Heaven is a Place on Earth: Hangzhou

Lauren Chan 29 January 2019
Image credit: Lauren Chan

While painfully trying to navigate the IB Chinese A course about a year ago, the poems of an 11th Century Chinese polymath Su Shi (蘇軾) were the bane of my existence. Using insanely complicated metaphors and allusions, his poems, at their essence, contain a formula of him firstly complaining about his failed political career and why no one appreciated him, and secondly him attempting to console himself with a mish-mash of self-love, religion, and philosophical ideals.

But perhaps Su Shi was being too harsh on himself. Not only was he regarded as one of the eight poetic greats of the Tang and Song dynasties, he was also a prominent political personality. Upon criticising the reformist faction of the Northern Song government, Su Shi personally requested to become Governor of Hangzhou in order to get away from the “pettiness of the court” and actually serve the Chinese people. Sure, those sound like high ambitions, but after I went to Hangzhou for a few days over the break, I strongly suspect that one of the reasons why he chose the place, was that Hangzhou really deserves its nickname of being “heaven on earth”.

Though Hangzhou is the most famous for its sights in the spring when the flowers start to bloom, or in the winter when snow covers the bridges, I went when it was cold, foggy, and the roads were lightly paved with melted snow. Yet, the fog created a completely different kind of atmosphere, and it was beautiful all the same.

A century before Su Shi was born, China was divided into more than a dozen small states. Among them, the Kingdom of Wuyue had its capital in Hangzhou. With its state religion being Buddhism, Hangzhou today is full of mid-10th Century Buddhist monuments. Remarkably, most of the rock carvings have survived the wind and snow, and have looked over kings, monks, and sightseers for 1000 years.

There is no way anyone can visit Hangzhou without visiting West Lake. Over the centuries, its beauty has attracted numerous literati to write works of literature and poetry about it. Imperial families of multiple dynasties also took residence near West Lake to avoid the summer heat, and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

West Lake is peaceful and serene. Because I visited during the off season, I was lucky enough to enjoy a private boat ride on a lake that was practically empty of tourists. Sitting on a traditional wooden rowboat with a cup of Hangzhou’s famous Longjing tea in hand, and listening to the sound of the oars slicing through the water, I could fully imagine poets touring the lake in a similar way, writing poems about the water, the trees, and the birds.

Apart from visiting the lake, the legendary martial arts movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed in Hangzhou. Fans (like myself) can visit sites such as the Yunqi Bamboo Trail or the tea plantations dotted around the suburbs to relive the action-packed moments of the film.

With all the sights it has to offer, it really is no wonder that Hangzhou has been regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in China.