top of page
  • Writer's pictureOlivier

China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

Updated: 7 hours ago

The city of Hangzhou is a historical and cultural jewel of China. West Lake, on the other hand, is an important source of artistic and literary inspiration. Around its shores, historical structures and temples testify to the spiritual depth of the region. The Grand Canal, connecting Hangzhou to Beijing, is an engineering feat and a vital link for trade. Together, Hangzhou, West Lake, and the Grand Canal illustrate the harmony between nature, culture, and progress that China has always demonstrated over the centuries.


China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

Former capital under the Southern Song Dynasty from 1127 to 1279, Hangzhou has managed to preserve an impressive cultural character. This city, with its luxurious past, also shows a state of quite rare wealth. This is quickly evident when strolling through the tourist streets in the evening. Besides these aspects, Hangzhou also has a magnificent natural lake that every photographer visiting China should see.


Introduction

The West Lake region and the city of Hangzhou are full of historical treasures. The very peaceful atmosphere that prevails there makes Hangzhou the most beautiful Chinese city in which I have had the pleasure of visiting for several years. Its modern and ancient streets, traditional shops and shopping centers, temples, and contemporary buildings coexist in an intriguing harmony. As if the city of Hangzhou had always anticipated its evolution.


The temples, pavilions, and gardens surrounding the city of Hangzhou have been the source of inspiration for many Chinese poets and artists since the 9th century. The city is also the endpoint of the immense canal that connects it to Beijing, covering more than 1700 km.


West Lake, for its part, is probably one of the most beautiful lakes in the country. Featured on the 1 Yuan note and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, this lake has everything to please landscape photographers.


Through this series of articles, I wish to revisit the fascinating history of the city of Hangzhou, its origins, and the relationship it has always maintained with West Lake. I also offer some tips to optimize your photo trip and your movements around the lake. I therefore invite you to read and discover these 3 parts in chronological order.


Part 1: History of the city of Hangzhou and West Lake, traditional constructions, and the Grand Canal of China.

Part 2: Getting to Hangzhou, the shores of the lake, and how to organize your stay there.

Part 3: 9 photographic spots around West Lake.

 

Summary of this Article:


 
China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

History of Hangzhou City

Hangzhou, located in the Zhejiang province in eastern China, has a rich and complex history, marked by periods of prosperity and significant cultural influence. Here is an overview of its evolution through the dynasties:


Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)

Hangzhou, known as Qiantang at the time, became a county city.


Sui Dynasty (589-618)

Construction of the Grand Canal, connecting Hangzhou to Beijing in the north and to the Yangtze River basin in the south. This played a crucial role in the development of Hangzhou as an important commercial center.


Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Hangzhou developed as a center for silk and tea trade.


Song Dynasty (960-1279)

The most remarkable period for Hangzhou. The city became the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. During this period, the population reached over a million inhabitants, making Hangzhou one of the largest cities in the world at the time.


Hangzhou, known as Lin'an at this time, served as the imperial capital after the fall of Northern China to the Jurchens. As the capital, it was the center of cultural and political resistance against the invaders from the north.


Hangzhou was a hub for the arts, literature, and poetry. The poet Su Dongpo, also the prefect of Hangzhou, contributed to the construction of the Su Causeway (Sudi) along the lake.


My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 head. The ultra-durable and lightweight carbon tripod for long exposure photography. A world reference and a lifetime investment.

My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 head. The ultra-durable and lightweight carbon tripod for long exposure photography. A world reference and a lifetime investment.


Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

Under the Mongols, Hangzhou maintained its economic importance but lost its status as the capital.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)


Hangzhou continued to prosper as a regional trade center. Silk production, in particular, remained a key industry.


Republic of China (1912-1949) and Modern Era

- 1927-1937: Industrial development under the Nationalist government.

- World War II: Japanese occupation, which caused significant damage.

- After 1949: Under the communist regime, Hangzhou continued to develop, especially in modern technologies and tourism.


Contemporary Period

Today, Hangzhou is recognized for its rich historical and cultural heritage, particularly for its famous West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is also an important center for the digital economy in China, hosting the headquarters of Alibaba, a global giant in e-commerce.

 
China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

Relations between Hangzhou and West Lake

The relations between Hangzhou and West Lake (Xi Hu) are deeply rooted in the city's history and culture, and they have evolved significantly over the centuries. West Lake has been and continues to be a vital component of Hangzhou.


It has significantly influenced its economic, cultural, and urban development. Throughout history, it has served as a source of artistic inspiration and a symbol of the city's natural beauty. Here's a brief overview of its role and influence:


1. Economic Importance

West Lake played a crucial role in the local economy, particularly in the fishing and agriculture sectors. The canals and irrigation systems around the lake were essential for agriculture in the region.

The area around West Lake is known for the production of tea, especially the famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea, contributing significantly to the local and even national economy.


2. Cultural and Recreational Center

Under the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), West Lake became a major cultural center, frequented by poets, artists, and scholars. It has been a frequent subject in Chinese poetry, painting, and literature, often symbolizing beauty and serenity.


My equipment: K&F Concept Filter Kit. High-definition ND filters with magnetic attachment. Ideal for long exposures in challenging weather conditions. Rain-resistant treated glass and carrying pouch.

My equipment: K&F Concept Filter Kit. High-definition ND filters with magnetic attachment. Ideal for long exposures in challenging weather conditions. Rain-resistant treated glass and carrying pouch.


3. Urban Development

Under the tenure of Su Dongpo as the prefect of Hangzhou, the Su Causeway was constructed. This construction not only served to control flooding but also to beautify the landscape, creating a highly appreciated promenade space.


Over the centuries, numerous gardens, pavilions, and pagodas have been built around the lake, making it a place of leisure and contemplation for residents and visitors.


4. Tourism and Heritage

West Lake has always been a major tourist destination, attracting visitors from all over China and around the world with its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage.


In 2011, West Lake was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, recognizing its cultural and historical importance.


5. Symbolism and Identity

West Lake is a central element of Hangzhou's identity, representing the fusion of nature and Chinese culture. The lake is associated with many legends and folk stories, which are an integral part of local culture.

 
China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

History and Specificities of West Lake

West Lake is a cultural and environmental treasure. Its natural beauty, combined with its rich history and cultural impact, makes it one of the most precious and iconic sites in China.


Here's a detailed overview of its history and characteristics:


The origins of West Lake date back over 2000 years. It formed from a small coastal lagoon. Over time, natural and human actions have contributed to its current shape. The lake was already recognized during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and was further developed during subsequent periods.


Under the Tang Dynasty (618-907), West Lake began to gain fame for its natural beauty and elaborate gardens. The Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) is definitely the period when the lake reached its maximum cultural importance, with the construction of many temples, pagodas, and gardens.


Physical Characteristics

- Dimensions: the lake covers an area of about 6.5 square kilometers. It measures approximately 3.2 km in length from east to west and 2.8 km in width from north to south.


- Depth: its average depth is about 2.27 meters, with a maximum depth of about 5 meters.


Image Editing: Topaz Photo AI. Get the best out of your photos. Noise reduction, enhancement of definition, and recovery of details using the power of artificial intelligence. Standalone software or Photoshop and Lightroom plugins. Try it for free here.

Environmental and Cultural Values

- Biodiversity: West Lake is a habitat for various species of fish, birds, and aquatic plants, playing a crucial role in the preservation of local biodiversity.


- Ecological Zone: Continuous efforts are made to maintain the water quality and ecosystem of the lake, due to its environmental significance.


- UNESCO World Heritage: West Lake has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, in recognition of its landscape beauty and its influence on Chinese culture.


- Artistic and Literary Inspiration: The lake has been a source of inspiration for poets, artists, and writers for centuries, playing an important role in Chinese culture (see below).


- Legends and Folklore: It is associated with numerous legends and stories, such as that of the White Lady of the Snake, a famous love story in Chinese culture.


- Major Tourist Attraction: West Lake is a major tourist site, attracting visitors for its natural beauty, historical sites, and cultural performances, such as the "Impressions of West Lake" show.


China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

Artistic References

West Lake has been a source of inspiration for numerous artists, poets, and writers over the centuries. Here are some of the most famous artists and works associated with the lake.


Poetry and Literature

1. Su Dongpo (Su Shi): A poet, writer, and official of the Song Dynasty, famous for his poems about West Lake. He also supervised the construction of the Su Causeway, which is named after him.


2. Bai Juyi: Another renowned poet from the Tang Dynasty, known for his lyrical poems about West Lake, capturing its natural beauty and seasonal changes.


Paintings

1. Xu Wei: A painter from the Ming Dynasty, renowned for his landscape paintings, some of which depict West Lake.


2. Li Song: A painter from the Song Dynasty, known for his detailed landscape works, including scenes of West Lake.


My equipment: MANFROTTO Pro Light Frontloader. The compact, sturdy, and waterproof backpack for lightweight hiking.

My equipment: MANFROTTO Pro Light Frontloader. The compact, sturdy, and waterproof backpack for lightweight hiking.


Legends

1. "The White Lady of the Snake" (Legend of Bai Suzhen): one of the most famous stories in Chinese mythology, set partly around West Lake. It tells the love story between a beautiful snake-woman and a young man.


2. "Impressions of West Lake": an open-air impressionist performance created by the renowned director Zhang Yimou, combining music, dance, and special effects to narrate stories and legends associated with West Lake.


Music

Traditional Chinese musical compositions have been inspired by West Lake, often used to accompany poems or theatrical performances on themes related to the lake.


These artists and works represent only a small part of the cultural influence of West Lake. Today, the lake continues to inspire modern and contemporary artists, making it a lasting symbol of the natural beauty and cultural richness of China.


China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

Traditional Constructions

West Lake is surrounded by many famous historical buildings and constructions, which are symbols of traditional Chinese architecture and its cultural heritage. Here are some of the most notable ones. Other sites also make interesting photographic spots. They are included in the third article: 9 photo spots around West Lake.


1. Leifeng Pagoda

Originally built in 975 during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, Leifeng Pagoda is famous for its legend associated with the "White Lady of the Snake." After its collapse in 1924, the pagoda was rebuilt in 2002. The modern structure incorporates elements of the original pagoda with contemporary architectural techniques.


2. Baochu Pagoda

This ancient pagoda, first built in the 10th century, has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. Located on Precious Stone Hill (Baoshi Shan), it is recognizable by its slender shape and seven stories.


3. Lingyin Temple

Founded in 328 during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, it is one of the most significant Buddhist temples in China. The temple, surrounded by forests and rocks, houses numerous Buddhist sculptures and prayer halls.


4. Su Causeway

Built by Su Dongpo (Su Shi), this causeway is an example of ancient hydraulic engineering. The causeway offers a scenic walk with beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding hills.

 
China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

 

5. Yue Fei Pavilion

A mausoleum and temple dedicated to the national hero Yue Fei, a general of the Song Dynasty, known for his loyalty to his country. The site includes Yue Fei's tomb and several statues, including those of his traitors kneeling before his grave.


6. Broken Bridge (Duanqiao)

A famous stone bridge located in the northeast of West Lake. The bridge is especially known for its picturesque appearance during winter when snow partially covers it, creating the illusion that it is "broken".


7. Three Pools Mirroring the Moon Island

An artificial island built during the Southern Song Dynasty. The island is known for its three pools arranged in a way to reflect the moon, creating a spectacular nighttime scene.


These sites, among others around West Lake, not only enrich the landscape with their architectural beauty but also represent centuries of Chinese history and culture. They are silent witnesses to past eras and continue to attract visitors from around the world.


China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

The Grand Canal of China

The canal that connects West Lake to Beijing is part of the Grand Canal of China, also known as the Imperial Canal of China (大运河, Da Yunhe in Chinese). It is the longest artificial canal or aqueduct in the world. It is a masterpiece of Chinese hydraulic engineering and history.


Here are some characteristics:


The Grand Canal, built over several centuries, began to take shape during the Sui Dynasty, between 581-618 AD. The canal was designed to facilitate the transport of grain and other resources between the north and south of China, particularly to supply the capital and the armies.


During the subsequent dynasties, including the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing, the canal was extended, reinforced, and maintained. The Grand Canal played a crucial role in China's economic development, facilitating trade and the movement of people and goods.


Dimensions

The Grand Canal is the longest artificial canal or aqueduct in the world, stretching for 1776 kilometers. It connects Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, crossing several Chinese provinces and passing through major cities such as Tianjin, Jining, and Suzhou. The canal includes various elements like locks, bridges, dams, and modified river sections, which together facilitate navigation and control potential flooding.


NordVPN: Secure your internet activity while traveling abroad. Legally bypass access restrictions in certain countries (such as China). An effective and reliable solution.

NordVPN: Secure your internet activity while traveling abroad. Legally bypass access restrictions in certain countries (such as China). An effective and reliable solution.


Role

The canal has played a key role in irrigation and agricultural development in the regions it traverses. Today, it remains an important testament to the ingenuity and technical achievements of ancient China. In 2014, it was also inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Just like the lake to which it is connected, it has had a significant impact on Chinese culture, influencing literature, art, music, and even regional cuisine.


Today, some parts of the Grand Canal are still used for transportation and irrigation, although the canal's importance has diminished with the development of modern road and rail infrastructure. Efforts are underway to preserve and restore some sections of the canal, recognizing its historical and cultural significance.


China: Hangzhou and the West Lake, 2000 Years of Cultural History (Part 1)

The Final Word

The rich history of Hangzhou and its iconic West Lake, intimately linked to the Grand Canal of China, reveals humanity's extraordinary capacity to shape its environment while drawing from its inherent beauty and wisdom.


The development of Hangzhou, from its humble beginnings as a trading post to a flourishing imperial capital, symbolizes the constant growth and change inherent in human nature and civilization. West Lake, with its poetic tranquility and evocative landscape, is not just a mirror of nature but also a reflection of cultural and spiritual aspirations of humankind.


The Grand Canal, like a life-giving vein, not only connects cities and provinces but also weaves an indelible link between nature, art, and human ingenuity. It represents the union of perseverance and vision, highlighting how economic necessity and the quest for beauty can coexist and thrive.


These historic places and their evolution bear witness to humanity's unceasing search for harmony between development and conservation, progress and preservation of the past. They remind us that, in the relentless flow of time, our cultural heritage and environmental achievements remain essential anchors, guiding our collective journey towards a future where respect for nature and human aspirations balance each other.


My library: Celestial Realm Wang Wusheng | Capital of Heaven Marc Riboud.


Also Read:

 
bottom of page