‘Paradise’ blessed with im­mor­tal love sto­ries

Hangzhou is home to leg­endary po­ets and the stun­ningWest Lake. Raymond Zhou re­ports.


Ihad not set foot in­Hangzhou be­fore I was ad­mit­ted to a col­lege of the city, which later was merged with the much larger Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity. I was 15, and col­lege kids were not sup­posed to date back then. My neigh­bors joked that I’d bump into a beautiful woman dis­guised as a young man en route.

For those in the know, the joke was a riff on the age-old leg­end of the But­ter­fly Lovers. It’s a heart­break­ing tale many Chi­nese proudly call China’s Romeo and Juliet, but it un­folds more like Yentl from the out­set.

Zhu Ying­tai, from a wealthy fam­ily, wants a proper ed­u­ca­tion at a time­when­wom­en­were de­nied the op­por­tu­nity. So, she dresses as a man. Over three years she de­vel­ops a “bro­mance” with Liang Shanbo, who­had amuch hum­bler up­bring­ing. claim to be the home­town of one of the love­birds, but what’s in­dis­putable is that they were schooled in­Hangzhou.

The city also plays host to an­other im­mor­tal love story that is even more wide-eyed fan­tasy: Madam White Snake.

With her maid Green Snake in tow, she de­scends from the moun­tains and spends a day min­gling with mor­tals. She meets a young­man­from a lo­cal phar­macy and falls in love— the ex­act lo­ca­tion is Bro­ken Bridge on Bai Cause­way. Aword of ex­pla­na­tion: the bridge was not re­ally bro­ken, but just ap­peared so from an an­gle in cer­tain light­ing.

Al­though a snake de­mon, White Snake em­bod­ies benev­o­lence, courage and style. She loves her hus­band and gives out free medicine to those who can­not af­ford it. But she is un­masked and even­tu­ally im­pris­oned un­der Leifeng Pagoda.

When I first ar­rived in­Hangzhou, the pagoda was long gone. (It crum­bled in 1924, which was seen by some as a happy oc­ca­sion that freedMadam White Snake. It was only re­built in 2002.) Bro­ken Bridge had been re­built in 1941, not half as ro­man­tic as it would have been. Still, I felt like I was step­ping into a tra­di­tional brush paint­ing of his­tory, leg­ends and fairy tales.

I will not for­get the first time I laid eyes on the famedWest Lake. The wil­low tree­lined banks, the shim­mer­ing wa­ter, the lo­tuses with pearly drops of wa­ter rolling on their leaves and the pago­das loom­ing in the dis­tance were all so evoca­tive; they snatched me out of the mun­dane world and gen­tly nudged me into a realm of po­etry and land­scape scrolls.

Hangzhou is known for its scenic beauty. Here, it’s not na­ture alone that’s awe-in­spir­ing but rather the seam­less fu­sion of God’s cre­ation and the hu­man touch.

Hu­man civ­i­liza­tion in this area dates back 7,000 years, and epic tales of war and peace and treach­ery be­tween the an­cient king­doms of Yue andWu— roughly present-dayHangzhou and Suzhou— are still be­ing dra­ma­tized on screen. To­day, this whole area is con­sid­ered “paradise on earth” and forms the core of the cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant Jiang­nan, which trans­lates as south of the Yangtze River.

Hangzhou was the largest city in the world dur­ing much of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (960-1279). The em­pire was threat­ened by the Jurchens in the north and re­lo­cated its cap­i­tal from Kaifeng toHangzhou, then known as Ling’an. In 1275, one year be­fore theMon­gols took power, it had a pop­u­la­tion of 1.75 mil­lion. Marco Polo re­ferred to it as Kin­say and called it the City ofHeaven. He was spot on when he de­scribed lo­cal peo­ple as “fair and comely”, with “men of peace­ful char­ac­ter” and “women ex­tremely ac­com­plished in all the arts of al­lure­ment”.

There are so many po­ems from that era that the city could be the most lit­er­ar­ily blessed of all Chi­nese places. Take the two cause­ways onWest Lake, for ex­am­ple.

Bai Cause­way was named af­ter Bai Juyi, the great Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907) poet, and Su Cause­way af­ter Su Shi, aka Su Dongpo, the great Song poet. The two giants of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture were lo­cal gov­er­nors, who dredged the lake and built what look like rib­bons around the price­less gift that isWest Lake.

West Lake has been im­i­tated to a fault but never sur­passed. Bei­jing’s Sum­mer Palace and Old Sum­mer Palace in­tended to repli­cate its lay­out, and many Chi­nese cities have name­sake pools of wa­ter as long as they are lo­cated on the western side of the town. But only in­Hangzhou is the lake the heart and soul of the city. Su called it “the eyes and eye­brows of the city”.

Res­i­dents are in­tensely proud of it. I re­mem­ber one win­ter morn­ing as the city woke up to a night of dense snow. The whole town turned out vol­un­tar­ily to re­move the snow lest its bur­den de­nuded the trees of their branches and twigs.

More than three decades af­ter I grad­u­ated, the city has be­come so much more en­chant­ing. Pol­lut­ing fac­to­ries have been shut down, his­tor­i­cal build­ings lov­ingly re­stored, the lake wa­ter is now changed on a monthly ba­sis by chan­nel­ing the nearby Qiantang River, and the streets and boule­vards have such dense leafy canopies that one gains the im­pres­sion of walk­ing or driv­ing in a gi­ant gar­den.

Formy first visit toHangzhou, in 1978, I had to take a seven-hour boat ride along the Grand Canal, a jour­ney now short­ened to half an hour on the free­way. When the canal was com­pleted in AD 609, Hangzhou was still a small town with 1,500 house­holds. To­day, when you emerge from the south­ern ter­mi­nus of the river, you’ll find your­self in the midst of trendy high-rises and gleam­ing bridges, a sight that em­per­ors of old could not en­vis­age.

How­ever, the 1,400-year-old river is not at all dwarfed by the sym­bols of moder­nity. In­Hangzhou, old and new, past and present, na­ture and mankind are some­how held in un­canny and per­fect bal­ance.

Con­tact the writer at raymondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn


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