Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in east China, lies close to the mouth of the Qiantang River at the western end of the Gulf of Hangzhou.
Today, the city remains renowned for its beauty, which some claim is unsurpassed in China; and although some of the historic buildings have been destroyed, the archaeological attractions that remain are still impressive. Many sections of the town have not changed for centuries, while the famous West Lake region retains its reputation as one of the most beautiful spots in China, with landscaped gardens on its banks, tree-shaded walks, and in the nearby hills, temples, pagodas, and monasteries.
Hangzhou was a small fishing village until late in the sixth century, when the extension of the Grand Canal southward from the Yangzi led to the development of a busy commercial center in the town. It prospered, especially during the peaceful early period of the Tang Dynasty. Its growth was assisted by the development of the lower Yangzi area into the nation's most important agricultural region.
Hangzhou underwent dramatic development when the Song Dynasty, pushed south by the conquering Jin, established its capital there. In a short space of 100 years, the population grew to almost a million and the town flourished as a major trading center. Although the city was partly destroyed by the invading Mongols in the late 13th-century, it appeared impressive to Marco Polo when the famous Italian traveler visited the city shortly afterwards. According to Marco Polo, Hangzhou was “without doubt the finest and most splendid city the world... there are said to be 13,000 bridges, mostly of stone... vast are the numbers of those accustomed to dainty living, to the point of eating fish and meat at one meal.”
As for the West Lake, Marco Pole wrote: “On one side it skirts the city... and commands a distant view of all its grandeur and loveliness, its temples, monasteries, and gardens with their towering trees, running down to the water's edge. On the lake itself is the endless procession of barges thronged with pleasure-seekers... their minds and thoughts are intent upon nothing but bodily pleasures and the delights of society.”