The prosperous city of Hangzhou (杭州 Hángzhōu) has been a center of commerce since ancient times, and it is directly connected to Beijing via the Grand Canal. Nowadays, Hangzhou’s more important transit connection is a high-speed train, which takes passengers to Shanghai in less than an hour.
The quick hop makes modern Hangzhou feel almost like a suburb of Shanghai, but West Lake (西湖 Xīhú), a World Heritage Site that UNESCO describes as “an idealized fusion between humans and nature,” gives the city an iconic status, and helps to attract tourists from all over the world. This Chinese New Year, Hangzhou is maintaining its place as one of the top eight holiday destinations in the country.
Legend has it that part of Marco Polo’s epic 13th-century journey included a stop in Hangzhou, which he called a city “beyond dispute the finest and noblest in the world.” According to Columbia University’s East Asian Curriculum Project, Hangzhou was the largest city in the world at that time, with a population of over a million — several times that of the largest European cities.
• Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang, the fourth-wealthiest province in China.
• Before China adopted the pinyin romanization system, the city was known as Hangchow to English speakers.
• Population: 9 million (Shanghai comparison: 24 million).
• GDP/capita: $18,000 (Shanghai comparison: $17,000).
• More than a million people speak the Hangzhou dialect. You can hear a story told in the Hangzhou dialect here.
• Hangzhou’s West Lake is one of the most famous scenic attractions in China and has inspired many much-loved classical poems.
Historical sites in Hangzhou
West Lake has been visited by poets, officials, pleasure seekers, and tourists since the Tang Dynasty (690-605), when it first got its name. Scholar Duncan Campbell explains that “dense layers of cultural sedimentation have settled on West Lake in Hangzhou. Poetic works, essays, paintings, and folk stories have all accumulated around the lake, making it one of the most iconic physical and metaphorical landscapes of China.”
Beyond West Lake, there are many millennia-old monuments in the city. One is the Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔 Léifēng Tǎ), built in the 10th century and burned down by the Japanese during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Its original base is kept in a museum underneath the structure.
Another, even older historical site is the Lingyin Temple (灵隐寺 Língyǐn Sì), one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. It was originally built nearly 1,600 years ago, and has been destroyed and rebuilt about once a century since then. The ancient wealth of Hangzhou is on display here, as no fewer than 3,000 monks perform rituals in this enormous multilayered space. Massive carvings of the Buddha and a beautiful grotto area, prayer hall after prayer hall ascending up a hillside, and a particularly striking relief of 150 small Buddhist figures at the back of the Great Hall await you here.
Hangzhou in the news
One of China’s largest companies and the world’s largest retailer, Alibaba Group, was founded here in 1999. Ecommerce has continued to thrive in Hangzhou through a burgeoning technology scene, and the city has recently attracted even broader attention by hosting the Group of 20 international summit in 2016.
In recent years, speculation has grown that Hangzhou is set to surpass Beijing, home to most of China’s biggest internet companies, and high-tech center Shenzhen as the new “Silicon Valley” of China, as lower housing and human resources costs beckon. Startup funding in Hangzhou has increased by 160 percent since 2013, significantly faster than in Beijing (121 percent), Shanghai (119 percent), and Shenzhen (143 percent). Small ecommerce companies following Alibaba’s lead have taken much of the funding, but a variety of lifestyle, social networking, and other service-based companies are quickly expanding in Hangzhou. The regional government is now targeting “1,000 hi-tech enterprises, 10,000 startups, and 300,000 sector staff” within the next five years.
Food and restaurants
Food writer Fuchsia Dunlop (see here for a Sinica Podcast interview with her) says that the region around Hangzhou is known as a plentiful “land of fish and rice” (鱼米之乡 yúmǐzhīxiāng), and due to the abundance of fresh ingredients, local chefs use relatively less oil, salt, sugar, or starch than in other regions of China. In a 2008 piece for the New Yorker, she highlights an especially high-class restaurant called Dragon Well Manor (龙井草堂 Lóngjǐng Cǎotáng), which sources these local ingredients and forgoes MSG and other nontraditional additives to create an authentic Hangzhou experience.
A less expensive local dining experience can be had at packed-out-the-door Grandma’s House (外婆家 Wàipó Jiā), which offers up Zhejiang’s version of Chinese braised pork (红烧肉 hóngshāoròu), known as Dongpo pork (东坡肉 dōngpōròu) because the dish was invented by famed Song dynasty writer and gastronome Su Dongpo (苏东坡 Sūdōngpō). Other classic Hangzhou dishes are Longjing shrimp, chicken in tea flavor, and sliced lotus root with sweet sauce.
More about Hangzhou:
- Pictures: Bore tides: Against the current / The Atlantic
In a handful of places around the world, high tides combine with seaside rivers to make a huge splash called a tidal bore. Haining, not far from Hangzhou, is one of those places, and its Qiangtang River claims the title of the world’s highest bore, with walls of water up to 30 feet high. When it occurs, it is a popular tourist attraction.
- A Chronology of West Lake and Hangzhou / China Heritage Quarterly
Geremie R. Barmé outlines the deep history of West Lake, from the Southern Qi dynasty (479-502) through the modern day.
- Mao Zedong at West Lake / China Heritage Quarterly
Geremie R. Barmé translates and adds to 20th-century materials on how Mao Zedong’s life and political campaigns intersected with visits to Hangzhou’s West Lake.
- 10 things Hangzhou does better than Shanghai / CNN
China-based writer Shen Lu describes what Shanghainese admire about Hangzhou, beyond the West Lake and local cuisine, including: “one of the world’s best” public bike systems, top-quality green tea, beautiful mountains — including the well-known Mount Mogan (莫干山 Mògànshān) — and exquisite silk scarves.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, photos are courtesy of Lucas Niewenhuis.