Reimagining Hangzhou, China

Stephen Wilkes

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.


This is why traveling now to the yin capital that is Hangzhou is not simply an act of tourism. It is a voyage toward balance. After all, our world now seems perilously out of balance. Chinese medicine doctors will tell you the classic symptoms of a deficiency of yin in the body: an ache that moves from place to place, producing surprising, sharp, stabbing pains and general exhaustion. So it goes in the body politic. What is it we have all been facing in the past few years if not the stabbing pains of wars and crises and political snap traps? An ache that begins in one area and moves around. Isn’t that the mortgage market and joblessness and Greek debt and London riots? Any good Chinese medicine doctor would spot the symptoms instantly: We have had too much of that driving, ambitious yang energy for too long.

Why do we travel? Why do we come to Asia? Of course, it is to see the world. But it is also to see ourselves differently. For Westerners, Asia has always been a strange, magnificent, at times horrifying mirror. What we see flashing back at us on the streets of Mumbai or in the shops of Hong Kong or in the nightclubs of Bangkok is often a slice of our personalities we did not know we had, or that we never thought could grow so large. Asia is a mirror that magnifies. What reflects back at you in Hangzhou is a very precise sense of stillness.

You can devise an itinerary here that will give you that instinctive, quiet balance rarely found anywhere else in the world—and, in the process, change forever the way you look at China. Great politicians and artists, anyone who lives with a surplus of yang energy, have found Hangzhou a perfect place to restore their balance. Mao, for instance, came here regularly—and more often as he aged. He’d disappear into lakeside villas to read, meet occasional visiting officials and write poetry.

The city’s villas, which have been built and inhabited by generals, scholars and tycoons for hundreds of years, have a quality of retreat you may find familiar from Zen temples or Renaissance churches. When you stop by the best of them, places like Cheng Lu, late in the day, you find them quiet and settled and touching on something historic. You might feel as Henry James did when encountering Marco Polo’s Venice in 1899: “Is it the style that has brought about the decrepitude?” he wrote. “Or the decrepitude that has, as it were, intensified and consecrated the style?” The houses of Hangzhou have a permanent and unimpeachable elegance. Is it really your fault if the place makes you want so desperately to read history into everything? James wondered of Venice, a question you’ll often be asking as you walk the Hangzhou streets.

But if history surrounds you here, so does a feeling for the future. Hangzhou is among the richest cities in China—home to some of the biggest new technology firms (and the Bentleys, high-end karaoke clubs and luxe restaurants that trail like camp followers). In that sense, the city captures what China and the rest of Asia are famous for now: a sort of ineluctable, self-invented newness. But what will strike you most here is how Hangzhou balances and absorbs all that, how the lake’s deep yin depths dissipate every jarring shock of the new. It’s a great gift for a city to possess, and one we probably each ought to covet for ourselves. “When will my life of struggle end?” Su Dongpo once puzzled in the years before he resigned his position as minister. The answer, it turned out, was when he settled down at last here in Hangzhou.


One Perfect Day in Hangzhou, China

It is an immense foolishness to miss even a single dawn in Hangzhou. Part of the reason to start early is that the best way to see the city is at the pace of the lake itself: still. It is a city that can only be understood at a speed of zero miles an hour, so you want to have time to arrive and get settled in to each destination. (Not least because it is often the case that zero miles an hour is the best you can expect from the jammed-up two-lane road around West Lake.)

Where you want to go early is Baoshi Hill. If you start hiking at dawn on a summer day, you’ll arrive at the rocky summit after about 30 energetic minutes, just in time to watch the sun spread across the lake, foot by foot. Around you on the hill will be clusters of grandparents who make the climb every day and do tai chi near the Buddhist grottoes carved into the hillside. One of the more unusual habits is that many of those out with you on the mountain scream away into the cool air as dawn comes, expelling excess yang energy with each shout. The noise seems at odds with the still setting until you realize this landscape is so abundant with yin that it can absorb even the most furious outbreaks of yang.

After the hike you’ll want to drive over to the open campus of the China Academy of Art to see the masterful plan developed by the Chinese architect Wang Shu. In a country famous for the great buildings designed by foreign architects—in Beijing, the Bird’s Nest by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron or the CCTV building by Rem Koolhaas—you’ll find here the emergence of a new Chinese architectural vernacular. Wang takes the oldest ideas of Chinese design, like door frames or wooden walls, and reinvents them.

From the academy it is an easy trip to the Yun Qi Zhu Jing bamboo forest. Su Dongpo, that genius of Hangzhou poetics and politics, was also a master painter and observed once: “To paint the bamboo, it is necessary to have it entirely within you.” And in the hills—here, at least—you will find it entirely without. The forest is like a green, engulfing dream; in fact, Hangzhou’s bamboo forests became famous in the States as the setting for the incredible tree-hopping swordfight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. You approach Yun Qi Zhu Jing through valleys lined with tea plants, where the famous Dragon Well longjing tea is cultivated, and after a five-minute walk you find yourself standing by xixintang, the “washing your heart pavilion,” where chilly water runs over mossy rocks and where you can breathe in the intermingled bamboo and mossy air.

You should plan to spend the afternoon in and out of some of the famous local residences now open to tourists. Guo Zhuang is among the most popular. Built toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, the villa has all the taste you’d expect from a rich merchant’s home, but mixed with an unusual philosophical and aesthetic force. The living quarters, known as Living in Quietness, are balanced by a water feature on the other half of the property known as Sky in the Mirror garden. The house’s winding design makes time feel like a bit of an adventure, and it’s not hard even on crowded days to find a small, cool, quiet corner where you can sit for a while.

The luxury for which the city is most famous, of course, is its tea. For almost as long as there has been tea in China, there has been West Lake longjing. We like to say in Chinese that a well-brewed cup of tea is a sign of perfect balance, since the tea leaves are yang and the water is yin. The best place to sip a bit of this yourself is Hu Pan Ju, which occupies a perfect place right on the lake. Let the teahouse’s masters take care of you. They’ll match what they pour with a combination of dried fruits, nuts and seeds that, in their dry-wet contrast with the tea, again evoke a sense of careful balance. (Be sure to ask for the private room in back—and at least a 50 percent discount.)

You can’t go wrong with dinner at the Amanfayun resort just outside town. It’s designed to evoke a traditional Chinese village, with rooms scattered through a verdant forest and a small stream running nearby. In the city itself, you might want to eat at Zhi Wei Guan Wei Zhuang restaurant, which is near the lake and features carefully selected local produce. Huang Fan Er is a favorite of locals, and it sits inside the popular Wushan night market along Hefang Street. After sunset, the market lanes fill with peddlers making custom-drawn spun-sugar treats and bakers slapping together sweet and spicy Chinese crepes while you wait. The food is just the right combination of flavors to settle you down before bed—so you can get up before dawn again and head to another morning hill hike.

Hangzhou, China: The Details

Hangzhou is 45 minutes from Shanghai nonstop on the high-speed train out of Hongqiao Railway Station. A ticket costs $39.

Where to Stay

Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake is well situated in a secluded area on the lake. Rooms start at $390; 5 Lingyin Rd.; 86-571/8829-8888;

Amanfayun Resort offers the usual high standards expected from Aman, but it’s located outside of town. Rooms start at $650; 22 Fayun Nong; 86-571/8732-9999;

Shangri-La Hotel is a classic on the north shore of the lake. Rooms start at $220; 78 Beishan Rd.; 86-571/8797-7951;

Hyatt Regency Hangzhou offers more modern accommodations that overlook the lake. Rooms start at $220; 28 Hu Bin Rd.; 86-571/8779-1234;

Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.