Athough Hangzhou was once an imperial capital in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), the city is better known as a pleasure resort. Specifically, it s best known for its West Lake, which has been celebrated over the centuries in both song and verse. Marco Polo, who may have visited Hangzhou in the 13th century, wrote lyrically of the pleasures of the lake and concluded, ‘indeed a voyage on this lake offers more refreshment and delectation than any other experience on earth’.
The modern city is, alas, less prepossessing. It was virtually destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century, and underwent extensive modernization and industralization after 1949. Walking around Hangzhou today gives the visitor little idea of the glories of its time as the capital of the Southern Song, a period famous for great cultural achievements. Little remains, too, of its later imperial heritage. It is only when contemplating the lake that one understands why, in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, Hangzhou was an imperial resort, and why the two famous longlived Qing emperors, Kangxi and Qianlong, each made six visits to the city.
Without West Lake, Hangzhou would have been just another prosperous
city thriving on its position as the southern terminus of the Grand
Canal, and on its two agricultural industries of tea and silk. But with
West Lake, Hangzhou has gained a status not far short of paradise. lf
Suzhou’s loveliness as a city of gardens is almost entirely man-made,
Hangzhou has little need of artifice to enhance its natural beauty. The
city skirts the shore of a wide, shallow lake rimmed by green and gentle
hills, on the slopes of which are grown the famous Longjing tea of the
region and mulberry leaves for the silkworm larvae.