February 18, 2012
When I thought of Chinese landscape paintings, an image of a body of water framed by distant mountains came to mind. A bridge cast a perfect reflection on its mirror surface. A solitary boat rippled its glassy calmness. Drooping willows kissed its shore. Pagodas pierced through the mist. Such rustic delicacy had been recreated by the ink and brush of Chinese artists since the dynasties.
In Hangzhou, less than an hour by train from Shanghai, the painting magically came to life. The city’s famous West Lake (Xī Hú) epitomized the traditional Chinese aesthetic, not only in visual arts but also in verse.
West Lake inspired Tang Dynasty poet Bo Juyi to immortalize a typical spring day on its shore in the poem Spring Theme: Above the Lake (Chun ti hushang 春題湖上). More than a thousand springs later, I would find that the description still held true.
Now spring is here, the lake seems a painted picture,
Unruly peaks all round the edge, the water spread out flat.
Pines in ranks on the face of the hills, a thousand layers of green:
The moon centred on the heart of the waves, just one pearl.
Threadends of an emerald-green rug, the extruding paddy-shoots:
Sash of a blue damask skirt, the expanse of new reeds.
But reality got in the way of poetic reverie. Throngs of tourists jostled one another for a lakeside photo op. My two girlfriends and I had to wait for a break in the crowd to catch an unobstructed view of the lake, but a pair of Chinese-looking women lingered for several photos.
I muttered impatiently in Tagalog, “Alis na, kami naman.” (Move over, it’s our turn.)
One of them turned and said, “Ay, Pinoy ka pala!” (Oh, you’re Filipino!)
We expected to find cozy traditional teahouses by the lake; instead, rows of brand-name boutiques lined the paved lanes. Men peddled their row boats; street performers sang at the top of their lungs to blaring music. There was none of the peace and quiet conveyed by scenes in traditional Chinese paintings.
We were in Hangzhou for only a day, so we threw our budget to the chilly wind and forked out 100RMB to sail on the shimmering ripples. At that price we figured we had the row boat to ourselves, but a trio of chatty Chinese girls hopped on with us. It was far from the solitary, meditative boat ride I had imagined.
Halfway to the middle, a sudden swell of symphonic music pervaded the lake as rows of fountains started ballet dancing on the water. It was the hourly musical fountain show by a posh hotel. We became unwitting voyeurs to a spectacle we had not bargained for in our little row boat out in the lake.
Before sundown, we had to go back to the train station. We couldn’t find our way, as when we came. On both ways, Hangzhou locals, without speaking a word of English, helped us with directions. On the bus from the train station to the West Lake, a middle-aged lady fought drowsiness to make sure we didn’t miss our stop. Going back to the train station, we were escorted for several blocks by a police officer who sent us off to the right bus. Hangzhou may have outgrown traditional scenes preserved in ancient paintings, but old-fashioned kindness to strangers had thankfully survived.
Despite its modern diversions, Hangzhou was still a little piece of heaven on earth, as it had been regarded by Chinese poets and painters for over a thousand years. It just needed a wee bit more imagination to see, but it was there. It was in the visual poetry of West Lake in harmony with earth and sky, both reflected on its still waters. As Bo Juyi concluded:
If I cannot bring myself yet to put Hangzhou behind me,
Half of what holds me here is on this lake.