The top ten scenic spots of West Lake according to Emperor Kangxi

Culture, Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: August 24th, 2012 | Updated: August 4th, 2014 | Comments

From the Seven Wonders of the Ancient Greeks to the Billboard Top 40, lists have long helped us decide which few out of the many we should seek out. Anyone who has studied Chinese culture or traveled to China knows that as a culture they have been historically fond of lists. There are the Four Great Beauties, lovely ladies of ancient China tied to important historical events; the Four Major Novels of classic Chinese literature and even more modern lists, like the political slogan "8 Honors and 8 Dishonors."

The Ten Scenes of West Lake (Xīhú Shí Jǐng,  西湖十景) was the traditional countdown for poets and artists enjoying the natural (but man-maintained) scenery of West Lake in Hangzhou dating back to the Song Dynasty. Collections by poets and artists praised the ten sights, giving tourists a guide of what to see at West Lake during different seasons, weather and times of day.

Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, who made six trips to the lake during his 61-year reign, took up the project of weeding out discrepancies in names and fixing the sequence in making his official version of the top ten scenes of West Lake. His grandson Emperor Qianlong, a great admirer of his grandfather, followed in his footsteps and had stelae erected with the names of the ten scenic spots carved after Qianlong's own handwriting.

For these two Manchu emperors, the list was a way to Sinicize themselves to the predominately Han people of China. For the modern tourist, this traditional list offers a glimpse of Hangzhou's famous West Lake through the lens of Chinese tradition....


1. Dawn Over Su Causeway in Spring


Su Shi (Sū​ Shì​, 苏轼), an outspoken official as well as a renowned painter, poet and art theorist, was made prefect of Hangzhou in 1089 during the Northern Song Dynasty. By that time, West Lake had shrunken to half its previous size due to increased land usage around the lake and was choked with weeds.

To prevent the famous lake from degrading into a swamp, Su Shi had it dredged and the sediment pulled from the lake formed into Su Causeway, made up of small islands connected by bridges that crosses the entire lake from north to south, to allow locals another means of enjoying the lake. Sunrise reveals the serene scene of Dawn Over Su Causeway in Spring (Sū Dī Chūnxiǎo, 苏堤春晓) that inspired painters and poets alike, with the trees planted along the causeway in full spring bloom, swaying in the wind.


2. Scent of the Quyuan Brewery and Lotuses on the Wind

The imperial family of the Southern Song Dynasty kept their imperial brewery, Quyuan, close to the banks of West Lake in their capital city, Hangzhou. When the gentle summer breeze blew through lotuses kept in the lake near the brewery, it mixed with the smells of alcohol and was said to make even those not drinking feel intoxicated.

Whether or not this economical drunkenness was more poetry than fact will have to be left to the imagination—the brewery went in to disrepair and by Kangxi's time the Scent of the Quyuan Brewery and Lotuses on the Wind (Qūyuàn Fēnghé, 曲苑风荷) was long gone. Kangxi had a pavilion and stelae erected on the lake's northwest side to represent the scene. Lotuses still bloom in the park located on the spot today near the Mausoleum of Yue Fei, BYOB.


3. Autumn Moon Over the Peaceful Lake


Traditionally, viewing the autumn moon over West Lake was a sight without a designated spot. Locals and travelers took to boats—small ones and large pleasure boats alike—to admire the autumn moon. Kangxi, however, ordered a pavilion built to mark the spot for viewing the moon on Solitary Hill (Gu Shan) at the western end of the Bai Causeway (Bái Dī, 白堤). The neon lights lining the eaves of the two-story pavilion were probably not what Kangxi had in mind, but their reflection in the water is there to serenely hypnotize even when the Autumn Moon Over the Peaceful Lake (Pínghú Qiūyuè, 平湖秋月) is not.


4. Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge

In keeping with the seasonal theme, Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge (Duàn Qiáo Cánxuě, 断桥残雪) takes in the view from the arched Broken Bridge (Duàn Qiáo, 断桥), located at the eastern end of the Bai Causeway, the day after snow has fallen. To the northwest, the view takes in the snow-covered buildings and hill at Gu Shan while the rest of the lake stretches out in black contrast to the south, with the snowy white hills around it.

The Broken Bridge is also said to be the meeting place of two star-crossed lovers from the Ming-era story "Account of Three Pagodas at West Lake" (Xīhú Sān Tǎ Jì, 西湖三塔記) about the love between a young man and a young woman, who was actually a white snake, making this a popular spot for those in love.


5. Listening to Orioles Among the Billowing Willows


The rather poetically named Listening to Orioles Among the Billowing Willows (Liǔlàng Wén Yīng, 柳浪闻莺), also translated as Orioles Singing in the Willows, was once the Southern Song Imperial Gardens. It's a park perfect for strolling along the cobblestone walkways watching as orioles weave through willow-shaded gardens. The park can be found on the lake's east bank beside Nanshan Road (Nánshān Lù, 南山路) north of Hefang Street (Héfāng Jiē, 南山路河坊街).    


6. Watching the Fish at the Flower Harbor

Once part of the private garden of a Southern Song government official, Flower Harbor on the lake's southwestern side blooms throughout the spring and summer. Today, Watching the Fish at Flower Harbor (Huā Gǎng Guànyú, 花港观鱼) happens at the garden's Red Carp Pond where fish crowding to the surface to snap up food is reflected on busy days by tourists crowding the waters edge hoping to snap a picture. The spot was a particular favorite of Emperor Qianlong, who wrote a poem about it.


7. Glow of Sunset Upon Leifeng Pagoda


While the name is traditionally written as "evening glow" (夕照), Kangxi changed the name in his list to "western glow" (西照)—both with the same pronunciation. The Glow of Sunset Upon Leifeng Pagoda (Léifēng Xīzhào, 雷峰夕照) creates a silhouette said to resemble a gentleman (the pagoda) beside a reclining lady (the hill). For many, there's more to the story than just the scene, though.

While Leifeng Pagoda was built in 975 on the orders of the ruler of the Wuyue Kingdom, it was later tied to the aforementioned love story—after the two fall in love, a Daoist exorcist discovers the woman's secret that she's actually a white snake and has her buried beneath the pagoda (the two other women in her family are likewise disguised animals who are placed beneath two other pagodas). Luckily for our mythical white snake lady, the pagoda on top of her collapsed in the 1920's after locals stole too many of the bricks from the base of the already-dilapidated pagoda. The current structure was built with an elevator inside to get guests to the top, but thankfully it doesn't ruin the silhouette.


8. Twin Peaks Breaking Through the Clouds


Much like Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge, this view requires some rather specific weather conditions. The Twin Peaks Breaking Through the Clouds (Shuāng Fēng Chā Yún, 双峰插云), located on the northwest side of the lake, are said to be best viewed from Hongchun Bridge (Hóngchūn Qiáo, 洪春桥) on a drizzly autumn or spring day.    


9. The Toll of the Evening Bell at Nanping


The Toll of the Evening Bell at Nanping Hill (Nánpíng Xiǎozhōng, 南屏晓钟) was the subject of a painting by Northern Song-era painter Zhang Zeduan, best known for his 527-centimeter long (17 ft 3 in) painting Along the River During Qingming Festival (Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú, 清明上河图). Located atop Nanping Shan (Nánpíng Shān, 南屏山) on the south side of the lake, Jingci Temple (Jìngcí Sì, 净慈寺) has an extra special bell ringing to bring in the Chinese New Year.


10. Three Pools Reflecting the Moon

During his time as prefect of Hangzhou, Su Shi also built three small stupas on the lake as boundary markers. These have also been said to be the pagodas referenced in the Ming-era story of the white snake and the boy that loved her. While they were also included in the list the Ten Scenes of West Lake by the 13th century, the corruption of a Buddhist monastery located on a nearby islet prompted one city official to order the pagodas and monastery destroyed more than 200 years later. Today, three new stupas have taken their place as the Three Pools Reflecting the Moon (Sāntán Yìnyuè, 三潭印月). They're iconic enough to be on the back of the RMB 1 note and they can be reached by boat.

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