Restored to former glories

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2012, 12:00am


Hangzhou was once known as Lin'an, the last capital of the Song dynasty before it fell to Kublai Khan's armies in the late 13th century. Few regions are as productive and fertile as the Lower Yangtze around Hangzhou, and the commercial power of the area's silk, tea and rice-growing regions helped keep the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) alive after the Jurchen overran the north and established the Jin dynasty (1115-1234).

After the fall of the north to the Jurchen invaders, Hangzhou grew into one of the largest cities in the world with a population of about 2 million, leading to repeated though futile attempts to reclaim the north.

The Song and Ming dynasties are powerful symbols of ethnic Han rule, and as the capital of the Song, Hangzhou acts as a shrine to the glory of the ancient Song empire. The tomb of the great Song general Yue Fei in Hangzhou is still a popular pilgrimage location and it used to be a tradition to spit on the kneeling, cast-iron sculptures of his betrayers that face his tomb.

Every Chinese schoolchild knows the story of the Song general Yue Fei: how he inflicted defeat after defeat on the Jin until his army stood before the old capital of Kaifeng, one assault away from restoring the Song Empire, only for corrupt officials and a fearful emperor to collude and have him executed in exchange for peace with the Jin.

The West Lake is dotted with monuments to other Song patriots, such as Zheng Qi who expressed his patriotism through painting and writings, including a book called My State of Mind, which was found in a well during the Ming dynasty.

The Su Causeway, stretching across the lake, was built during Hangzhou's 'Lin'an period' by the poet Su Shi and locals took to the shores and waters of the lake in droves to shake off the dread of the Mongol siege of the southern Song lands. After the fall of the Song, Hangzhou Bay silted up and the centre of power shifted, first to nearby Nanjing and Suzhou, and then later, north to Beijing. A new Song revival is taking place, however, on southern Song Imperial Street, a plaza built below the Temple of the City God, on top of Wushan in the centre of the city. Most nights, the temple is lit in splendid red and gold, and the only light that can compete is a 6.6-metre LCD screen by the plaza's fountains. Although the heroics of the southern Song navies and merchants are but distant memories, the gaiety of Lin'an in those final days is resurrected as Hangzhou gives citizens a reason to celebrate again.