Hangzhou, history told by its architecture

Why I wrote this? Living in the west for three years, sometimes I still get astonished by how little an average person in Europe knows about China. One of the most frequent questions after “where are you from” would be “which city of China do you come from?”/“whereabout?”.

hangzaou mappaIn this case, most people will stare at me in a polite confusion after hearing the answer “Hangzhou” articulated from my mouth.
Basically, if one has not stepped his feet on Chinese territory or well-informed enough to know about Asian culture, he simply doesn’t know any city beyond Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Although all of them densely populated, they count less than 5 percent of the whole country’s population. The reason behind this might be complex and it is intrinsically linked with China’s soft power radiation and cultural diplomacy.

Yet proud of my identity and origin, I would like to give you an idea on what my home is. In this short piece of text, except for the cover photo, all the others were taken by me with my smartphone, for the reason that I would like to show you my hometown directly, without PS or filters staying in between.

A time travel: from the modern time to the ancient era
Despite all the negativity, one thing that a Chinese always talks about with pride, might be the history of his/her hometown. True, more than two thousand years of empire history and more than five millenniums of civilisation, in general almost every main city in China can trace its history back to thousands of years ago. Even so, Hangzhou stands out for its age-old existence.

It is listed as one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China: apart from being the capital of various Kingdoms before 1000 AD, it was chosen as the new capital of the Southern Song dynasty in 1132, the peak period of overseas commercial prosperity in history. In Marco Polo’s book, Hangzhou, called Kinsay by the Venetian himself, was “greater than any in the world” and “had over one hundred miles in diameter and had 12,000 stone bridges”.
Whether he had actually been to Hangzhou or not, the description must have been exaggerated whereas its economic importance can be confirmed. As a prefecture, it registered around 9 million people while in the downtown the number may be slightly lower.

The economy has been booming since its open up in 1982 and it is now considered an important manufacturing base and logistic hub for coastal China with a nominal GDP per capita around 15,000 euro. In terms of life level measured by purchasing power, it more or less equals to Liguria region in Italy. hangzao grattacieliAs you can probably perceive from above, the city seems to be good combination of  modern convenience and historical heritage.
In the cover picture taken on the hill of Paochu, you can clearly notice the split between the urban area and natural reserve zone. This photo on the right hand side does not demonstrate anything particular “Chinese”. Indeed, in the course of a rapid urbanisation launched at the end of 20th century, the urban landscape has been totally transformed into a modern, sometimes tedious, jungle of cement.
In the Central Business District, skyscrapers stand one besides another. As like in elsewhere in the world, the architecture remains always the best story teller of urban history. In the midst of buildings on the streets, somehow edifices’ style can sell out its age. hangzao marketTaking the picture on the left as an example, it was shot close to my home and we can immediately see two architectural genres: the first is that of tall residential buildings, modern and quasi minimalist with focus on the functionality; the second is at their foot, shorter and monotone, finished before the commercialisation of real estate market in China. hangzao 1

If we continue our voyage in time capsule, in the early phase of urbanisation long before the foundation of People’s Republic in 1949, there are small urban communities at the foot of Phoenix Hill where a more traditional lifestyle has been yet well preserved.

This may look shabby to you: the clothes hanged outside residents’ houses and bicycles casually lean on the wall. Back in the days, the majority of Hangzhou habitants lived in this way. When I promenaded along the main road of the community called Mantoushan, literally means the hill of steam buns, a familiar yet faraway memory came to me, it was a feeling of person-to-person neighbourhood.

Everyone knows one another out there within a frame of mutual benefit interpersonal network. Nowadays communities like this are extremely hard to find in metropolitan area of Hangzhou and many young people remain aloof to it because it seems to be outdated and old-fashioned. Marching further into the depth of time, to you western public, this will appear to be more familiar. In accord with traditional Fengshui, building ought to be constructed in the harmony with the surrounding natural environment.  hangzao fengshuihangzao 2

On the left it is the tea field in Longjing village, where the most renowned green tea is cultivated. In a distant there are houses with black roof and white outer wall. And on the right rather than for residential use, it is a tea house on the edge of a lake, typical leisure place for people to spend their weekend in.

The ancient-time appearance notwithstanding, to tell the truth, the interior part of them has been totally refurbished to adapt to modern use. I took this picture only two steps away from downstairs of my home. It used to be an old populace district of dilapidated buildings. Since five years ago, the municipal government decided to commence an urban transform project by renovating there run-down edifices, turning them into a commercial area.

At present all these houses are restaurants and tea houses attracting people to take a relax after their work. hangzao 3Owing to the rapid pace of modernisation, at times some sheer contrasts can be noticed in terms of architectural style. Like this one, right below the overpass, there is a tiny bridge over a stream sandwiched by trees and bushes on both sides of banks. You can either view this bridge as a block to the traffic circulation, or you can treat the overpass as a devastating monster that suddenly came into a tranquille city milieu.

All depends on your perspective. hangzao xiuru liu
At the end of this article, I would like to quote a celebrate sentence from Augustine di Hippo: the world is a book and those who don’t travel read only one page.

Hangzhou, like other cities in our wonderful world, is just one page of a colourful book.
It may be black strange to most of you, but this doesn’t imply that it is not worthwhile for travelling. All the buildings mentioned above resemble different colour layers of one big painting. Thus by watching carefully various layers, I embrace the spirit of Hangzhou.

Xiuru Liu



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