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


The UNESCO Listing of West Lake | China Heritage Quarterly

The UNESCO Listing of West Lake

On 24 June 2011, the UNESCO headquarters in Paris announced that the World Heritage Committee had inscribed the West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou on its World Heritage List. The official UNESCO description of the Lake is given below. The original can be found here. The formal UNESCO short description of West Lake in English and Chinese is as follows:

The West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou, comprising the West Lake and the hills surrounding its three sides, has inspired famous poets, scholars and artists since the 9th century. It comprises numerous temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens and ornamental trees, as well as causeways and artificial islands. These additions have been made to improve the landscape west of the city of Hangzhou to the south of the Yangtze river.

The West Lake has influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries and bears an exceptional testimony to the cultural tradition of improving landscapes to create a series of vistas reflecting an idealised fusion between humans and nature.


On 14 December 2011, in accord with the successful bid to have West Lake inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Hangzhou authorities published new 'Regulations Concerning the Management of the Protection of the West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou' (Hangzhou Xihu wenhua jingguan baohu guanli tiaoli 杭州西湖文化景观保护管理条例). The text of these regulations can be found here.—The Editor

The West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou

Position: N30 14 15 E120 8 27
Date of Inscription: 2011
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(vi)
Property: 3,323 ha
Buffer zone: 7,270 ha
Ref: 1334

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis

West Lake is surrounded on three sides by 'cloud-capped hills' and on the fourth by the city of Hangzhou. Its beauty has been celebrated by writers and artists since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). In order to make it more beautiful, its islands, causeways and the lower slopes of its hills have been 'improved' by the addition of numerous temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens and ornamental trees which merge with farmed landscape. The main artificial elements of the lake, two causeways and three islands, were created from repeated dredgings between the 9th and 12th centuries. Since the Southern Song Dynasty (thirteenth century) ten poetically names scenic places have been identified as embodying idealised, classic landscapes - that manifest the perfect fusion between man and nature. West Lake is an outstanding example of a cultural landscape that display with great clarity the ideals of Chinese landscape aesthetics, as expounded by writers and scholars in Tang and Song Dynasties. The landscape of West Lake had a profound impact on the design of gardens not only in China but further afield, where lakes and causeways imitated the harmony and beauty of West Lake. The key components of West Lake still allow it to inspire people to 'project feelings onto the landscape'. The visual parameters of this vast landscape garden are clearly defined, rising to the ridges of the surrounding hills as viewed from Hangzhou.

Criterion (ii): The improved landscape of West Lake can be seen to reflect Buddhist ideals imported into China from India such as 'Buddhist peacefulness' and 'nature as paintings', and in turn it had a major influence on landscape design in East Asia. Its causeways, islands, bridges, temples, pagodas and well defined views, were widely copied over China, notably in the summer Palace at Beijing and in Japan. The notion of ten poetically named scenic places persisted for seven centuries all over China and also spread to the Korean peninsula after the 16th century, when Korean intellectuals made visits to the West Lake.

Criterion (iii): The West Lake landscape is an exceptional testimony to the very specific cultural tradition of improving landscapes to create a series of 'pictures' that reflect what was seen as a perfect fusion between people and nature, a tradition that evolved in the Tang and Song Dynasties and has continued its relevance to the present day. The 'improved' West Lake, with its exceptional array of man-made causeways, islands, bridges, gardens, pagodas and temples, against a backdrop of the wooded hills, can be seen as an entity that manifests this tradition in an outstanding way.

Criterion (vi): The Tang and Song culture of demonstrating harmony between man and nature by improving the landscape to create pictures of great beauty, captured by artists and given names by poets, is highly visible in the West Lake Landscape, with its islands, causeways, temples, pagodas and ornamental planting. The value of that tradition has persisted for seven centuries in West Lake and has spread across China and into Japan and Korea, turning it into a tradition of outstanding significance.


The property contains all the key attributes of Outstanding Universal Value in terms of the lake, the wooded hills surrounding it on three sides up to their skyline and the causeways, islands, bridges, temples, pagodas and ornamental planting that create the beautiful landscape within which are the ten, celebrated, poetic views. The physical fabric of the property and its significant features are mostly in excellent condition. The Lake itself and surrounding landscapes, along with scenic places, historic monuments and sites are well maintained. No signs of neglect are detected and the deterioration processes seem mostly controlled. Thus none of the key attributes that relate to Outstanding Universal Value are under threat. The visual integrity of the property is well maintained towards the three hillsides, which seem to have been almost similar for the past 1,000 years. The views to the east are vulnerable to further expansion of Hangzhou city. However, considering the drastic urban changes of Hangzhou city over the past 10 years, from a regional town to a metropolis of eight million people, the property's visual integrity toward the city side is well managed. The skylines of the buildings are under the strong municipal regulations to maintain current heights and mass limits and to stop expansion that might impact on the skyline of West Lake.


The West Lake still clearly conveys the idea of a 'lake with cultural meaning', as all the key components that were created by the time of the Song dynasty can be read clearly in the landscape, and the beauty of the ten views can still largely be readily appreciated. There is an abundance of documents recording the development of the lake (although more for some elements than others) and these are well archived in official institutions. These records and documents are a basis for the authenticity of the property. From 'cloud capping hills' and lakeshore settings, down to the single willow trees, and the West Lake itself, all reflect elements of the landscapes as described in the old texts since the 10th century. The views to the east over Hangzhou have change dramatically over the past fifty years and the lake is no longer closed on its fourth side by a low lying town that relates in scale to the overall landscape and is in itself beautiful (as Marco Polo described). Hangzhou with its tall buildings dominates the view to the east and tends to dwarf the lake buildings. However, the skyline of hills to the north and south as viewed when looking east is still intact and the Baochu Pagoda can be seen against the sky. It will be absolutely crucial that this skyline is maintained and that there is no encroachment of the city behind those hills that are visible from the lake.

Protection and Management Requirements

The nominated property is protected at both national and provincial level by laws and regulations. These include the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics (national), Regulations on Scenic Areas (national), Regulations on the Conservation and Management of World Cultural Heritage Sites in China (national), and Regulations on the Conservation and Management of West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou (local). The most relevant national protection is afforded by the national West Lake Scenic area that was promulgated in 1982. The Hangzhou Municipal People's Government Specific Control Plan for the Buffer Zone of West Lake Cultural Landscape, 2010, puts in place constraints on the overall development of the city in relation to its potential impact on the West Lake landscape. It is crucial that these constraints ensure that there is no encroachment of the city behind the hills that are visible from the lake and that all relevant development is subject to Heritage Impact Assessments that consider impact on the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value. Management is the overall responsibility of the Hangzhou Administration of Gardens and Cultural Heritage with advice from the provincial bureau of cultural heritage in Zhejiang and the national State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH). The authority operates both as an 'internal institution' and as a 'grassroots unit', with various local organisations and with communities and villages. There is however a need to strengthen the community management system and to coordinate the interests of stakeholders. The Conservation and Management Plan of West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou (2008-2020) provides a basis for the systematic conservation and management of the property and for implementing protection measures in compliance with national standards for the protection of World Heritage sites. There is also a Master Plan for the West Lake Scenic Area, 2002-2020. In order to contain incremental change that might impact on the harmony of the landscape and its key views, an inventory needs to be established of key visual attributes as a basis for monitoring.

The Municipal authority has drafted nine special plans for scenic areas within West Lake. Other special plans have been prepared such as the Master Plan for Transportation in West Lake Scenic Area of Hangzhou, the Plan for the Integration of the South-Route Scenic Places of West Lake of Hangzhou, the Detailed Plan for the Control over the Westward Expansion of West Lake, the Plan for the Protection of the Beishan Historic and Cultural Street, the Detailed Plan for the Control over the Lingyin Scenic Area, and the Plan for the Construction of the New Socialist Countryside in the Hangzhou West Lake Scenic Area.

The West Lake is both robust and vulnerable: it can absorb comparatively large number of visitors but beyond a certain point, the needs of the visitors and their impact on the landscape could impact adversely on the authenticity of the property, on the quality of their visits, and on the ability of the landscape to inspire. Visitor management needs to be given a high priority in relation to the overall management of the property.

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