Beloved for centuries as a peaceful refuge from the stresses of life and a source of artistic and literary inspiration, West Lake is perhaps the most famous lake in China. It is located among the hills just west of downtown Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. Originally a lagoon connected to the Qiantang River, it was dredged and converted into a lake in the 8th century CE. Over the centuries, various local government projects have added to and improved the lake and its surroundings, creating a vast, picturesque garden-like environment ideal for strolling about, boating, drinking tea, or simply contemplating nature’s beauty.

One side of the lake is bordered by bustling downtown Hangzhou; the other three by verdant hills containing temples and tea fields. Within and around the lake are numerous major attractions, including three major causeways that cross that lake, islands, temples, and hilltop pagodas. Leifeng Pagoda, popularized in legend as the place where the immortal Madame White Snake (or Lady White Snake) was cast into a well as punishment for falling in love with a mortal, is perhaps the most iconic structure. The causeways, renowned as peaceful places for strolling and admiring the view, were built with dredged silt and beautified with flowering plants and trees. Two famous poet-officials were responsible for the construction of the causeways that take their names: Bai Juyi ordered the construction of what is now called the Bai Causeway during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and Su Dongpo (or Su Shi) followed suit about 200 years later when he built a longer causeway extending across the entire lake from north to south.

Sampans float on the surface of West Lake in front of Leifeng Pagoda and Jingci Temple in Hangzhou, China
Leifeng Pagoda and Jingci Temple
(photo by Louisa Salazar)

Even centuries ago, the attractions and scenic spots in and around West Lake were so numerous as to make it impossible to see them all. The most popular and significant sights became codified into an official list called the Ten Scenes of West Lake (西湖十景, Xī Hú Shí Jǐng) when Hangzhou served as the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE), an especially prosperous period for the city. Rather than simply a list of places, the Ten Scenes also incorporate the element of time, as the time of day and the changes of the seasons are important factors in West Lake’s beauty.

That beauty, seen as the perfect blend of the human and the natural, has inspired countless painters and poets to attempt to render its power in art and verse. Marco Polo called Hangzhou “the most beautiful and elegant city in the world” after he visited it, and the famous Chinese saying “Up above there is Heaven, down here there are Suzhou and Hangzhou,” is attributed in large part to the lake’s scenery. For examples of art and poetry about West Lake, see the list of further reading and resources below.

Tips for visitors to West Lake:

  • Hangzhou, like other cities in the Jiangnan region, is quite hot and humid during the summer months.
  • As West Lake is a very popular tourist destination, and most traffic around the lake travels along one small road, traffic can be excruciatingly slow. Weekdays are a better time to visit than weekends or holidays. Be sure to allow plenty of time if you expect to visit different sites around the lake.
  • For independent travelers, bike rentals are a good way to get around the lake and avoid traffic.
  • Recommended activities: drinking local “Dragon Well” green tea as you admire the view, cruising around the lake in one of the many small gondola-like sampans available for hire.

Further reading and resources:

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West Lake Photo Gallery
West Lake-Related Words

Study the words in this section on Quizlet:
Detailed Lists: Characters and English | Pinyin and English
Reversible Lists: Characters and English | Pinyin and English | Characters and Pinyin
Chinese Language Resources page

西湖 (Xī Hú): West Lake, freshwater lake west of downtown Hangzhou surrounded on three sides by hills and on one side by the downtown area; featured in many poems and other works of art, it has a long history of cultural significance in China

Leifeng Pagoda on a hill overlooking West Lake in Hangzhou, China
Leifeng Pagoda and West Lake
(photo by Gustavo Madico)
  • 西湖十景 (Xī Hú Shí Jǐng)

    Ten Scenes of West Lake, an official list of ten poetically named sights and activities around the lake dating back to the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋, Nán Sòng, 1127-1279 CE) marked by stelae in the calligraphy of the Qing Dynasty Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝, Qián Lóng Dì), who composed a poem for each scene; there is also an official New Ten Scenes of West Lake (西湖新景, Xī Hú Xīn Jǐng) list chosen in 1984

  • 雷峰塔 (Léifēng Tǎ)

    Leifeng Pagoda (literally, “Thunder Peak Pagoda”), a tower on Sunset Hill (夕照山, Xīzhào Shān) on the southeastern shore of West Lake originally built in 975 CE during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十国, Wǔ Dài Shí Guó) period; Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset (雷峰夕照, Léifēng Xīzhào) is one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake

  • 白蛇传 (Bái Shé Zhuàn)

    Legend of the White Snake, a Chinese legend about Madame White Snake (白娘子, Bái Niángzi), a thousand-year-old white snake who takes on human form and falls in love with a man; because their love is forbidden, she is cast into a deep well at Leifeng Pagoda

  • 净慈寺 (Jìngcí Sì)

    Jingci Temple (literally, “Temple of Pure Compassion”), a temple on Nanping Hill (南屏山, Nánpíng Shān) near Leifeng Pagoda originally built in 954 CE; Evening Bell Ringing at Nanping Hill (南屏晚钟, Nánpíng Wǎnzhōng), the nightly ringing of the temple’s large bronze bell, is one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake

West Lake and downtown Hangzhou at night
West Lake and downtown Hangzhou
(photo by Lu Yu)
  • 三潭印月 (Sāntán Yìnyuè)

    Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, a group of three small towers in the water south of Lesser Yingzhou Island (小瀛洲, Xiǎo Yíngzhōu) that emit candlelight on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节, Zhōngqiū Jié); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located in the south-central part of the lake

  • 花港观鱼 (Huāgǎng Guānyú)

    Red Carp Pond (literally, “Viewing Fish at the Flower Pond”); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located on the southwestern shore

  • 柳浪闻莺 (Liǔlàng Wényīng)

    Liulang Wenying Park or Orioles Singing in the Willows (more literally, “Listening to Orioles in the Waving Willows”); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located on the eastern shore

  • 断桥残雪 (Duànqiáo Cánxuě)

    Broken Bridge (literally, “Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge”); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located on the northeastern shore

  • 保俶塔 (Bǎochù Tǎ)

    Baochu Pagoda, a slender pagoda on Baoshi Hill (宝石山, Bǎoshí Shān, “Precious Stone Hill”) on the northern shore of West Lake

Tourists relax in covered rowboats on Hangzhou's West Lake at sunset
Boats on West Lake at sunset
(photo by Ricky Qi)
  • 白堤 (Bái Dī)

    Bai Causeway, a long dyke and walkway in the northern part of West Lake named after the renowned Tang Dynasty (唐朝, Táng Cháo, 618-907 CE) poet and government official Bai Juyi (白居易, Bái Jūyì), who ordered the construction of the original causeway

  • 孤山 (Gū Shān)

    Solitary Hill, a large island in the northwestern part of West Lake; connected to the northern shore by Bai Causeway, it is the location of a number of attractions, including the internationally famous restaurant Lou Wai Lou (楼外楼, Lóuwàilóu)

  • 苏堤 (Sū Dī)

    Su Causeway, a long dyke and walkway in the southwestern part of West Lake named after the renowned Song Dynasty (宋朝, Sòng Cháo, 960-1279 CE) poet and government official Su Dongpo (苏东坡, Sū Dōngpō), or Su Shi (苏轼, Sū Shì), who ordered its construction; Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring (苏堤春晓, Sūdī Chūnxiǎo) is one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake

  • 杨公堤 (Yánggōng Dī)

    Yanggong Causeway, a long walkway in the western part of West Lake

  • 湖心亭 (Húxīn Tíng)

    Mid-Lake Pavilion, pavilion on an island in the middle of West Lake

  • 印象西湖 (Yìnxiàng Xī Hú)

    Impression West Lake, a popular show produced by director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋, Zhāng Yìmóu) that is performed on the lake

A densely packed cluster of red and white carp in West Lake's Red Carp Pond, also called Viewing Fish at the Flower Pond
Red Carp Pond
(photo by Brian)
  • 龙井问茶 (Lóngjǐng Wèn Chá)

    Dragon Well Tea Village (literally, “Inquiring About Tea at Dragon Well,” its name in the New Ten Scenes of West Lake), the site of the spring from which Dragon Well tea gets its name

For many more Chinese vocabulary lists and information about tools and resources for learning Chinese,
visit our Chinese Language Resources page.

CIT Tour Packages Featuring West Lake


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