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West Lake - Legends

West Lake - Legends

The Story of West Lake: Mountains Beside the Lake

Once upon a time, a dragon and a phoenix lived beside a river in heaven, and did everything they could to burnish a rock into a glimmering pearl. The goddess Wangmu was tempted by the pearl's beauty and sent someone to steal it. The dragon and phoenix went in search of their lost pearl and eventually traced it to the goddess.

They demanded Wangmu return them the pearl but she refused and a fight broke out in the heavens. In the midst of their struggle, the pearl fell from heaven to earth and transformed into the beautiful West Lake. The dragon and phoenix became the Yulong and Fenghuang mountains, where they still stand guard over their pearl today.

The Butterfly Lovers

In the Eastern Jin dynasty (317- 420 AD), there lived a beautiful and intelligent maiden named Zhu Yingtai who was the only daughter of a wealthy, noble family that lived in Shangyu, Zhejiang. Traditionally, females were forbidden to attend schools, but Yingtai, driven by her thirst for knowledge, convinced her father to allow her to disguise as a male so that she could receive an education at Wansong Academy in Hangzhou.

On her journey to the city, Yingtai met Liang Shanbo, a poor scholar from Kuaiji and togethe, they shared a bond of brotherhood, having found common interests. For the next few years in school, they shared a room and studied together. Yingtai gradually fell in love with Shanbo while the latter did not have a clue that his friend was a girl.

One day, Yingtai received a letter from her father, telling her to come home. Before she returned home, she told Shanbo that she would like to make a match between Shanbo and her 'sister', and bid him to visit as soon as he could.

Not long later, Shanbo visits Yingtai and discovers her true identity but it was too late as her father has already arranged an engagement between Yingtai and Ma Wencai, who came from a rich family. Brokenhearted, Shanbo fell critically ill and soon passed away.

On the day of the wedding, the wedding procession was stopped midway by strong whirlwinds. Upon hearing that Shanbo's grave was nearby, Yingtai got down to pay her respects and there at his grave she broke down and wept in despair.

All of a sudden, there was a clap of thunder, the grave cracked opened and Yingtai leapt in without hesitation. The spirits of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai emerge later and flew away as a pair of beautiful butterflies, forever tied in their love for each other. The story is one of the most popular folk tales in China and is regarded as the Chinese equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.

** Eastern Jin dynasty (set up by Han Chinese) not to be confused with the Jin dynasty set up by the Jurchen tribes from northeast China or Manchuria.

Wansong Academy 万松书院

Established in 1498, Wansong Acadamy was the largest and most prestigious college in Hangzhou during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The present-day Wansong Academy was rebuilt in 2002.

Address: 76, Wansongling Road. Bus: 102. Opening hours: 7.30am-5pm. Admission fee: 10 yuan. Tel: +86 571 86079490.

Madam White Snake

Set in the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD), there was once a young boy named Xu Xian who saved a white snake who was actually a spirit named Bai Suzhen. Years later, the boy became a scholar and met a beautiful lady at the "Broken Bridge" by the West Lake with an umbrella. As it was raining and he did not have an umbrella, the lady offered him hers and left.

Unknown to Xu Xian, this lady was the White Snake Spirit he had saved and she had returned to repay his kindness by helping him whenever he needed a hand. They fell in love and their marriage produced a son.

However, their union was against heavenly laws as mortal and demons belonged to different realms, so when they were discovered by a monk, Fa Hai who had magical powers, he forced Bai to reveal her true form in the hope that Xu would leave her.

This failed as the couple genuinely loved each other and thus Fa Hai imprisoned Bai in the Lei Feng Pagoda for all eternity. In some versions, Xu raised their son to become the imperial top scholar who returned to pay respects to his mother and as a result of her son's filial piety, the heavens were touched and Bai was released. She attained immortality and rose to the celestial realm, unable to reunite with her family as the heavenly laws must still be upheld. Although this version is not as tragic as her eternal imprisonment in the pagoda, it is still considered a tragic ending as the lovers are still separated for all eternity.

Today, Bai is regarded by the people as a kind and loving fairy despite being considered a spirit, which is equivalent to a demon. To many, the Broken Bridge at Baidi epitomizes the lingering remnants of the couple's love and dreams.

Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge 断桥残雪

Broken Bridge in reality is not broken. Located at the west end of Baidi, the snow on the raised portion of Baidi melts the fastest under the sun during winter. Hence, when viewed from the top of Precious Stone Hill, (Baoshishan 宝石山), it gives an impression of a broken bridge.

Photo by Yang Hefeng

According to legend, this was where the couple Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen first met and fell in love. Just like their love, lingering snow on Broken Bridge symbolizes their fleeting moment together before being separated for all eternity.

Lei Feng Pagoda

Originally built in AD 977, during the reign of King Qian Chu of the kingdom of Wu and Yue, it was named Huang Fei Pagoda after the old king's favorite concubine who gave him a son. The pagoda was constructed with Buddhist sutras written on the foundation bricks and meant to protect the Buddhist relics buried under the structure from evil.

As the Chinese word for Buddhist sutras is 'jin,' which sounds almost the same as 'gold' in Chinese, later generations misunderstood the significance of the pagoda, believing that it would bring them riches. As a result, the pagoda suffered severe damages throughout the ages; its wooden fa?ade was burnt by marauding Japanese pirates and its skeletal brick remains makes it a sorry sight along the picturesque West Lake.

In addition, people would also steal the foundation bricks of the pagoda for two reasons. Firstly, many believed that the 'golden bricks' would bring them wealth. Secondly, over the years, the pagoda was renamed Lei Feng Pagoda according to the legend of Madam White Snake, and the pagoda was said to have the power to repel snakes. In Hangzhou, many reared silkworms as a livelihood and they would steal the foundation bricks, believing that these would protect their silkworms from snakes. In the face of all these mistreatments, the structure gradually weakened before collapsing in 1924.

The new Lei Feng Pagoda was later built at the original site in October 2002. Visitors entering can still view the remnants of the old pagoda and tour the new one that stands guard over it. Inside, there is a souvenir shop and fine ornamental wooden cravings of the legend of Madam White Snake on exhibit.

On the highest floor, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the whole West Lake, see murals depicting the life of Buddha and admire a splendid gold-plated ceiling made up of 2,000 small silver pagodas of King Asoka. Set in the middle of the roof is a lotus flower which can descend to ground level and contains a model of the modern Lei Feng Pagoda.

The Silver Pagoda of King Asoka

During excavations of the site, Buddhist relics were found buried under the old pagoda and were housed inside a silver pagoda of King Asoka. Made of pure silver, the little pagoda is intricately designed and contained a gold box where remains of Buddha's hair are kept.

Address: 15, Nanshan Road. Bus: 504, 7, 808, 822, 4. Opening hours: 8am-5:30pm. Admission fee: 40 yuan. Tel: +86 571 87982111.

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