This lively port city on the coast of Zhejiang Province south of Shanghai is officially closed to foreigners, although some tourists have been given permission to go there.
Wenzhou has a reputation of being a rather independent-minded place. A large percentage of its residents have relatives living over-seas, and these contacts, plus the local fishing fleet, have led to large-scale black-marketeering. Together with Hangzhou, Wenzhou was one of the places most seriously affected by factional disorders during the Cultural Revolution. In the early 1970s, the radicals in the central leadership took over from the local military government ruling groups which had taken power at the end of the Cultural Revolution. The people of Wenzhou, however, seem to have strongly resisted the imposition of their radical policies.
According to local radio broadcasts in 1977, after the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ radicals had been purged, the communes in Wenzhou at one point in 1975 or 1976 were disbanded and the land distributed to the peasants for individual farming. Underground factories were set up and the black market flourished. One article said that communications with Wenzhou were ‘restored’ after the fall of the ‘Gang’, suggesting that the city had cut itself off from the rest of the country for a time.
What exactly happened in Wenzhou in the mid-1970s is not known, but the few hints we have suggest that, whatever it was, it was interesting. The city itself is very isolated, and it would be compara-tively easy to cut it off. There are no railways within 100 miles (160 kilometres) and roads in the mountain areas of Zhejiang are very primitive.
The first advertising blurb in the history of Chinese tourism was probably the old Chinese saying: ‘Above there is Heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou.’ The city itself is nothing special, but the surrounding countryside, and particularly the West Lake beside the town, are very pleasant. The town rose to prominence largely because it marks the southern end of the Grand Canal, the mammoth water-way built largely in the seventh century to supply grain to the north of China. (The northern end of the canal is at Tongxian, east of Peking.)
Hangzhou was the capital of the southern Song dynasty for more than a century from 1138 until the Mongols took the city in 1279. Marco Polo visited the city in the late thirteenth century and described it as ‘without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world’. He waxed lyrical, as usual, about the city’s size and the variety and quality of goods for sale in the markets. But he saved a special compliment for the city’s courtesans whom he said were so accomplished ‘that foreigners who have once enjoyed them remain utterly beside themselves and so captivated by their sweetness and charm that they can never forget them’. The city remained prosperous, and became an important silk centre over the following centuries, but it was almost completely destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since the Communist take-over, the city has grown considerably and now has a large number of factories and a population approaching one milhon.
In 1976, Hangzhou was the scene of some of the biggest upheavals in the mid-1970s, as radicals and non-radicals fought it out for supremacy. In March 1977, nine people were executed in Hangzhou for ‘vilifying Chairman Hua Guofeng’ (the leftist successor to Chair-man Mao, who we deposed in 1981 by Deng Xiaoping). The deaths were unfortunate, for within four years, Chairman Hua was himself being vilified. In the late 1970s, the two sons of a high Communist Party official in Hangzhou, known as the ‘Bear Brothers’, shot to brief infamy when they were accused of raping more than 100 girls in their father’s house. One of the brothers was executed. However, the Chinese meaning of the word ‘rape’ is rather different from that in the West. Here, it can simply mean pre-marital sexual intercourse.
The main tourist attraction in Hangzhou is the WEST LAKE, a large freshwater lake surrounded by wooded hills, pagodas, temples and gardens. A number of emperors spent time in Hangzhou and had structures built there, most notably the Manchu emperor Qian Long of the late eighteenth century. Qian Long fancied himself as a poet, and the Hangzhou area is littered with his poems and inscriptions. The SUDONGBUO CAUSEWAY, which runs along the western bank of the lake was built in the eleventh century by a poet who was prefect of Hangzhou. SOLITARY HILL ISLAND (take a No.7 bus from town or walk from the Hangzhou Hotel) near the north shore has a number of interesting buildings, including the remains of an eighteenth-century palace which now houses the PROVINCIAL MUSEUM. The ‘THREE POOLS MIRRORING THE MOON’ ISLAND, close to the southern shore, is pleasant to wander round. There are ferries from a number of points around the lake shore.
In the hills to the west of the lake is the LINYIN THMPLE (take a No.7 bus), one of the oldest Buddhist temples in China, set in a delightful wooded valley. The main temple buildings were destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and were only re-built in the 1920s. Behind the temple is the FEILAIFENG (literally ‘the hill that arrived by air’). There is a cable car to the top or you can walk up.
Close to the Hangzhou Hotel on the northeast shore of the lake is the THMPLE honouring the memory of Yue Fei, a great general of the twelfth century who fought the Tartar invaders but was betrayed and murdered by the prime minister Qin Gui. Yue Fei’s tomb lies behind the temple, and in front of it are four statues representing the evil prime minister, his wife and two other accomplices in the murder. For centuries, it has been a tradition for visitors to spit on the four statues.
In the hills to the south of the Linyin temple (take a No.27 bus) is DRAGON WELL, home 9f the most famous type of green tea in China -Dragon Well (Longjing) tea. The well in question can be seen although there is no sign of dragons.
There used to be canals running throughout the central city area of Hangzhou, but most have now been filled in. However, there are still a couple of waterways running north-south through the town, and the terminus of the Grand Canal is to the north of the city.
The main excursion from Hangzhou is to the towns of SHAOXING and NINGBO to the east, linked to Hangzhou by train. Shaoxing is a picturesque little town with canals and old houses, and it is famous for a type of rice wine. It was also the birthplace of the writer Lu Xun. (For details on Ningbo, see below.)
How to get there and where to stay
There are flights to Hangzhou from Canton, Peking and Hong Kong, and it is on the main railway line between Shanghai and Canton. Some foreigners have managed to take a ferry along the Grand Canal north to Suzhou, but others have been refused tickets.
The best hotel is the Hangzhou Hotel (take a No.7 bus from the railway station), situated right on the lake shore, away from the centre of town. It has nice standard hotel rooms and also a dormitory. Other hotels include the Xiling Guesthouse, east of the Hangzhou Hotel), and the Overseas Chinese Hotel in the city, on the east bank of the lake (also take a No.7 bus from the railway station).
Ningbo was one of the old Treaty Ports opened up to foreign trade by the British in 1842 after the first Opium War, and it contains many buildings from that era, especially down near the harbour. The town was a busy commercial centre long before the foreigners arrived, and only began to decline when its position as the premier port of the region was usurped by Shanghai. The wily Ningbo traders followed the money and founded the basis of the Chinese business community in Shanghai, being particularly strong in the banking sector.
The town is rather dark and dingy with a lot of broken-down old buildings which no one has bothered to repair. The liveliest place is down near the harbour but, generally speaking, there is not much to see. Chinese tourists visit Ningbo on their way to PUTUO ISLAND, the site of one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. According to legend, the Buddha Guan Yin (goddess of mercy) floated to the island on a water lily, and her throne is still there. The catch is that the island is out of bounds to foreigners.
In the hills around Ningbo, there are some interesting Buddhist temples and menasteries, particularly at TIANTAI SHAN, about 50 miles (80 kilometres) south of the town. There are local buses, but it is sometimes difficult to obtain permission to go there.
How to get there and where to stay
Ningbo is linked by rail to Hangzhou, and there are also ferries to and from Shanghai. The town’s main hotel is the Overseas Chinese Hotel (Huaqiao Fandian), which has double rooms for 12 yuan each. If you’re on your own, take a pedi-cab from the railway station, a 15-minute ride.