What Marco Polo Says about Hangzhou

Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, lies close to the mouth of the Qian Tang River at the western extremity of the huge estuary of the Gulf of Hangzhou.

Two thousand years ago there was nothing there but a sandbar built up by the silt carried downstream by the river. It collected between two fingers of land that jutted into the estuary. The inhabitants built a dike to reinforce the bar, and thereby created what is present day Xi Hu, or West Lake, perhaps the most famous lake in China.

The settlement remained a small fishing village until late in the sixth century, when the extension of the Grand Canal southward from the Yangzi lad to the development of a busy commercial center in the ton. It prospered, especially during the tranquil early period of the Tang Dynasty, and its growth was assisted by the development of the lower Yangzi area into the nation’s mat important agricultural region. Over the centuries work on the dikes continued in order to protect the town from the ravages of river and sea alike.

Hangzhou underwent dramatic development when the Song, pushed south by the conquering Jin, established their capital there. In the short space of a hundred years, the population increased to almost a million people and the town flourished as a major trading center. Even though parts of Hangzhou were destroyed during the late-thirteenth century invasion by the Mongols, the city, when visited by Marco Polo a short time afterwards, was stile impressive, He said that “it is without doubt the tinct and most splendid city in the world., the streets and water courses alike are very wide. there are said to be 12,000 bridges, mostly of stone… vast are the number of thee accustomed to dainty living, to the point of eating fish and meat at one meal.”

Mayo Polo also observed that “these people, from childhood up- wards, are used to taking cold baths all the time, a habit which they declare to be most conducive to good health.” And he describes the ladies of the town as “heavily perfumed, attended by many handmaids and lodged in richly ornamented apartments. These ladies are highly proficient and accomplished in the uses of endearments and caresses…so that foreigners who have once enjoyed them remain utterly beside themselves and so captivated by their sweetness and charm that they can never forget them.”