongols duly attacked and overran the Jin and by the 1260s - under a new leader, Kublai Khan — they started to threaten the Southern Song.

But the Southern Song had some distinct advantages. First, the Mongols typically relied on horses in battle, but geographically, the mountainous terrain and network of rivers in South China was unsuitable for horses.

The Song meanwhile were very familiar with their land, and had established a vast navy capable of travelling the rivers at speed and in numbers.

The Southern Song also had an extensive relationship across south east Asia with many wealthy and resourceful countries keen on them being able to continue to trade.

And so rather than embark on costly warfare, Kublai Khan sent an emissary to negotiate with The Song and coordinate a peace between the two empires.

But the head of the Song government decided it would be smart to have the emissary arrested.

Bad move.

Kublai was furious and despite the odds not being in his favour, in 1267 he led an assault on the Song. By 1273 he had captured a couple of key locations and taken a number of the Song navy fleet – this gave him access to the Yangzi River – which was key to penetrating deep into Song territory.

So they headed further south and gradually more and more Song land fell to the Mongol horde.

On 4 February 1276, the Song capital, Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou), was conquered by the Mongols. Emperor Gong surrendered, but with the help of loyal members of the royal court his two brothers, the seven-year old prince Zhao Shi and six-year old Zhao Bing, managed to escape into Southern China.

On 14 June 1276, a seven-year-old Zhao Shi was enthroned as the new emperor - Emperor Duanzong. But it was going to be a difficult period of rule. Bent on eliminating the Song remnants, the Mongols pursued them into southern China until eventually there really wasn’t much south left to go.

They arrived and took refuge in Guangzhou about 120 km (75 mi) north-northwest of modern day Hong Kong.

In 1278, the now 8-year old Emperor Duanzong died of illness, and morale dropped - soldiers deserted and the army dwindled.

The Song leaders took Zhao Bing and fled the mainland by boat to the present-day Lantau Island in Hong Kong. On this island, seven-year old Zhao Bing was made the new emperor.

Returning to the mainland, they made a last-stand. In 1279, The Mongols sent the general Zhang Hongfan to attack Zhao Bing and the remaining Song in what became the naval Battle of Yamen.

The Song forces put up fierce resistance but were eventually wiped out.

On 19 March 1279, the Mongols advanced towards Zhao Bing, killing everyone in their way

The Song Prime Minister saw there was no hope of escape and so, he picked up the child Emperor, took him to the top of a cliff and together they leapt off into the sea to their deaths. Officials and concubines followed with an estimated loss of 1300 in total

The Jaws of death had closed and this event marked the end of the Song dynasty.


Possibly the most famous Jaws of all are the jaws of sharks. But it’s not man-eating sharks that we’re talking about in this episode, but men eating shark – specifically, shark fin soup.

Created first in 12th or 13th century during the Sung dynasty, it quickly became considered one of the eight treasured foods from the sea. The story goes that an emperor wanted to show off his power and wealth, by serving a rare delicacy to his guests and so shark-fin was chosen because it was rare, and only delicious after undergoing complicated and elaborate preparations.

Fins are obtained from a variety of sharks, the skin is removed before trimming them into shapes and boiling them for two days. The result is pretty tasteless, it’s actually the broth that gives the taste but the fins themselves are used for their "snappy, gelatinous" texture, which has been described as "chewy, sinewy, stringy".

Shark fins are also considered incorrectly to have multiple health benefits and, because of the association with fine dining and supposed health benefits, Shark fin soup became considered a "a traditional part of formal banquets" and hugely popular – peaking in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Where it is served at celebrations as a way to impress guests, such as weddings and important business deals. However, the shark finning industry poses a major threat to the world’s shark populations and 100 million sharks are killed every year, causing a 70% decline in the past 50 years.

The Jiaolong

According to Chinese mythology, as recorded by Ren Fang in his “Records of Strange Things, a water snake which lives for 500 years will turn into a jiao, and after a 1000 years a jiao will turn into a long (a dragon). After another 500 years the long turn into a ch’iu-lung (horned dragon) and after another 1000 years the ch’iu-lung will turn into its final form, the yinglong - a winged dragon!

The exact nature of a Jiao is uncertain, but in general, they are described as creatures with a body like a fish and a tail like a snake that live in or around water - especially the river.

It has been suggested that the Jiao is originally from the Far South of China and the best definition of a Jiao (according to Wolfram Eberhard, professor of Sociology in 1968) was from an 11th century text which said the jaio, “looks like a snake with a tiger head, is several fathoms long, lives in brooks and rivers, and bellows like a bull; when it sees a human being it traps him with its stinking saliva, then pulls him into the water and sucks his blood from his armpits.” Ouch.

But could the jiao, or jiaolong, actually be nothing more than a crocodile?

During our time period, we have a pretty reliable eyewitness account of crocodilians existing in South China – the explorer Marco Polo! He is generally recognized as the first European to have made a written record of China, and traveled east along the Silk Road and visited China at the very end of the Song Dynasty.

In his book, The Description of the World; or, The Travels of Marco Polo, he describes a visit to Hangzhou, south of the Yangtze river, where he was amazed by a city with a population in excess of 2 million people and made reference to some large reptiles…

“Great serpents of such a vast size as to strike fear into those who see them, and so hideous that the very account of them must excite the wonder of those who hear it.

You may be assured that some of them are ten paces in length, some are more and some less… In bulk they are equal to a great cask, for the bigger ones are about ten palms in girth… They have two forelegs near the head, but for foot nothing but a claw like the claw of a hawk or that of a lion… the head is very big, and the eyes are bigger than a great loaf of bread. The mouth is large enough to swallow a whole man, and is garnished with great (pointed) teeth… You must know that by day they live underground because of the great heat, at night they go out to feed and devour every animal they can catch.

Now, in southern China during the 13th century, the native crocodiles which polo is talking about were likely to have been estuarine or saltwater crocodiles

These crocs are the largest living known reptile, growing up to 6 m (20 ft) in length and weighing up to 1,500 kg (3,000 lb). They eat almost anything, ambushing prey and then drowning or swallowing it whole and they have the strongest bite of any living animal, capable of up to 34,000 Newtons, or 8000 pounds-force – the weight of a fully grown adult hippo crushing you.

Records of the saltwater crocodile during the Song Dynasty show that large crocodiles preyed on both humans and livestock within the region, but with a sharp increase in the human population the saltwater croc population severely declined following the Song Dynasty.

The last record of a live saltwater croc in South China was during the 19th.

Another candidate for water dragon status is the Chinese alligator, which unlike crocodiles lives in underground burrows during winter.

One of the smallest species of crocodilian, the Chinese alligator can grow to 1.5–2 metres (5–7 ft) in length and weigh up to 45 kgs (100 lb).

Although Chinese Alligator are carnivores, a study in 1985 showed that 63% of its primary diet were snails, 16% were rabbits, 8.3% mollusks, 4.1% shrimp, and the remaining 6.8% being frogs, fish, and insects.

In the past, farmers would kill and eat Alligators, considering their flesh dragon meat which could cure colds and other ailments.

By the 1970s the population was in massive decline with approx 1000 remaining and by 1998 the Chinese Alligator was in the Jaws of death, with just 11 wild animals remaining

Conservation efforts in the 2000s meant that the crocodile may have been snatched from the jaws of death though, with 180 being counted in a nature reserve in 2005, and 300 in 2017, indicating a reversal of the decline.

So maybe we’ll still have dragons around for a while after all.

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