Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province and one of China's seven ancient capitals, is a coastal city located roughly midway, north to south, along China's coastline, and a relatively close neighbor to Shanghai, which lies 180 kilometers farther to the north. Hangzhou is also situated at the mouth of the Qiantang River, and at the southern tip of the Jing-Hang Canal, aka Grand Canal, which extends all the way to Beijing, and which, having evolved over the centuries, finally reached its full length in CE 609, during the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty. Although Hangzhou was originally founded during the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, it was first put on China's map, as it were, during the Sui Dynasty. Indeed, the city's walls were erected at the same time that the Grand Canal - the longest man-made waterway ever conceived - was under construction.
Hangzhou's cultural origins date back some 7000 years, to China's Neolithic Period of the Stone Age*, when the Hemuda Culture flourished in the area immediately south of present-day Hangzhou Bay, in a village called Yuyao (evidence of Hemuda Culture was also discovered on the collection of islands that dot the mouth of Hangzhou Bay, known today as the islands of Zhoushan, which, like Hangzhou itself, belong to Zhejiang Province). Yuyao lies about 100 kilometers east of Hangzhou.
As indicated above, Hangzhou was originally founded during the Qin Dynasty, but first rose to prominence during the Sui Dynasty. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Period, the city became the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom, a kingdom that was founded by a respected military leader of the Qian family who had served under the last emperor of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, but who formed the new kingdom out of the power vacuum that was created by the collapse of that dynasty.
Near the end of the Tang Dynasty, Qian Liu had been given the title of Prince of Yue by Emperor Ai Di, and the title of Prince of Wu was appended to this honor only two years later, both titles being a reference to two small kingdoms that had existed more than a thousand years earlier, during the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty (the Kingdom of Wu was eventually usurped by the Kingdom of Yue). When the Tang Dynasty fell in CE 907, Qian Liu immediately pronounced himself the King of Wuyue. This led to the splintering of what had been the Tang Dynasty. Unified rule was first consolidated again with the emergence of the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty. The unstable interim period has been termed the aforementioned Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.
Despite the political instability of the period, Hangzhou - called Xifu at the time - flourished, having become one of the three pivotal centers of culture that defined southern China - which has always been considered the cradle of Han Chinese civilization - during the 10th century (the other two centers of southern Chinese culture being Nanjing, in Jiangsu Province, and Chengdu, in Sichuan Province). Wuyue's founding fathers saw themselves as standard-bearers of Han Chinese culture, and thus became patrons of art - defined in the broadest sense, i.e., to include religious architecture and other religious artwork - which generosity Buddhists in particular profited from.
Given its location as a budding port city, Hangzhou attracted the attention of foreign capitals in the region, including those of Korea and Japan. It also established and maintained diplomatic contact with regimes of northern China, such as the Khitan Empire (i.e., the Liao (CE 907-1125) Dynasty), which was perhaps only possible due to the comfortable distance between the two political entities (nearer neighbors always risked being overrun). It was during this volatile period in China's history that the city of Hangzhou reached its pinnacle of grandeur during the imperial era, having been endowed with the enviable title of "the first canton in the southeast", which, in Chinese terms for the period, was a major achievement.
It was also during the Song Dynasty - specifically, during the Southern Song Dynasty - that Marco Polo visited the city and pronounced it as "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world". And speaking of Hangzhou's commerce, he added, "[t]he number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, was so enormous that no man could form a just estimate thereof." Another famous 13th century explorer, the Moroccan, Ibn Battuta, said of Hangzhou that it was "the biggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth." Not surprisingly, given its status as a pre-eminent port of trade, Hangzhou became an important center of Chinese Jewry.
Due to warring in the north of China during this period, Hangzhou saw a constant influx of migrants, especially Han Chinese migrants, which contributed greatly to the city's "boom" in both a commercial and an artistic sense. At least two present-day outside sources - the Encyclopedia Britannica and the French historian Jacques Gernet - have estimated that Hangzhou had a population well in excess of 1 million (the Encyclopedia Britannica put the figure at 2 million). It is in any case believed that Hangzhou was the world's largest city between the years 1180-1315, and again from 1348-1358, according to the 1987 source, Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census, by Tertius Chandler.
Unfortunately, this once great city began to decline in stature by the middle of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, due to the fact that its harbor became increasingly clogged with silt, a development that spelled disaster for a port city at a time when harbor dredging had never been attempted (and indeed, was probably not feasible at the time, given the limited technology in this area).
Hangzhou played a prominent role under the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China following the collapse of China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. The city has since played an important role under the government of the People's Republic of China. For example, during U.S. President Nixon's breakthrough visit to the PRC in 1972, which event marked the opening of China to the West, albeit, in small, tentative steps (there would be a number of reversals as time passed), the famous "Shanghai Communique" that was entered into between China's Premier Zhou Enlai and President Nixon - on behalf of China and the U.S., respectively - though negotiated in Beijing, was signed at Hangzhou.
The present-day city of Hangzhou bears all the badges, as it were, of its glorious past. Here the tourist will find temples, churches and mosques belonging to Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam (sadly, there is no longer a Jewish community in Hangzhou, though there is a new and thriving Jewish community numbering some 200-300 individuals in neighboring Shanghai, mainly of American, Israeli and European descent).
Hangzhou is speckled with courtyards, gardens, Buddhist temples, towers, pavilions, more Buddhist temples, springs, gullies, rock caves and still more Buddhist temples. Ancient cliff inscriptions abound here and there, just as there are scores of Buddha and boddhisatva figures in parks and in other public places, and of course there are innumerable examples of these sculptures, many of which are of precious jade, inside the city's Buddhist temples.
Yet, present-day Hangzhou artfully blends its ancient past with the new, the young and the beautiful; sleek, hypermodern architecture coexists comfortably with cultural relics of the past. Hangzhou is also a very romantic city, especially at dusk, when the city's lights cast their multi-colored hues across the surface of West Lake. No two lakeside scenes are alike, and the same lakeside scene seems never to be the same on two different occasions.
Hangzhou was also one of the first cities in China to try to raise awareness of the environment. For example, in 2002 the city began the introduction of natural gas as an energy substitute for coal as regards residential housing, though coal remains the prime source of energy for industry in the city, as it does throughout China (although China's coal-powered trains have long since been replaced with locomotives that burn cleaner energy, such as diesel and electricity).
Hangzhou was also the first city in China to introduce city-provided, shared city bikes (the kind one borrows by putting a coin into a slot, unlocking the bike, then locking it after use in a similar parking facility at one's destination, where the same coin denomination is returned, meaning that the ride is for free). It comes as no surprise that the city's increasingly milieu-conscious officials have decided to launch a public bike service - something that Hangzhouers and tourists alike have received with gratitude - given Hangzhou's rare beauty, which, one might reasonably argue, is best appreciated on two wheels rather than on four.
* The Neolithic Period, which is the final of the three periods of the Stone Age (the first two being the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic, in that order) - and sometimes called the New Stone Age - is not a rigid chronological period. Rather, it is better thought of as consisting of a number of cultural and behavioral characteristics that manifest themselves in terms of social organization and the invention of specific types of implements. Since this developmental process varied from region to region, the Neolithic Period began and ended at different times in different places in the world. Therefore one can more properly speak of the Middle East's New Stone Age, for example, or of the Neolithic Period as it unfolded in China.