Tales from the West Lake

Hangzhou, China – May 2019

My trip to Hangzhou this time last year was a pretty impulsive one; I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy some cheap flights just a few weeks before departure. I had been to mainland China exactly once before, over a decade ago, and had some pretty strong memories of intense culture shock in the metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing. But that was a long time ago, and I imagined that China had changed somewhat since then. After some brief online research, Hangzhou seemed interesting enough, so I was intrigued to see what I would find once I landed in the capital of eastern China’s Zhejiang province.

What greeted me was a fascinating mix of the ultra-modernity of 21st century China, the natural beauty of the West Lake area, and echoes of the proud tradition found in the city’s imperial history.

After spending some time in this place, it’s easy to see why this is where the Chinese themselves come on their domestic holidays. There’s an old saying in China: While there is Paradise in Heaven, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on Earth (上有天堂,下有苏杭). After visiting on his travels through China, Marco Polo wrote in his travel writings that Hangzhou “is without a doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.” In its heyday, it was the largest city in the world. The city rests on the West Lake, which has itself inspired countless legends and folktales with its evocative scenery and dream-like landscapes.

Hefang Street 清河坊

I stayed on a small street just off Hefang Street, one of the main tourist areas in Hangzhou. Sometimes known as Qinghefang, this pedestrian avenue is a great place to try some of the local food or to shop for souvenirs. It rained the first night I arrived and into the next morning, but it soon cleared up by the mid-afternoon.

Hefang Street is one of the best preserved urban areas from the old city of Hangzhou. Hangzhou was China’s capital during the Southern Song Dynasty over 800 years ago, and this area has stood the test of time, surviving through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. It’s still a prosperous marketplace nowadays, and most of its businesses and shops are over a century old. The street is home to the five major Hangzhou specialties (in no particular order): lotus root starch, scissors, fans, tobacco and silk. 

Known also as “Snack Street”, Hefang Street is littered with street stalls and hawker centres, offering local street food as well as snacks from all around China such as roasted walnuts and “dragon-whisker” candy.

I spied a very long queue outside one particular stall selling duck pancakes, so naturally I had to join it. Unfortunately when I got to the front and tried to order, the man took one look at the cash in my hand and shook his head vigorously, then pointed at the QR code in front of me. I was sorely disappointed. But it was a good lesson to learn on my first morning – China is now almost entirely a cashless society (from what I could tell), and WeChat Pay and AliPay reign supreme. Yes, even at tiny food carts in alleyways.

Hangzhou’s local cuisine is representative of Zhejiang’s provincial cuisine, one of China’s eight fundamental cuisines. Natives define dishes prepared in this style to be “fresh, tender, soft, and smooth, with a mellow fragrance.” Due to the mild climate surrounding the Yangtze river, the local people enjoy a light diet, prominently featuring river fish and longjing tea (more on this later).

The history of the city has given rise to many folk stories regarding the origins of well-known local dishes, such as Pian Er Chuan Noodles (片儿川), West Lake Vinegar Fish (西湖醋鱼), Dongpo Pork (东坡肉), Longjing Shrimp (龙井虾仁), Beggar’s Chicken (叫化鸡), Steamed Rice and Pork Wrapped by Lotus Leaves (荷叶粉蒸肉), Braised Bamboo Shoots (油焖笋), Lotus Root Pudding (藕粉) and Sister Song’s Fish Soup (宋嫂鱼羹).

Besides the multitude of food vendors, wandering down Hefang street I found art stalls, candy sculptors, pillow shops, caricaturists, storytellers, bonsai shops, teahouses, and old bookstores.

One of the more interesting establishments on Hefang Street is the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine (胡庆余堂 Hu Qing Yu Tang), housed in an amazing 19th century Qing dynasty building. Previously a privately owned business, this is now a government-run working pharmacy/dispensary of traditional Chinese medicine, as well as a museum. For a few minutes I watched traditional Chinese medicine practitioners preparing medicines, weighing and mixing various plants and animal products to specific formulae, while customers (patients?) waited. Wasn’t game to try anything though.

West Lake 西湖

The West Lake has been celebrated by poets and artists since the 9th century. Its shores are lined with temples, pavilions, gardens and arched bridges, and there are many islands reachable by boat. The lake’s natural beauty has been one of the most important sources of inspiration for Chinese garden designers. So influential that in 2011 it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for having “influenced garden design in the rest of China, as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries”.

The Ten Scenes of West Lake 西湖十景 are based on an age-old aesthetic tradition that dates back to the 12th century and has inspired some of the best literature and art in many millennia of Chinese civilisation. The earliest reference to these ten scenes appeared in the Southern Song Dynasty. The capital city, known then as Linan, attracted talented writers and artists, giving rise to many lake-themed shanshui (山水) or Chinese landscape paintings. Each scenic spot is marked by a stele with a four-character epithet written in the calligraphy of the Qianlong Emperor. I’ve written about a few of them below (some of them are season-specific and so required imagination to picture, e.g. there obviously wasn’t snow when I was there at the end of spring).

Orioles Singing in the Willows Park 柳浪闻莺

It was a short walk from Hefang Street to the poetically named Orioles Singing in the Willows, one of the entrances into the West Lake on the southwestern shore. (Orioles are birds, for the ornithologically ignorant.) The path passes under an ornate entrance archway, through a courtyard neatly lined with willows, then opens on a set of ponds covered with lotus leaves.

The perennial scene here is supposed to evoke the birdsong of the orioles ringing through the willows, mingled with elderly residents shooting the breeze and crooning odes from classical Chinese opera.

There were plenty of old-timers doing their morning taichi. People are almost always doing taichi in China, but I suppose this was a particularly nice spot to do it.

We must be swift as the coursing river… with all the force of a great typhoon…

Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset 雷峰夕照 – Changqiao Park 长桥公园

Hangzhou is sometimes known (at least in China) as the city of love. This spot on the southwestern shore of the West Lake with the Leifeng Pagoda in the background is a popular one for bridal shoots, and I counted no less than eight couples jockeying for prime views.

Scholars among my readership will of course know about China’s Four Great Folktales: The Butterfly Lovers, the Tale of the White SnakeLady Meng Jiang, and The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl. Two of these take place (at least in part) on the West Lake.

The Butterfly Lovers is sometimes called the Chinese Romeo and Juliet (although with a somewhat happier ending). Set during a time when only males could receive an education, a young girl named Zhu Yingtai persuades her father to let her study in Hangzhou disguised as a boy. While at school, she befriends a fellow scholar called Liang Shanbo. Over three years studying by Liang’s side, Zhu gradually falls in love with him; however, Liang doesn’t know that Zhu is actually a girl. (Yes, like Mulan.)

After finishing their studies and returning to their hometowns, Liang visits and finally discovers that his best friend is a girl (like the 2006 American romantic comedy sports film starring Amanda Bynes, She’s the Man). They confess their love. Liang tries to propose to her, but damn, too late – Zhu’s parents have already arranged her marriage to Ma Wencai, son of a rich noble.

Liang returns to work as a court official and of course, dies of depression. On her wedding day, Zhu is being carried by sedan to the groom’s house when out of nowhere a strong wind stops the wedding convoy, just as they approach Liang’s grave. Zhu dramatically abandons the wedding procession and weepingly mourns at his grave. Probably making a mess of her bridal outfit. But then – boom, the grave opens up! Consumed with grief, the bride-to-be jumps right into the grave to her death.

The wedding procession watches at first in shock, then in surprise, as a pair of butterflies flutter out of the grave and fly away, together forever. The end.

I guess it’s meant to be romantic. (To be immortal butterflies in love.)

Leifeng Pagoda 雷峰塔

I took the opportunity to visit the pagoda as it was right there.

The pagoda plays a pivotal role in another of China’s four great folktales, The Tale of the White Snake. Rather than re-tell the whole story, here’s a summary I found online:

Once upon a time, there was a white snake demon named Bai Suzhen (白素贞). She lived in the realm of demons, but aspired to become more powerful. Some say she wanted to become a goddess, others that she dreamed of using her powers to help people. But either way, she came to the human world and, to blend in, took on the form of a beautiful woman.

While there, she met a green snake demon named Xiao Qing (小青) who was causing trouble. After some initial scuffles, the two became close friends and traveled the world together in human form. It was at Hangzhou’s West Lake that they met the renowned Chinese scholar Xu Xian. White Snake Bai fell head over heels for the human, and used her magical wiles to set up more opportunities for them to meet again and again, until they finally married.

It was not meant to be, however. An itinerant sorcerer named Fa Hai (法海) could see Bai and Qing for what they really were, and—dedicated to destroying all demons—told Xu Xian the truth. Terrified, Xu Xian urged Fa Hai to attack, and Bai ended up trapped in the Hangzhou’s Thunder Pagoda (雷峰塔). Xu Xian, finished with the material world, became a monk.

Now, originally, this was a horror story, and it ended there. Bai is, after all, a demon. But people tend to like happy stories more than they like sad ones, and romantic stories more than horror stories. So the tale of the White Snake Lady changed. Bai, once the tale’s villain, became a heroine fighting for love against all odds. And Fa Hai, once the hero, became the closed-minded villain determined to keep humans and demons apart. (Even if they were the good, loveable kind of demons.)

In more recent tellings, Bai is not imprisoned by Fa Hai after her marriage with Xu Xian, and Xu Xian is not aware his wife is a snake demon. They open a medicine shop together and become widely known for giving away free herbs to people who can’t afford to pay.

One year during the Dragon Boat Festival, while Bai is pregnant with their first son, her husband brews up a special surprise recommended by Fa Hai: wine infused with herbs that will expel all demons. Unable to think of a convincing excuse, Bai drinks the wine and immediately turns back into a snake. Her husband, shocked beyond belief, ups and dies. Bai returns to human form, obtains some sacred Kunlun Mountain herbs, and brings her husband back to life.

Here, the stories really diverge. In some versions, Bai is able to convince him that the snake was just a dream, and they live happily ever after with their son. Sometimes Bai admits that she is a snake demon, but her husband accepts this and the story ends with the two of them caring for their young son.

But often it’s darker. One version has Fa Hai locking Xu Xian away in Jinshan Temple for his own protection. Bai furiously destroys the temple, violating the laws of Heaven, and is doomed to eternal imprisonment in the Thunder Pagoda. Sometimes a magical hat imprisons Bai in Thunder Pagoda. Sometimes Xiao Qing, the green snake demon, comes to her aid. And so often, the story ends with Bai, her husband, and their son finally reunited.”

(Thunder Pagoda refers to Leifeng Pagoda.)

The legend remains immensely popular, and has spawned books, operas, movies, modern dances and multiple television series. Even as recently as last year. (In this animated version, they’ve translated her name to… Blanca?)

The octagonal, five-story structure was originally built in 975 AD. In 1924, Leifeng Pagoda collapsed and some say a beautiful woman was seen emerging from the ruins (I suspect some may have been trippin’). The current pagoda is a reconstruction built in 2002. The ruins from the original structure are accessible under the new pagoda, but all that’s left are a couple of brick pillars and a few piles of rocks. Since the present-day Leifeng Pagoda is newly constructed, the main reason to visit is to get a full panoramic view of the West Lake and the surrounding hills.

Prince Bay (Taiziwan) Park – 太子湾公园

At the southern end of the West Lake lies a set of beautiful gardens called Taiziwan Park. (Not one of the ten scenes.) I missed all the spring flowers due to timing but still enjoyed strolling through the park around the meandering lakes, rocks, and grass fields.

It was really nice. I spent a serene hour or so here. All the greenery was very calming. I can imagine how picturesque it would be with spring in full bloom.

Three Pools Mirroring the Moon 三潭印月

This scene is actually on the back of the one-yuan note. The islet features three pagodas, two metres high and marked with five round holes. The pagodas are lit at night to match the shimmering geometry of the full-autumn moon. I wasn’t here at night so I couldn’t capture this scene, but I guess you can google it if you’re curious.

Lingering Snow Over the Broken Bridge 斷橋殘雪 – Duanqiao 断桥

One of the ten scenic scenes is set on the Broken Bridge, where Lady White Snake and the scholar Xu Xian first met in the Legend of the White Snake.

The scene is so named due to an illusion after winter snowfall. Contrary to its name, Duanqiao is actually completely intact; it only appears to be broken after a snowfall. This view from the Bai Causeway, along with its role in the White Snake legend, make it one of those popular romantic spots on the West Lake. When snow falls in winter this spot is abuzz with people (particularly couples) looking for that perfect photo.

Jixianting 集贤亭

I don’t have a story about this, and it’s not one of the ten scenes or anything. Just a simple small pavilion that looked nice lit up in the evening. It is often pictured on tourism material for the city though.

Besides the natural beauty of the West Lake area and the historic importance of the Song dynasty streets, Hangzhou is also a proudly thriving modern Chinese city. When Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policies began in 1978, Hangzhou took advantage of being situated in the Yangtze River Delta to bolster its development. It is now one of China’s most prosperous major cities, and is home to the Alibaba Group.

One night I wandered over to Qianjiang New Town, located in the Jianggan district on the western bank of the Qiantang River, to see some of modern-day Hangzhou.

The round yellow building (some people call it the Golden Sun) is the InterContinental Hangzhou Hotel, which faces the Hangzhou Grand Theatre. The music fountain in front of the Grand Theatre and accompanying light show were amazing. Built by the Chinese government to impress the guests of the 2016 G20 summit, the Hangzhou Light Show is a fantastic 700,000 LED spectacle that plays across all the surrounding buildings. The show lasts 20 minutes and plays every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm. The deck by the river has the best views of the illuminated skyline in its entirety.

I also took the opportunity to hop on a bus and venture a bit further from the central city and the West Lake. It was easy to find very rural spots within 20 minutes of where I was staying near Hefang Street.

Eight Diagram FieldBa Gua Tian 八卦田

This field is an octagon made of 8 pieces of land, each used to grow a different vegetable, with a wooded area forming the Yin and Yang in the centre (it makes more sense when you see an aerial view). Originally a field used by the emperors of the Song Dynasty to perform rituals for good harvest.

According to history, the nine kinds of crops planted were soybean, red bean, barley, wheat, rice, millet, glutinous rice, broomcorn millet, and ancient millet. Nowadays, there are seven types of crops planted, and at certain times the farmers grow sunflowers, rapeseed, and other colourful blossoms. You can get something of an aerial view by ascending the thousand steps up nearby Jade Emperor Hill, but I was way too lazy to do this. Or I guess you could get a drone.

Longjing 龙井

Longjing tea (龙井茶 dragon well tea) is a pan-roasted green tea produced by hand, and known for its high quality. The name refers to the titular Dragon Well, located near Longjing village, where the swirling of light rainwater with particularly dense groundwater gives the impression of sinuous dragons lurking beneath the surface. Longjing tea production dominates the entire mountainous region surrounding West Lake. Hangzhou, and specifically the area around Xihu (West Lake) is known for a mild, temperate, and often rainy climate, creating the perfect terroir for tea (yes, apparently terroir is as important to tea plantations as it is to vineyards).

Longjing tea was granted the status of Gong Cha, or imperial tea, in the Qing dynasty by the Kangxi Emperor. His grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, conferred special imperial status upon 18 tea bushes. These trees are still living and the tea they produce is auctioned annually for a higher price per gram than gold. The emperor’s celebrity endorsement has carried weight ever since. Longjing’s reputation received a second jolt of popularity from Chairman Mao during the Chinese revolution.

Mao Zedong was a huge fan, and liked it so much that he served the tea to President Nixon during his historic visit in 1972. Today, the early spring harvested crop is sent away to the leaders of modern China who accept only the best, just like their imperial forerunners. Top grade leaves from each year’s harvest from well-known farms fetch astounding prices among the Chinese elite. Xi Jinping reportedly prefers it, and even treated President Obama to a cup when he came to visit.

My trip ended too soon and I would have liked to also visit Xixi Wetlands and a few other spots like the National Tea Museum. But as you can see, there is plenty to see and do in Hangzhou. It’s a great place to visit if you like the colour green, Chinese imperial history, and really good tea. Also wonderful if you enjoy walking.

Of course, Hangzhou today remains under some form of lockdown, like much of the world. But I have no doubt visitors will return, both from within China and then one day from abroad. I think about this trip every now and then, as China has been in the news so much since the start of the year. It’s certainly an intriguing land, full of contradictions and legends, and I only saw a tiny bit of it this time. It may become one of the few countries safe to travel to in the near future; time will tell. I for one would love to see more of it.

I have never traveled to Hangzhou’s West Lake
But seem to have met it in my dreams someplace:
A vague and indistinct expanse of water and clouds
Where lotus leaves merge with weeping-willow branches.
— Huang Zunxian (1848–1905)

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