A Short History of Hangzhou

historical hangzhou west lake

Sara Naumann

Today Hangzhou is booming again. Not only is it a major tourist destination for its famous West Lake, but it's also home to some of China's biggest innovative businesses, like Alibaba.

However, Hangzhou is also an ancient city with a rich and complex history. Here the history of Hangzhou in brief.

Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, famous for the building of an incredible mausoleum to himself known today as the Terracotta Warriors Museum, gets all the way to Hangzhou and declares the region a part of his empire.

Sui Dynasty (581-618)

The Grand Canal, originating in Beijing, is extended to Hangzhou, thus linking the city to the most profitable trading route in China. Hangzhou becomes increasingly powerful and prosperous.

Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Hangzhou's population increases as well as its regional power, serves as the capital for the Wuyue kingdom in the late tenth century.

Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)

These years saw Hangzhou's golden age of prosperity as it became the capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty. Local industry flourished and worship of Taoism and Buddhism peaked. Many of the temples that you can visit today were built during this period.

Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368)

Mongols rule China and Marco Polo visits Hangzhou in 1290. It is said that he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the Xi Hu, or West Lake, that he transcribed, and thus popularized, a famous Chinese saying Shang you tiantang, xia you Suhang. This saying means "in heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Su[zhou] and Hang[zhou]". The Chinese now like to call Hangzhou a "Paradise on Earth".

Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1644, 1616-1911)

Hangzhou continued to grow and prosper from its local industries, especially silk weaving, and became the center for silk production in all of China.

Recent History

After the Qing Dynasty crumbled and the republic was established, Hangzhou lost economic status to Shanghai with its foreign stakes in the 1920s. Internal warfare cost Hangzhou hundreds of thousands of people and whole sections of the city were destroyed.

Since the opening of China in the 20th century, Hangzhou has been on the rebound. Increasing foreign investment and a cluster of some of China's most successful private enterprises, like New York Stock Exchange-listed Alibaba, have made Hangzhou, once again, one of the most prosperous cities in China.

How to Visit Historical Hangzhou

Visiting historical Hangzhou is slightly easier than in other large cities that have been developing at light-speed. The West Lake itself is a nice way to ground yourself in the history of the city with its beautiful views and scenic walks. Take to the hills and visit some of the historical pagodas and temples. Or take a walk down Qinghefang Historic Street. If you can weave through the vendors, you can get a sense of what the city looked like in ancient times.