I never expected that 2020 would be shadowed by COVID-19 in both my home country and the one I am currently living in. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have been spending more time online, joining Zoom meetings, sending messages, and reading every piece of information about this unfolding crisis.
Two news articles grabbed my attention as they mentioned the cultural site I wrote about in the book The Rise of West Lake: A Cultural Landmark in the Song Dynasty. On March 13, when the situation had somewhat stabilized in China, China Daily published an article “Hangzhou’s West Lake an idyllic spring destination.” Photos in this article show not only the willow trees that start sprouting but also sightseers strolling along the lake, all maintaining social distance measures and wearing masks (which is considered a necessary form of protection).
March has always been one of the best seasons for an outing to West Lake and long been extolled by poets and rendered by painters with emotionally charged brushes. The scenery is not much different from past years—not even from almost a thousand years ago. The willow and peach trees were planted along the causeway by the local governor Su Shi after an eleventh-century dredging project, and the Leifeng Pagoda in one photo has guarded the south end of the lake since the tenth century (the current one was rebuilt in 2002). Such scenery, however, becomes particularly precious this year. Hangzhou, like other cities in China, experienced a “stay-at-home” quarantine for the entire month of February, and major scenic sites were all closed to the public. It is not surprising that this article uses West Lake in the spring to symbolically convey the message that this is a long-awaited stabilized time; the masks in the image reveal just how much people miss the fresh air after four-weeks of self-quarantine. The lake indicates that it is now safe to go outdoors to embrace nature and represents the hope of going back to normal life. The emotion conveyed by springtime also enhances such hope. Literature and images about the lake love to portray the theme “Spring Dawn at Su Causeway,” one of the Ten Views that formed in the thirteenth century. At this moment, there is no better term than “spring dawn” to describe what people have desired during their long struggle in the dark.
Another article is about a bus that passed along the street next to West Lake that was painted with the three colors of Italy’s national flag, offering moral support for Hangzhou’s sister city, Verona. The bus exterior features both the painting of the Colosseum and the image of “Three Stupas and the Reflecting Moon,” another one of the Ten Views. The three pagodas in the middle of the lake were built by Su Shi to mark the boundary allowed for diked paddies. The practical function of these pagodas later disappeared while the scenic beauty they added to the lake became a popular theme for artistic creation. This scene also appears on the back of the one-yuan bill. Using this scenic site side-by-side with the Colosseum offers reassurance that the lake and its cultural sites are still considered as symbols for the city and Chinese culture.
Hangzhou and West Lake have long served as icons of Chinese landscape appreciation, literary and artistic expression, and tourism. During this difficult time, when people are living in fear, uncertainly, and isolation, the lake had become especially attractive and idealized. The fact that the lake welcomes visitors eases feelings of insecurity, and the iconic landscape symbolizes rapprochement with people in another country. The natural beauty of West Lake, as it has done many times throughout history, again has functioned as something comforting. Over time, writings on West Lake constructed it as a prominent landscape, consisting of stable elements such as the willow trees that always turn green in the spring and pagodas that silently yet firmly stand on the lakeshore. The “eternal” cultural tradition it conveys allows the lake to function as an anchor for identity, through which visitors and commentators have expressed their affection and a sense of hope for the country during such a scary and unknown time.
West Lake has dried up several times in history, and at times its beauty was shadowed by war and disasters. However, it could always resume its prosperity thanks to the endeavor, courage, and emotional attachment of people. Just as the lake has revived, I hope we can soon return to a time when people—in China, in the United States, and all other places—can enjoy and celebrate the natural scenery together with families and friends without worrying about social distancing.
Xiaolin Duan is assistant professor of history at North Carolina State University. The Rise of West Lake: A Cultural Landmark in the Song Dynasty is available now.