Situated at the foot of Ruofen Mountain, about 3 kilometers east of the heart of the city of Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province, East Lake, along with West Lake in Hangzhou and South Lake in Jiaxing, make up the three most famous lakes belonging to Zhejiang Province, and, indeed, these three lakes are among the country's most prominent.
East Lake is largely an artificial lake, though it was not expressly created as such. It got to be a lake by the quarrying of the bluestone (a bluish-grey sandstone) that makes up the area's bedrock, especially the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains. The quarrying of the bluestone began already during the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty, but accelerated especially during the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty, when construction on the Great Wall was significantly expanded.
After the bluestone was removed, the series of pools that resulted began to fill up, via natural seepage from the mountain. The quarrying process was not "linear", because the deposits of bluestone were not uniform, but rather, were irregular, meaning that what appears to be a single lake is in reality a series of interconnected pools of varying depths, some in fact quite deep. Steps were taken to prevent water from the nearby river from entering the pools, in order to preserve the pristine nature of the lake that was in the process of forming. The end result is a lake inadvertently carved out of stone, with some of the walls of the lake in the form of sheer cliffs, which adds to the spectacular beauty of the lake.
Though not nearly so large and magnificent as West Lake, East Lake has its admirers, due to the lake's unique beauty and charm that rests as much on the unique manmade topography of the area - including a small hill and the crescent-shaped lake itself, as well as caverns, or grottoes, that were hollowed out during the quarrying process - as it does on the pleasingly laid out complementary archtectural structures that dot the lake, including pavilions, stone bridges, a special veranda and other buildings.
The two most beautiful pools are each characterized by a cave, or grotto, by which the pool is known, namely Taogong Dong ("Cave") and Xiantao Dong ("Xiantao" means "Fairy Peach", while "Taogong" means "Tao's work", and is a reference to Tao Chengzhang, a native of Shaoxing and a Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty revolutionary member of the Guangfu Hui (Restoration Society), which sought to overthrow the monarchy and institute a republic - Tao was assassinated in 1912, soon after the Qing Dynasty was toppled). The most prominent pavilions are Hanbi, Lanyue, Tingqiu, Xiangji and Yinlu, while the most prominent stone bridges are Qin, Tingbu, Wanliu and Xiachuan.
East Lake was a favorite haunt of a couple of other revolutionary figures of the same era as Tao Chengzhang: Sun Zhongshan (better known in subsequent years as Dr. Sun Yat-sen) and Xu Xilin, who was executed by the Qing Dynasty government for his leadership role in a failed uprising, which mounting social unrest would eventually unseat the Qing Dynasty (so hated was the young revolutionary by the Qing military that after Xu was shot by firing squad the day after he was captured (i.e., when the revolutionaries' supply of bullets ran out), the soldiers split open his abdomen and ripped out his heart).
But East Lake was also a favorite haunt of a Left-leaning member of the Chinese literati during the years of the Republic of China, Lu Xun, whose writings earned him the unofficial title of the father of modern Chinese literature (Lu was in fact admired by none other than Chairman Mao himself, even though Lu never officially became a member of the Chinese Communist Party). Like Tao Chengzhang, Lu Xun was a native of Shaoxing. It is also said that Emperor Shi Huangdi (aka Qin Shi Huang), the first ruler of a unified China during the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, would stop at the site of present-day East Lake to stretch his legs and to rest his horses when he passed through the area, so appealing was the site even in those times.
After the emergence of the People's Republic of China, ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party as well as prominent members of the government, including Chairman Mao Zedong himself, frequented East Lake for its ambient atmosphere. Guo Moruo (1892-1978), famous author, historian, poet and archeologist - and once an official in the government of Sichuan Province - composed a poem about East Lake, which goes like this:
"East Lake, as small as a bamboo basket,
was artificially excavated.
Cliffs rise for thousands of chi*
and paths are narrow to pass.
Enter the cave in a big boat
and watch the sky above like a frog in a well.
Don't say that the lake is small,
because it contains the sky."
The cave in question is Taogong Dong, which is 50 meters in height, has a very narrow, 50-meter-high vertical slit for an entrance, and with an opening above - once inside the cave - that lets in the skylight, hence the poet's comparison of man's smallness vis-à-vis mother nature to that of a frog at the bottom of a well.
* A chi is a unit of measure that has varied over time, but since 1860, its length has been fixed at 14.1 inches.