Located in the western part of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, the West Lake is a renowned scenic attraction. It shares its fame as one of the “three famous lakes south of the Yangtze River” with Nanjing’s Xuanwu Lake and Jiaxing’s South Lake.
More than 10,000 years ago, the area was a gulf into which the tide flowed in and out carrying a great deal of silt. As the ebbing tide was slowed down by Precious Stone Hill and Wu Hill on either side of the inlet, the sediment deposited and accumulated into a sandbar which gradually separated the gulf from the sea and in the Sui dynasty (sixth to seventh centuries) formed a lake. The receding sea gave rise to farmland and the land on which Hangzhou would be built. The lake, located west of the city, was named West Lake.
West Lake became a noted scenic site in the Southern Song dynasty (twelfth to thirteenth centuries). It boasts over forty major attractions.
The Bai Causeway, running east to west across West Lake, was constructed before the Tang dynasty and was initially called Baisha Causeway (White sand causeway). Appointed prefect of Hangzhou in 822, the Tang poet Bai Juyi (772–846) constructed another causeway which saved a vast swath of cropland from drought. That causeway was eventually abandoned, and the people of Hangzhou changed the name of the Baisha Causeway to Bai Causeway as a way to commemorate Bai Juyi. The equally famous Su Causeway, stretching across the lake from north to south and well lined with peach and willow trees, was built by the Northern Song scholar Su Dongpo (1037–1101) when he was the prefect of Hangzhou.
The quaint and elegant Broken Bridge on the Bai Causeway is the setting for one of West Lake’s most famous scenic snow scenes. In the folk tale Baishe zhuan (Legend of the White Snake), Madam White and her maid Xiaoqing (who are in reality a white and a green snake in human form) are caught in a downpour while sightseeing at Broken Bridge. There, they encounter Xu Xian who lends his umbrella to them and thus sparks his romance with Madam White. Later, in a magical duel over Xu Xian, who is now her husband, Madame White is defeated by the monk Fahai and is confined beneath the Leifeng Pagoda. On the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, Hangzhou residents traditionally would pay a token visit to Madam White at Leifeng Pagoda. Before leaving for home, each visitor would remove a brick from the pagoda in the hope that it would eventually collapse. This finally occurred on September 25, 1924, but reconstruction plans have been placed on the municipal agenda in recent years.
Though most supernatural creatures were considered evil, Madam White is widely admired for her enduring love for her husband Xu Xian. Other stories about Madam White, such as “Encounter on Broken Bridge” and “Floodwaters Engulf Jinshan Temple,” were popularly depicted in traditional operas and paintings.
The splendid scenic view of “three ponds mirroring the moon” can be found on the largest of the three islands in the lake. The moonlight drenched landscape on the western section of the Bai Causeway so profoundly enchanted the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty that he visited the place four times and was reluctant to leave. While on a moonlit tour in 1699 (the thirty-eighth year of his reign), he left the following inscription: “pinghu qiuyue” (autumn moon over the placid lake); it has been preserved to this day.
Adjacent to West Lake lies the Longjing village named after its famous spring well—Longjing (Dragon Well). The well, which never dries up, was believed in ancient times to have harbored a dragon and was connected to the sea. When stirred with a stick, a fine line of ripples resembling a dragon’s whiskers appears on the water’s surface. The renowned Longjing tea with its emerald green color and mellow fragrance is produced in this area.
Over the centuries, the beauty of West Lake has been extolled in countless works of literature and art. Zhang Dai (1597–1679), a distinguished litterateur of the late Ming and early Qing period (ca. seventeenth century), recorded an occurrence during his stay by the lake. One winter’s day, the heavily falling flakes blurred the horizon so that few boats and no tourists were in sight at the lake. However, at the mid-lake pavilion two men were sitting on a rug, with a lad heating and serving wine by their side. At their urging, the writer joined their drinking and all had a good time. Returning home, Zhang’s boatman muttered “Not until now have I found other men as obsessed as you are with the West Lake.”