West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, and Lake Geneva (Lac Léman, in French) in Geneva, Switzerland, have - not unjustifiably - both been likened to pearls. The presence of a lake as magnificent as West Lake in the heart of a city contributes significantly to the special charm of that city, and West Lake's contribution to the beauty and charm of Hangzhou is no exception.
West Lake is surrounded by mountains on three sides. In the east, it is close to Hangzhou's urban areas. The average depth of the lake is around 1.5 meters, with a maximum depth of 2.8 meters. Except for the area in the immediate vicinity of the shores, as well as the naturally-occurring sand bars, or banks, as they are called, that subdivide the lake, West Lake has a minimum depth of not less than 1 meter. The Su Di (Su Bank) and the Bai Di (Bai Bank) divide the lake's surface into five sub-lakes: Li Lake, Wai Lake, Yue Lake, Xili Lake and Xiaonan Lake, each of which possesses its own beauty and charm. The most famous locales, or sites, on the lake, according to cultural sources dating from the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, are referred to as the "Ten Scenic Sites of West Lake".
The Southern Song cultural-historical evaluations notwithstanding, a new set of "Ten Scenic Sites of West Lake" was chosen by the city of Hangzhou in 1985, perhaps because the original ten sites have lost their allure, while new alluring sites have emerged. These latter are (with names that reflect a characteristically Zen-like Chinese charm):
1) Cloud-Sustained Path in a Bamboo Grove
2) Misty Trees by Nine Streams
3) Dreams at Galloping Tiger Spring
4) Yellow Dragon Cave Dressed in Green
5) Sweet Osmanthus Rain at Manjuelong Village
6) Clouds Scurrying over Jade Emperor Hill
7) Inquiring about Tea at Dragon Well
8) Precious Stone Hill Floating in Rosy Clouds
9) Heavenly Wind over Wushan Hill
10) Ruan's Mound Encircled by Greenness
The original "Ten Scenic Sites of West Lake" from the Southern Song Dynasty period, and their descriptions (which descriptions, as indicated, may no longer completely apply), are as follows (note that each of these original sites is marked with a stela on which is written, in calligraphy, a four-character epithet from the hand of Emperor Qianlong himself of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty):*
I. Spring Dawn at Su Causeway
Su Causeway is a narrow, north-south stretch of land, roughly three kilometers long, that was constructed in honor of the famous Song Dynasty poet, Su Dongpo (hence the name of the causeway). At the end of the causeway, which is bedecked with peach trees and weeping willows, stands a memorial hall dedicated to the famous poet. In springtime, when the lakeside sparkles in the morning dew, the many birds chirp and flit about in the tree branches, and with the scent of peach blossoms wafting on the fresh morning breeze, you will feel yourself transported to the very borders of paradise.
II. Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard
This particular scene has earned its name from the fact that it had an abundance of lotus plants growing along its shores, which was known as Crooked Courtyard. It was also the location of a winery. The "perfume" produced by the combination of the scent of lotus flowers and wine, to which was added the scent of the cool breeze from the lake, was said to be positively intoxicating. Though the winery is no more, the cool evening breeze from the lake still blows and the lotus plants still thrive along the shores of Crooked Courtyard, which has been converted into a public park.
III. Autumn Moon over Peaceful Lake
At the western extremity of Bai Causeway is a small, lakeside park. It is an ideal location from which, on autumn evenings, to appreciate the moon's reflection on the surface of the lake, which varies from that of a perfectly flat mirror of the evening sky above on calm evenings to a choppy, broken surface that twinkles endlessly on windy evenings. For some unexplainable reason, the moon always seems to shine brighter from this vantage point, while the dark hills on the landward side seem to be bathed in a purplish hue.
IV. Melting Snow on Broken Bridge
The most romantic, in origin, of the ten scenic sites is surely the one called Melting Snow on Broken Bridge. According to legend, Broken Bridge, which is not really broken, but is a traditional arched stone bridge, is the site where two lovers, Xu Xian and a beautiful maiden, who is actually a white snake, met and fell madly in love. In early spring, when the snow begins to melt, it melts on one side of the bridge first, due the fact that the other side is in shade, which gives the bridge a split image. Viewed from a distance, it looks as if one half of the bridge has been ripped off, since the snowy side blends perfectly in with the surrounding landscape (hence the bridge's name).
V. Sunset Glow over Leifeng Pagoda
Leifeng Pagoda was originally erected in CE 975, during the latter part of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Period. The original brick-and-wood pagoda stood in front of Jingxi Temple, on Nanping Mountain. Unfortunately, the pagoda was burned during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty by Japanese pirates who, under an attack on Hangzhou, feared that the pagoda might be a secret weapons cache. The result was that the wooden parts of the pagoda were burned away, leaving a much-weakened skeletal brick structure behind. Alas, superstition regarding the life-preserving properties of the pagoda's bricks caused the locals to pilfer bricks from the pagoda, weakening it even further (the pilfered bricks were often ground into a powder, which, it was believed, would ward off illnesses - for example, the powder might be sprinkled on a pregnant woman, thus preventing her from having a miscarriage). Leifing Pagoda eventually collapsed in 1924. As an addendum, Leifing Pagoda was given a second life in 1999, when the government decided to reconstruct the famous pagoda on the ruins of the old one. The project was completed in 2002.
VI. Twin Peaks Piercing the Clouds
Most visitors to West Lake are so fascinated by the lake itself that they often don't notice the surroundings. At the site called Twin Peaks Piercing the Clouds, visitors are advised to also lift their gaze from the lake's surface and behold the view on the other side of the lake, where one is rewarded by the sight of two mountain peaks, separated by the short distance of about five kilometers, at the northern rim of the lake. On certain days with low-lying clouds, or on other days when a low-lying fog is present, it is as if these twin peaks pierce through the clouds, the fog, etc., hence the site's name.
VII. Listening to Orioles Singing in the Willows
During the Southern Song Dynasty, an imperial garden, featuring especially weeping willow trees - which is almost always the perfect complement to a seascape - was built on this site. The imperial garden has since become a public park, replete with pavilions, bridges and lawns, and of course the orioles still visit the willows, where they sing as beautifully as when the emperor came here to listen to their song.
VIII. Viewing Fish and Lotus Fronds at Flower Pond
On the lake's southwest corner is a large park area that is characterized by its lotus plants and its goldfish, which are called red fish in translated Chinese. In the heart of Flower Pond Park, which spans an area of some twenty hectares, lies Red Fish Pond, where one can relax while watching the goldfish swim aimlessly about among the lotus fronds, punctuated by the shrill chirping of birds that skitter about from tree to tree along the shore. The green lotus fronds contrast harmoniously with the bright red lotus flowers and the red and orange goldfish that swim in the blue-green water below them, all of which in turn contrasts pleasingly with the blue-and-white skies overhead on a typical summer's day.
IX. Three Pools Mirroring the Moon
At this site, which is located on the southern shore of one of West Lake's three man-made islands, Island of Little Oceans, stand three small pagodas, which, from a distance - or at night - seem to be floating on the lake's surface. Each is about two meters high, and when lit up on a dark night by their flickering candles, they suggest oversized lanterns dancing on the shimmering surface of the lake. On a clear night when the moon is full or near-full, the scene of the island and its lit-up pagodas in the distance, though outdone by the brilliance of the shining moon above, is a wonder to behold.
X. Evening Bell Ringing at Nanping Mountain
This site, like most of the other sites at West Lake, is to be enjoyed to its fullest under certain specific conditions; Evening Bell Ringing at Nanping Mountain, as the name suggests, is to be enjoyed at dusk, when the sun slowly sets, its softened rays casting their multi-colored reflections on the surface of the lake. At this hour the huge bell of Jingxi Temple peals, its clear, forceful sound reverberating across the lake, as if amplified in the still evening air, calling for humility and reminding Buddhists of their age-old religious heritage - and indeed, reminding anyone who experiences this beautiful setting of his or her ultimate smallness within the larger scope of things.
West Lake and its immediate environs can be viewed as an enormous land-and-water park, with some 40 scenic and/or historic sites, comprising more than 30 key cultural relics distributed around the lake. It is said that West Lake is defined by one lake, two peaks, three springs, four temples, five mountains, six gardens, seven caves, eight graves, nine streams, and - not to forget - ten scenic sites.
* No official descriptions of the new "Ten Scenic Sites of West Lake" seem to exist, nor has any dignitary - government official or member of China's current literati - to date produced calligraphic epithets to commemorate the new sites, but it may only be a matter of time before these appear.