‘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.
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