CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


West Lake Liberated: Vignettes from the Early 1950s | China Heritage Quarterly

West Lake Liberated: Vignettes from the Early 1950s

Edited and translated by Geremie R. Barmé

This section draws heavily on James Z. Gao's The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou: The Transformation of City and Cadre, 1949-1954, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006.—The Editor

The Lake Liberated

Soldiers under the command of the Chinese Communist Party entered Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang, on 3 May 1949. They were greeted outside City Hall by the president of the local congress, Zhang Heng 張衡. The citizenry came out into the streets to greet the triumphant People's Liberation Army forces, although they were probably more enthusiastic about peace and a return to normality after years of civil conflict than interested in welcoming what would be called 'liberation' (jiefang 解放).

The army was under the direction of party cadres from Shandong province to the north. These 'south-bound cadres' would take years to adjust to ruling the ancient, cultivated centre of prosperity, the arts and regional trade. For the first three decades of what would become on 1 October 1949 the People's Republic of China, the city and West Lake would undergo a revolutionary transformation that, for the first years of the new regime, threatened the delicate fabric of the cityscape; nonetheless, it did devastate the social fabric of the place.

On 1 July 1949, there was a clear indication of what was to come under a agit-prop obsessed government that had its roots in the rural north and northwest of China. On that day a mass parade was held in the city to celebrate the twenty-eighth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Students, workers, soldiers and cadres holding aloft portraits of party leaders, waving red flags and slogan placards were watched by tens of thousands of Hangzhou citizens. Little did they know that organized parades and political enthusiasm were not for the odd anniversary, they would soon be de rigueur and required for all public celebrations and political campaigns, the lifeblood of the Maoist era of mass mobilization.

As James Gao notes in his study of the transformation of Hangzhou in the early 1950s:

Before people could make political sense of the arrival of the peasant revolutionaries, cultural changes began to be evident in the city. On the streets new fashions emerged: for girls, the traditional close-fitting dresses with high necks and slit skirts were no longer popular, and the loose, manly style of cadre uniforms, which came to be know as 'Lenin suits', became fashionable. Boys yearned for PLA uniforms. The pistols of the military representatives were a symbol of power, and their red armbands a symbol of the revolution. Many people found good reasons to make such armbands for themselves: a student on campus duty, a temporary guard at mass rallies, a volunteer traffic controller on the streets. Youngsters now went to night schools and to singing parties organized by the trade unions or the Communist youth league. Students no longer used local dialect but used Mandarin to communicate with each other.[1]

During the Civil War from 1946, the authorities and citizens of Hangzhou had over all maintained the kind of studied care in political affairs that had been cultivated over many years—from long before the Republican revolution of 1911. Like people in so many other Chinese cities, they had also seen rulers come and go since the Taiping War of the mid-nineteenth century. They had probably presumed that the Communists too would rule with a relatively light touch. They could not have been more mistaken.

The Lake Transformed

Within a year of the Communist takeover a new era was indeed unfolding. On 17 May 1950, Hangzhou Daily published a long article under the title 'West Lake is Being Transformed' (Gaizao zhongde Xihu 改造中的西湖). It gives a sense of the tone and style of the changes that were taking place:

West Lake is world renowned for the beauty of its landscape; it is a place with numerous famous sites and ancient remains. But these were all the doings of the so-called literati (the leisured classes). The so-called Ten Scenes of West Lake are now desolate and in a state of collapse. Following the liberation of Hangzhou the People's Government has converted West Lake to productive use. Apart from establishing fisheries, planting trees on the mountains and cultivating groves of fruit trees, the government is now engaged in the redesign and reformation of West Lake itself. We are preparing to transform a place of luxurious indulgence for the select few into a pleasure park for the enjoyment of the laboring people.

There are over 140 temples and shrines in the vicinity of West Lake. For this reason, in the past the majority of people who visited the Lake were in fact pilgrims who 'used the Buddha as an excuse to go on spring outings' [jie fo chun you 借佛春游]. With their 'tide of incense' [xiang xun 香汛] there would be a constant flow of pilgrims on the march with their yellow shoulder bags. The road to Lingyin Temple would be clogged with cars and palanquins; the monks and priests would welcome all with happy smiles. During the pilgrimage season temples such as Tianzhu and Lingyin would amass huge stores of candles from the visitors. Those who came in their cars and sedan chairs to disport themselves [shuazi'er 耍子儿] were all bureaucrats, landlords, compradors, upstarts and hucksters, bringing in their train wives, young ladies and playboy sons. They put on airs and made a big show of extravagance, throwing money around, creating thereby grotesque distortions in the local commercial life of Hangzhou such as the hotel and restaurant trade, in the transportation and photographic businesses, in regards to foodstuffs, tobacco, the trade in religious objects, chopsticks, and so on.

Their extravagance generated a diseased form of superficial prosperity, in particular in the years leading up to Liberation. At a time when the Chiang [Kai-shek] bandits were wildly pressing men into military service, pursuing a civil war which saw unbridled inflation and economic collapse, West Lake was the scene of great prosperity. This ugly phenomenon was the dark side of Chiang bandit rule; it was a prosperity that was built on feudal superstition; it was degenerate and unnatural. With Liberation all this has gradually disappeared. All you need to do is look at the crowds of visitors walking on the Lakeside or along the Bai Embankment: they are wearing the yellow uniforms of the People's Liberation Army, the grey and blue of factory works, the uniforms of students and the varieties of clothes sported by average citizens. This is proof positive that today West Lake belongs to the People.

According to a survey some forty-nine per cent of the pre-existing buildings in the West Lake Landscape Zone are in a state of disrepair or collapse…. At present the Municipal Planning Bureau is undertaking a study of the area. Apart from retaining a certain number of temple structures that served feudalistic superstitions the rest will be converted and will become commemorative structures, museums, displays, libraries, as well as exhibition spaces and sales points for provincial manufactures. Government bodies or army unites that have occupied other buildings without authorization will be required to relocate within a specific timeframe, while temple structures not claimed by any other body will be put in the hands of appropriate groups. This will then allow these properties to be converted into scenic places that display scientific content.[2]

The Past Taught to Serve the Present

Not only was the physical environment of the Lake reordered in those early years of New China, the traditions that had grown up around it, be they elite or more popular, were also transformed by cultural cadres and writers—men and women who accepted the mantle of 'engineers of the human soul' that had been forged in the Soviet Union. Two of the most famous stories related to West Lake are 'White Snake' and 'Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai'. For a time, as the remnants of China's feudal and bourgeois past were being eradicated, these too were under threat, but soon their value was recalibrated and they, like the Lake itself, were pressed into the service of the political agenda of the party. Below are details of how these stories were now framed to express a political message in line with the 'progressive politics' of the day. The story of 'Liang Zhu', to use the popular shorthand, would even come to play a role in the international cultural politics of the new government, as indeed would West Lake itself.

Guerrilla Warfare in Legend of the White Serpent 白蛇傳

A young scholar visited West Lake on a rainy day. He saw two ladies and lent them an umbrella. A romance started between the scholar and one of the ladies, and the seed of love grew. Then the scholar and his love (White Snake) got married. The problem was that the two ladies were not human beings but snake spirits. Despite the fact that White Snake and her sister (Green Snake) were good and honest, marriage between a human and a snake was not allowed by society. Finally a monk came to separate the couple. He caught White Snake and put a pagoda on her to hold her down. For centuries people sympathized with the two lovers and offered many alternatives to this sad ending. (One was that Green Snake got help from fish, shrimp, and crabs, who created a flood to destroy the pagoda and release White Snake).

The Communists interpreted the snakes as oppressed Chinese women and the monk [Fahai 法海] as a symbol of feudal rulers, so they changed the end of the opera to correspond to Mao's revolutionary theory: Green Snake mobilized the Chinese peasants to launch a people's uprising that finally smashed the 'feudal pagoda' and brought about a family reunion. As a result, the legend became politics and the love story became a class struggle. Although the playwright and the performers tired very hard, the audience took the revised opera as an absurd joke. The audience did not understand how the snake, crabs, fish and shrimp could become guerrilla fighters. The lovely images they had know for centuries had been totally distorted.[3]

A Chinese Romeo and Juliet

On June 8, 1954, the Chinese delegation at the Geneva Conference invited the British premier, Anthony Eden, to a special reception. Premier Zhou Enlai entertained him and other Western guests by showing a Chinese movie, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai [梁山伯與祝英台].[4] The movie, adopted from a traditional yueju [越劇], told the story of two students, a boy named Liang Shanbo and a girl named Zhu Yingtai, who meet in school in Hangzhou. Their friendship develops into love, but family interference prevents the young lovers from being together. Before long the boy dies of lovesickness. With a broken heart, the girl jumps into her lover's grave and commits suicide. In order to help the Western audience make sense of this story, Premier Zhou suggested that the movie title be translated as 'the Chinese Romeo and Juliet'. Indeed there were similarities between these Eastern younger lovers and the Western ones. As a result, the Western audience was deeply moved by the tragic story and the beautiful end: after their deaths, the couple turn into butterflies and fly off, wing to wing, in the sky.

Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai introduced the Westerners to a pretty Chinese town—Hangzhou—and to its beautiful opera, yueju. Zhou Enlia introduced the story to a world as a Chinese cultural treasure, and this sent the southbound cadres in Hangzhou a political message. Earlier, one southbound cadre had been condemned for his absorption in this 'degenerate' women's opera, and he was purged from the Party. Now the southbound cadres had to change their views on yueju and other traditional local operas…. At home the movie inspired Chinese writers, artists, and composers to create various works on the subject; it also renewed the enthusiasm of the Chinese to visit the city….

[Locally], Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai continued to show in the theatres, but people could no longer just enjoy the love story. The government insisted that the audience take the movie as a 'textbook of class struggle', not just seeing a tragedy of two lovers, but also understanding 'the evils and cruelties of the feudal system'.[5]


[1] James Z. Gao, The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou: The Transformation of City and Cadre, 1949-1954, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006, pp.72-73. The preceding paragraphs are also based on Gao, p.69ff.

[2] This excerpt from a longer report, translated by Geremie R. Barmé, was published under the title 'West Lake is Being Transformed' (Gaizao zhongde Xihu 改造中的西湖), Hangzhou Daily (Hangzhou Ribao 杭州日报), 17 May 1950, collected in Jin Yanfeng 李延锋 and Li Jinmei 李金美 (Zhonggong Zhejiangshengwei Dangshi Yanjiushi, Zhonggong Hangzhoushiwei Dangshi Yanjiushi), eds, Chengshide jieguan yu shehui gaizao (Zhejiang [Hangzhou] juan) 城市的接管与社会改造(浙江[杭州]卷, Beijing: Dangdai Zhongghua Chubanshe, 1996, pp.466-68, at p.466.

[3] From James Z. Gao, The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou, p.235.

[4] The 1953 movie was the first time a yueju was filmed in colour. It starred the famous performers Fan Ruijuan 范瑞鹃 as Liang Shanbo and Yuan Xuefen 袁雪芬 as Zhu Yingtai.

[5] James Z. Gao's The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou, pp.236-37.