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


Mao Zedong's West Lake | China Heritage Quarterly

Mao Zedong's West Lake
The Revolutionary Retreats Liu Villa 劉莊 and Wang Villa 汪莊

Geremie R. Barmé

For a time, it seemed as though the city of Hangzhou and West Lake were to become the 'Geneva of the East' (see James Z. Gao in the Features section of this issue). It was during those early years, when West Lake was protected because of its cultural, rather than merely its productive value, that the Lake also became a prominent backdrop to the political enterprise of the new People's Republic of China. From 1953, its lakeshore villas, hotels and offices were used by party leaders—and not just provincial or regional worthies—as location not only for recreation but also for some of the key political developments in the socialist politics of New China. Although the idea of a 'Geneva of the East' was gradually overshadowed by the radicalization of life in the People's Republic, the reality of West Lake as a scenic retreat for party-state leaders increasingly took hold.

Liu Villa 劉莊 and China's New Constitution

Fig.1 No.35 Beishan Road opposite Solitary Hill. (Source: Ye Jianxin 葉建新, Mao Zedong and West Lake [Mao Zedong yu Xihu 毛澤東與西湖), Hangzhou: Hangzhou Chubanshe, 2005.)

Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), had visited Hangzhou fleetingly at the time of the establishment of the Party in 1921. His second recorded visit was shortly after his sixtieth birthday in December 1953. He arrived on 27 December bringing with him a group of Party writers and ideologues to start drafting a constitution for the People's Republic. Along with his secretaries, guards and personal staff Mao moved into the old Liu Villa 劉莊/刘庄 situated on the south-west edge of the Lake's Western Inner Lake (Xihu Xili Hu 西湖西里湖). He took up residence in the prosaically, but aptly named 'Building No. 1' (Yihao Lou 一號樓).

Liu Zhuang, also known by its more poetic name the 'Water Bamboo Residence' (Shuizhu Ju 水竹居) because of its luxuriant bamboo garden, was originally built by a wealthy Cantonese merchant by the name of Liu Xuexun (劉學詢, 1874-1908), after whom it is named. Its extensive grounds—some thirty-six hectares (540 mu) in all—contained living quarters as well as a number of miniature poetic landscapes. One of these is a hill known as 'Little Solitary Hill' (Xiao Gu Shan 小孤山) as it was thought of as being a pair with the larger Solitary Hill on Bai Causeway. The view of West Lake from the hill was much prized and it was also noted for a rock inscribed with the calligraphy of the famous late-Qing reformer Kang Youwei (康有為, 1858-1927), another Cantonese who, like Liu Xuexun, was much taken with the landscape of the Lake. (In the Chronology for 16-20 August 1916 we noted that Kang, who enjoyed staying at the Lake, fled when he heard that the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen was visiting.)

Fig.2 Mao working on the draft of the Constitution. (Source: Ye Jianxin, Mao Zedong and West Lake)

During the period in which he worked on the draft constitution Mao's formal office was located on Beishan Road to the north of Liu Villa opposite Solitary Hill.[Fig.1] The committee, which included Mao's writing team of Tian Jiaying 康田家英, Hu Qiaomu 胡喬木 and Chen Boda 陳伯達, worked on the draft for the following three months. Originally the General Office of Party Central had advised Politburo members that Mao would only be away from Beijing for a month. In the event he stayed until 14 March 1954.[Fig.2]

During this lengthy sojourn Mao recalled a previous fleeting visit to West Lake in 1921. Speaking to the head of the provincial Public Security Bureau he reportedly remarked that 'The environment of Hangzhou is excellent. You aren't disturbed by noise here; it's ideal for work, and for relaxation' (Hangzhou zhege difang huanjing hao, bu caoza, shihe gongzuo, shihe xiuxi 杭州這個地方好,不嘈雜,適合工作,適合休息). From then on Hangzhou would become, as he put it, 'a second home' (di'erge guxiang 第二个故乡).[1]

As it was evident that Liu Villa would frequently host visits from the Chairman thereafter, extensive modifications were made to the buildings and the grounds more in keeping with the requirements of a Chinese head of state more generally and Mao's tastes in particular, no matter how theoretically modest his lifestyle was said to be in those early years. A conference room was, of course, necessary as were suitable spaces for secretaries and service personnel, and a swimming pool to cater to Mao's favourite pastime (although the Chairman often also swam in the Qiantang River and at Wenjia Yan 聞家堰 at Xiaoshan 蕭山, as well as in the pool at the secretive Nanping Club 南屏俱樂部). He also pursued his interests in walking in the hills and the arts of the literary gentleman.[Figs 4 & 5]

The 1954 refurbishment was overseen by Dai Nianci (戴念慈, 1920-91), a young architect from Jiangsu who had graduated from National Central University in Chongqing in the early 1940s. From 1944, Zhang worked for a number of architectural firms before, in 1950, being appointed Chief Designer of the Construction and Building Office of the Central Organizations of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (中共中央直属机关修建办事处设计室主任). From 1952 to 1971 he was the chief engineer in the Design Institute of the Ministry of Architecture in Beijing (建筑工程部设计院主任工程师、总建筑师).

A Short Account of the Party's Reception Offices

Sang Ye with Geremie R. Barmé

When visiting Hangzhou elite central Party leaders would live in sequestered West Lake residences—this was so in the case of Mao, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Chen Yun and latterly of Lin Biao, and a few other senior figures. Other Party cadres, as well as non-party VIPs, writers, and people of note or influence who visited or had semi-permanent accommodations at West Lake would enter the exclusive world of the Party's 'Reception Office' (Jiaoji chu 交際處) network. This was an all-embracing environment that catered to the needs of the élite during the Maoist years of avowed 'frugality and plain living' (jianku pusu 艱苦樸素).

After establishing a base in Northern Shaanxi, west China, at the end of the Long March in 1935, Mao and his colleagues decide that it was necessary to establish a system of courtesy stations, or reception offices. These were set up to host central party leaders as well as 'foreign friends' of the Communist Party in Shanxi, Sichuan, Guangdong and Guangxi. The offices would act in competition with local power-holders as well as the Nanjing (and later Chongqing) Nationalist government and provide accommodation, transportation, food and various guided or chaperoned activities.

Fig.3 The 'holy land of Yan'an' (Yan'an shengdi 聖地延安). (Photograph: GRB)

In 1937, when the government of the Chinese Soviet Republic was renamed the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Government, its reception office became known as the Yan'an Reception Office. The office boasted accommodation, a dance hall, a conference hall and the only place in Yan'an that served Western food, the Victory Canteen (Shengli Shitang 勝利食堂). This canteen was also charged with the task of training cooks to work for central Party leaders.[Fig.4]

Answerable to the Central Committee of the CCP it played a key role in what is called the 'untied front' work of the Party. It was given the crucial task of receiving important Nationalist as well as international visitors, as well as noted intellectuals who were regarded as being potential fellow-travellers or key Party sympathizers. At a time of great political need the Reception Office proved invaluable.[1]

Following the Communist victory on mainland China in 1948-49, People's Government Reception Offices (Renmin zhengfu jiaoji chu 人民政府交際處) were established in cities and provinces throughout the new People's Republic and placed under the control of local governments. In each city they would take over the best hotels, eateries and entertainment facilities. In Hangzhou, for example, they claimed the Dahua Hotel on West Lake, in Suzhou the South Garden Hotel and in Xi'an it was the Xijing Hotel. In the majority of cases these properties were simply requisitioned by the party-state, in a few instances buildings were rented or dedicated facilities constructed.

In the early years of the People's Republic the reception offices hosted central cadres of vice-ministerial level or above, or deputy provincial leaders or above. They were also for the use of National People's Consultative Congress (Zhengxie 政協), democratic party leaders of the rank of vice-chairman upwards, as well as élite 'democratic personages' and important representatives of ethnic minorities, religious groups, not to mention Soviet and other diplomats.

As Yang Zhiyuan 楊志遠 says in his account of travel and tourism in the early years of the People's Republic previously published in China Heritage Quarterly, at the time

[t]he only sort of 'travel' [lüxing 旅行] Chinese people did was government-funded trips on official business. When Party or state leaders travelled on business or took a holiday the relevant city or provincial Reception Office [jiaojichu 交際處] would look after them.[2]

Following the establishment of the China International Travel Service (CITS) in 1954, reception offices in cities that were open to international visitors were henceforth placed off limits to foreigners.

Apart from the reception offices mentioned above, auxiliary administrative offices (Guanli chu 管理處) were also set up and administered by cities or provinces with major scenic areas, such as Huang Shan in Anhui 安徽省黄山, Lu Shan in Jiangxi 江西省廬山 and Conghua Hot Springs in Guangdong 廣東省從化溫泉. In 1950, the Organizations the State Administrative Bureau of the State Council established a Reception Office (the State Administrative Bureau Reception Office 國管局交際處) for the highest echelon of party-state leaders (vice-premier and above) which was charged with organizing and paying for official banquets, dinners, the reception of cadres from the provinces and centrally administered cities (deputy provincial head and above) during their visits to Beijing on official business and all that they entailed.

In the early phase of the Cultural Revolution, attacks on cadre privilege—substantive and physical denunciations from an outraged populace that discovered details of the extravagant privileges (by the standards of the time) enjoyed by party-state leaders, as well as pretend outrage from 'performative Maoists'—led to the decline of the Reception Office. From 1968, some provincial and city-level reception offices were converted into 'greeting stations' (jiedai chu 接待處) or service offices (fuwu ke 服務科). The majority of reception offices that survived into the post-1978 era were abolished around 1980, although a few survive to this day. They manage the Kuangou Guest House in Beijing (北京寬溝招待所), the Yingbin and Victory hotels in Guangzhou (廣州迎賓館、勝利飯店) and the Changchun Guesthouse in Jilin province (吉林省長春賓館).


[1] These included Huang Yanpei 黄炎培, Fu Sinian 傅斯年, Zhang Bojun 章伯钧, Zhang Zhizhong 张治中; Edgar Snow, Norman Bethune, Agnes Smedley and Rewi Alley; Zou Taofen 邹韬奋, Mao Dun 茅盾, Ding Ling 丁玲 and Jiang Qing 江青.

[2] See Sang Ye's oral history interview with Yang Zhiyuan, '1979: Huang Shan, Selling Scenery to the Bourgeoisie—An Oral History Account of Chinese Tourism, 1949-1979', edited and translated by Geremie R. Barmé, at:

West Lake and Gao-Rao 高饒

Fig.4 North High Peak (Bei Gao Feng 北高峰) in Mao's calligraphy on the summit of the mountain. (Source: Ye Jianxin, Mao Zedong and West Lake)

Fig.5 Mao at his desk in his West Lake villa. (Source: Ye Jianxin, Mao Zedong and West Lake)

In his work on the Communist occupation of West Lake and Hangzhou, James Gao suggests that the real reason for Mao Zedong's long sojourn by West Lake in 1953-54—his longest absence from the capital since the founding of the new state—had more to do with political strife in Beijing than either the drafting of the new Chinese Constitution or his need to recover from illness and overwork. In particular it was partly related to the first post-1949 party purge—what is known as the Gao-Rao Incident (Gao-Rao shijian 高饒事件; so named after its chief victims, Gao Gang 高崗 and Rao Shushi 饒漱石):

Why did Mao leave Beijing, and why did he choose to go to Hangzhou?.... One popular guess was that Mao's leaving had something to do with his distress at the news that his eldest son had died in the Korean War. These reasons might be true, but the decisive factor for Mao's leaving Beijing in December 1953 was a sharp power struggle within the Communist top leadership.

The power struggle finally ended in the purge of the PRC's vice president and Politburo member Gao Gang and Party Organizational Department chief Rao Shushi. Both Cultural Revolution sources and the Chinese literature after Deng Xiaoping's 'policy of reform and openness' reveal that Gao and Rao were first supported by Mao Zedong in the Party struggle against Liu Shaoqi. Mao's dissatisfaction with Liu Shaoqi resulted from a speech Liu gave in Tianjin in which he emphasized the necessary development of capitalism. This speech contradicted Mao's strong commitment to the elimination of capitalism (the theory of 'permanent revolution'). At the same time, Mao Zedong greatly admired Gao Gang's advanced socialist measures in Manchuria. Encouraged by Mao, Gao and Rao began attacking Liu Shaoqi. Unfortunately, Gao and Rao went too far and attempted to replace Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai and control the Politburo. The got support from Generals Peng Dehuai and Lin Biao, but they met with the collective opposition of Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and other Poliburo members. At that point, Mao Zedong decided to side with the majority in the Poliburo in order to maintain the unity of the leadership. Also, Mao found that Gao Gang's personal ambition was dangerous, and his 'undercover activities' became a serious threat to Mao's own authority. It was not a pleasant matter for Mao to purge Gao Gang. They had had a very close relationship since the Yan'an years, and Gao initially had Mao's firm support against Liu. Mao felt that he had better leave the matter to other Politburo members so that he could intercede later if necessary. It was against this background that Mao left Beijing.

At the Politburo meeting convened in Beijing to discuss the Gao-Rao situation, Liu and Zhou launched a counterattack. Gao Gang asked to see Mao Zedong, but he was not allowed to go to Hangzhou. Gao Gang then sensed danger and Liu Shaoqi was encouraged. In Hangzhou, Mao met with Yang Shangkun, the chief of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee, and confirmed his approval of what was going on in Beijing. Then Mao met with Gao's major supporter, Lin Biao, who was ill and recuperating in the city, and Mao pulled Lin away from Gao….

Fig.6 Building No. 1, Wang Villa, as seen from the rebuilt Thunder Peak Pagoda, September 2010. (Photograph: GRB)

Mao's most important decision in Hangzhou was a telegraph to Liu Shaoqi on January 7, 1954, that suggested that the Central Committee hold the Fourth Plenum and informing Liu that Mao would neither attend the plenum nor deal with any daily Party routines. It was the first time that Mao put into practice his idea of dividing the Politburo into two tiers. In the following two months, Mao was not involved in any of the Party''s activities, nor did he show up on public occasions. He continued to issue instructions to the Party, government, and the PLA and had a few necessary meetings with people in his manor [that is, Liu Villa.—Ed.].[2]

'I'm Home!'

Fig.7 Mao at West Lake. (Source: Ye Jianxin, Mao Zedong and West Lake)

From his first stay at from late 1953 to his last visit in 1975, Mao went to West Lake over forty times. Most years he would go there at least once, his longest stay being seven months. When he arrived at Liu Villa, or at his alternative residence on the Lake, Wang Villa (Wang Zhuang ) he would tell his guards that 'I'm home!' (Dao jia le 到家了).[3] Again, as James Gao notes regarding the important political role that West Lake would play in the first three decades of the People's Republic, Mao:

…needed a place distant from the formal political stage to watch other political actors, test their loyalty and ability, manipulate them, and make decisions without hurry. Observing the political drama from a distance, Mao was confident that he could still control the situation while remaining flexible. No Party leaders could go to Hangzhou without Mao's permission. Whom Mao called, whom Mao met, and what conversations Mao had—all sent vital messages to Beijing, and greatly influenced the formal policymaking of the CCP.[4]

Mao would have his favourite redoubts in other cities—Wuhan, Changsha and Shanghai, in particular. But it was at Liu and Wang villas on West Lake to which he would constantly return, and where some of the most momentous political decisions of the Maoist era would be made.[Fig.5] In the early days of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 it was at West Lake that he formalized his plans against Liu Shaoqi; it was here too, five years later, that he revealed to local leaders the supposed threat of his hand-picked successor, Marshall Lin Biao 林彪. Although they could not have known how important West Lake would become in the lives of the Party élite, from the 1950s other leaders, in particular the Premier, Zhou Enlai 周恩來, the PLA leader Zhu De 朱德, the economic planner Chen Yun 陳雲, Lin Biao, and Mao's own wife, Jiang Qing 江青, would spend time in Hangzhou, cultivating local contacts and doing their best to keep abreast of the Chairman's thinking of issues of moment. As James Gao remarks:

Following Mao's example, other CCP leaders began to play similar games of informal politics. They went to the city to look for a chance to approach the supreme leader or contact the local leaders to get information about Mao's intentions or plans. The city also became a meeting place for political allies and a refuge for Party leaders, such as Chen Yun, who often went there to escape from the political whirlpool in Beijing. Thus national politics became a dynamic force shaping the city and its culture.[5]

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Chen Hanmin 陳漢民, 'An Account of the Activities of Revolutionary Leaders at West Lake' (Geming lingxiu zai Xihude huodong jishi 革命領袖在西湖的活動紀實), in Hangzhoushi Yuanlin Wenwu Guanliju, ed., The Scenery and Parks of West Lake (Xihu fengjing yuanlin 西湖风景园林), Shanghai: Shanghai Kexue Jishu Chubanshe, 1990, p.367.

[2] James Z. Gao, The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou: The Transformation of City and Cadre, 1949-1954, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006, pp.222-23.

[3] Chen Hanmin, 'An Account of the Activities of Revolutionary Leaders at West Lake', p.367.

[4] Gao, The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou, pp.223-24.

[5] Gao, The Communist Takeover of Hangzhou, p.224.