The Invention of Tradition in Hangzhou, 1911-1927
The decline of Hangzhou in the middle of the 19th century, a result of both the construction of the Grand Canal and the destruction of the city and its population decline following the Taiping Rebellion (1861), coincides with rise of Shanghai as an international metropolis and trading port. Despite its marginalization in the early 20th century, Hangzhou was able to use its religious appeal (as the “city of pilgrims”) to develop local tourism, which quickly became a significant driver of growth. The center of attraction was, at that time, the mountain of the God of the City (城隍山 chenghuangshan), which gathered temples, tea houses, fortune tellers, and shops.
The beginning of the 20th century marks a major change in the quest to modernize Hangzhou. Before 1911, the city and the West Lake were two separate entities, separated by high walls surrounding one of the largest garrisons of the Qing Empire. In 1911, new authorities led by Zhu Fucheng decided to redesign the city, knocking down the walls to “open” the city to the lake. The military stronghold was remodeled into new business centers and shops (新市场 xinshichang) that quickly replaced its former military status. New visitors then came to Hangzhou, mostly from Shanghai’s middle class. The nearby city of Shanghai, located less than four hours away from Hangzhou by train, invented a new form of entertainment combining modern comfort and the appreciation of Chinese tradition: cultural tourism around the West Lake.
If the traditional culture of pilgrims was gradually ousted from Hangzhou, “the invention of tradition” (Eric Hobsbawn, The Invention of Tradition, 1983) became a flourishing business for Hangzhou tourism, as Shanghainese “white collars” could be baited by cultural attractions that often “invented” their own local traditions. For example, in Hangzhou restaurants, the cuyu (fish mixed with vinegar) is often presented as a “traditional” dish of the Southern Song, but it was in fact invented after the Taiping Rebellion by a native cook of Shaoxing.
Extracts from the book Remaking the Chinese city on Googlebooks: ESHERICK Joseph W. (ed.), Honolulu : University of Hawai’i Press, 1999.