Reimagining Hangzhou, China
The ancient city of Hangzhou has once again become a place for renewal in the midst of China's bustle.
In the deep night, with the wind still, the sea calm;
I’ll find a boat and drift away,
to spend my final years afloat,
trusting to the river and the sea.
—Su Dongpo, Hangzhou (1037-1101)
At the very moment I arrived in Hangzhou more than a decade ago, I was struck by a feeling that still grabs me each time I catch sight of the famous silvery disk that is the West Lake. It is, for an instant, as if time has been suspended. As the light reflects off the water, as you watch the hanging willows sway in the wind, as pastel fog lowers over the hills behind the lake, you get a snapshot of something magnificent running under this city: a gift of complete stillness. It reminds me of the old Cartier-Bresson line about the exact right moment to take a photo: like a tossed ball at the instant when it is moving neither up nor down. Well, Hangzhou is an entire city that feels, as it has for centuries, perfectly balanced, pulled neither forward nor back.
Living in China, you may often feel as if you are trapped in a giant home renovation project. Cranes are everywhere, workmen show up when least expected (and not when most needed) and the only constant is dust. But Hangzhou is a break from all of that. The city found its place in history when refugees from the Juchen invaders of Manchuria fled here in 1127. What they discovered was one of the most profound places of peace in the world. As the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, Hangzhou produced transcendently beautiful paintings, habits of tea and mind that bred a culture of sensual relaxation, and, of course, the longing sense of peace in that quote from Su Dongpo.
Su was a statesman turned poet (a uniquely Chinese figure—can you imagine Putin or Bush turning one day to verse?). He shaped the destiny of this city by carving waterways between river and lake. But mostly he was known for his desire to create a town that was like finding a boat and drifting away. To Marco Polo, who came when the city was at its Southern Song height, the watery mass of the town—nearly 10 percent of its surface area is water—must have reminded him of Venice. He called Hangzhou “the most beautiful city in the world.”
Hangzhou is famous for its water, to be sure, but in China it is known mostly for what that water represents. You know the ancient principle of yin and yang, the defining energies of our world? Yin energy is water: pliant and slow and careful. Yang energy is all bluster and ambition and driving force. Yang is male energy, yin is female.
But if you have any question about which matters most, which endures longest, you need only turn to the Dao De Jing, an ancient Chinese philosophical text: The softest things in the world, it tells us, ride roughshod over the hardest.