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West Lake

The World Cultural Heritage in Hangzhou

The calling card of Hangzhou, the West Lake is among the first Chinese state key scenic attractions, one of the ten most famous tourism spots in the country and one of the renowned fresh water lakes for scenic enjoyment in Mainland China. Its cultural scenery was listed as a UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage Site on June 24, 2011 for it is having "influenced the garden design in China, Japan and Korea over many centuries" and demonstrating "an idealized fusion between mankind and the Mother Nature".

  • Attraction Type:Nature & Parks, Points & Landmarks
  • Best Time to Visit:Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov.


The West Lake is near western downtown of Hangzhou where the area is relatively flat to the east and that the other sides face mountains or countryside. The lake is not so big that it is just 6.39 sq. km. in very roughly a ring shape that length from south to north is 3.2 km and from east to west 2.8 km and about 15 km for a whole trip going round the lake. The average depth is theoretically about 2.27 meters and the water volume around 14 million cubic meters. The lake is separated into several parts by the Solitary Island, White Causeway, Su Causeway and Yanggong Causeway and these parts called in descending order in terms of areas are the Outer West Lake, West Inner Lake (also known as the Back West Lake of Back Lake), North Inner Lake (or called the Inner West Lake), Little South Lake (or the South Lake) and Yue Lake. The Solitary Island is the largest natural island in the West Lake and the White and Su Causeways are built to crossing the lake. The man-made islets such as the pretty Xiaoying Island, Mid-lake Pavilion and Ruan Gong Islet are at the center of Outer West Lake. The majestic Leifeng and Baochu Pagodas see one another across the lake. All these scenes constitute interestingly "one hill, two pagodas, three islets, three causeways and five lakes".

History and Facts

Over 2,000 years ago, the West Lake was merely belonged to a section of the Qiantang River. Because of huge sediment accumulation at the time, two barrier spits of land were formed on the hills of Wushan and Baoshi in Hangzhou at south and north respectively, then later both pieces of land barrier came closer and closer, and eventually both barriers became one. However, an inner lake was formed at the western side of the land around the time of the Qin and Han dynasties and this one had become what we called the West Lake.

In 610 AD Chinese people began to excavate the southern Yangtze canal to provide connection to the northern canal aiming to complete the communication with China's five great river traffic systems for better transportation as well as promotion in Hangzhou's developments of economy and tourism. During the Tang dynasty (618 AD - 907 AD) the West Lake was much larger than the present one with about 11 sq. km and it stretched from the foot at the southwest mountain to near the downtown Wulin City Gate to the northeast. Also it was so deep that the ancient Buddhist worshippers could reach the mountain foot and then on foot to hike up to pray for blessings to the Buddha. However, the then West Lake was something hazardous since it could inundate to downtown Hangzhou after heavy downpours or fully dry out during serious drought in an age without advanced water conservation technology.

In 822 AD Bai Juyi (白居易, 772 - 846), Chinese poet and prefectural governor of Hangzhou at the time ordered to implement huge projects of water conservation for dredging up Hangzhou's West Lake to solve irrigation issues on farmlands between Hangzhou and Yanguan (about present day Haining area of Jiaxing). In fact, what Bai Juyi had done to Hangzhou was the dam located at Shihan Bridge just outside of the Qiantang City Gate and thus named Bai Gong Dam (Bai, the surname of the governor literally also means White, so this was called the White Dam). This is not what we call the White Causeway these days (because dam and causeway all mean di (堤) in Chinese, Chinese people were confused the White Causeway with the White Dam). However, the White Causeway in the West Lake was built in memory to Bai Juyi actually.

Hangzhou was the imperial capital of the Wuyue Kingdom (907 – 978AD) which the government promoted marine transport in coastal areas and engaged in trading activities with Japan and Korea. Meanwhile, many Buddhist monasteries, temples, pagodas, lections, josses and grottoes were built around the West Lake, including the expansion of Lingyin Monastery, because the emperors of the Wuyue Kingdom believed in Buddhism. Since the speed of sediment accumulation was fast attributed to the unique geology in Hangzhou area, dredging up projects were routine works for the West Lake. The notable one in history was that in 927 the emperor of the time sent about a thousand troops to eliminate wild grasses and dredge up the lake in order to preserve the body of water.

Famous poet Su Shi (also known as 苏东坡 Su Dongpo, 1037 - 1101) contributed tremendously to the preservation of West Lake in the late Northern Song dynasty. He sent around 200,000 migrant workers to dredge up the lake and built up what we see today the 2.8-km-long Su Causeway which was named after and in memory of the poet and cadre of Hangzhou. Also, it was said that the popular Hangzhou dish Dongpo Pork originated from Su Dongpo giving it to the migrant workers for rewarding their efforts in renovation of the West Lake.

Hangzhou became the political, economic and cultural center when being the imperial capital of the Middle Kingdom, population increased quickly and economy had been prosperous. Therefore, Hangzhou entered its most flourishing age in history. In addition to pious Buddhists, a lot of tourists, envoys, merchants and monks from foreign countries, as well as students passing by here for Beijing to take part in the ancient imperial examination and many domestic businessmen could be noticed in old Hangzhou. The locally known old ten beautiful scenes around the West Lake were selected at the time and having a boat tour around the lake was very popular then.

The Su Causeway was widened and the Yanggong Causeway was built across the lake between 1426 and 1449 in the Ming dynasty under the decrees of Yang Mengying, department magistrate of the time, in addition to dredging up the lake again.

The preservation and renovation works for the West Lake reached another height in the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911) after several visits by emperors Kangxi (1662 - 1722) and Qianlong (1711 - 1799). Kangxi came to Hangzhou five times and gave his written inscriptions to the ten beautiful West Lake scenes formed during the Southern Song dynasty centuries ago. These inscriptions were made to be tablets with pavilions above as landmarks for these scenic attractions. In the reign of Yong Zheng (1678 - 1735) there were 18 best scenes including 8 in the Dragon Well Tea Plantation zone, all of which were given royal inscriptions by Qianlong who came to Hangzhou six times.

Because of the lake's significant status in terms of history, culture and scenic enjoyment for China, the state's government has been attaching importance to its advertisement to the outside world. For instance, in 1979 and 2004, the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon were printed on the foreign exchange certificate worth of one RMB Yuan (Chinese currency) and on the fifth set of one RMB Yuan paper note respectively by China. Although there are tens of lakes in China called the West Lake, this one is the most famous.

The West Lake even has had its significance in Chinese political history. In late December 1953, Chairman Mao Zedong presided over the drafting of the first constitution of the People's Republic of China just by the lakeside. The Sino-US Joint Communiqué was signed between former US president Richard Nixon and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai here in late February 1972.

List of Famous Attractions of the West Lake

One hill: Solitary Island

Two pagodas: Leifeng Pagoda and Baochu Pagoda

Three islands: Xiaoying Island, Mid-lake Pavilion and Ruan Gong Islet

Three causeways: White Causeway, Su Causeway and Yanggong Causeway

Ten scenes: Autumn Moon over the Peaceful Lake, Spring Dawn on Su Causeway, Melting Snow at Broken Bridge, Sunset Glow at Leifeng Pagoda, Evening Bell at Nanping Hill, Breeze-ruffled Lotus at Quyuan Garden, Viewing Fish at Flower Pond, Orioles Singing in the Willows, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon and Two Peaks Piercing the Clouds.

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