Legends of Hangzhou’s West Lake

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Along the banks of Hangzhou’s UNESCO world heritage site, the West Lake, are real-life landmarks from ancient stories and legends: a heavenly phoenix’s mountain sits on the lake’s southern edge, overlooking a towering pagoda of a once powerful monk and imprisoned beauty. Judge for yourself if these long-told stories are simply fairytales:


The Stone that Sent Heaven into Battle

Millennia ago, the Jade dragon and Golden Phoenix discovered a magnificent pebble of pure white jade in the waters of the Silver River. The dragon and phoenix were mesmerized. They spent hours every day collecting water and meticulously polishing the rock. Finally, after years of effort, their work was finished. The pebble had been transformed into a shining jade orb, its luster so resplendent that green life sprang up in every dark corner its light reached. The dragon and the phoenix were filled with delight over their treasure.

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The orb’s radiance also reached the far-sighted eyes of the Heavenly Empress. From her golden throne above she too was filled with desire for this new treasure. That night she summoned her general, ordering him to descend and steal the orb from the Jade Dragon and Gold Phoenix.

The next morning, the dragon and phoenix awoke to find the light of the stone shinning down from the clouds around the Heavenly Empress’s Palace. In a fit of rage, they ascended and assaulted the palace, ravaging the empress’s royal legions in a frenzy of tooth, claw, and talon.

west-lake-west-mountainIn the midst of their ferocious onslaught, the orb was dislodged from its place beside the empress’s throne. All watched in horror as the orb careened through heaven’s realms, plummeting like a shooting star towards earth below. In a deafening crack and blinding flash of light, the stone struck the ground. But, to the astonishment of all, there was no crater where the orb had struck. Instead there stood a beautiful crystal lake, its waters glistening with a hint of the same dazzling light as the orb before it.

The dragon and phoenix were once again taken by its beauty. Vowing never to let its light out of their sight again, they descended to earth, and the phoenix transformed into a mountain beside the lake to forever stand guard. Today, this mountain is known to locals as Fenghuang Shan, or, the Phoenix Mountain and lies on the southern shores of West Lake.

The Star-crossed Poet

Su Xiaoxiao was a Southern Qi Dynasty courtesan from Hangzhou famous for her beauty, grace, and insightful poetry. Legend says that at an early age Su Xiaoxiao fell in love with the young prince Ruan Yu. But, Su was from a humble family; Ruan, from one of riches and power. Despite his promises to convince his parents to give their consent, he failed, and the young prince’s parents instead brutally forced them apart.


Eventually, Su recovered and met the poor scholar Ren Bao. In many ways Ren reminded Su of Ruan, except for Ren was not from the same, high background. Su became totally devoted to Ren, and worked hard to save her money so that Ren could make the long journey to the capital and take the imperial examinations.

Finally, she was successful and Ren left for his trip. But that was the last time they would ever meet. After the examinations, Ren Bao did not return. Devastated, Su Xiaoxiao fell gravely ill and soon died, unable to recover from her second and final heartbreak.

Eventually, Ren, who had passed the capital’s highest examination, returned to Hangzhou to find Su. Unable to find her, he was eventually directed to her grave. Struck by grief at the tragedy of her death, he resurrected a pavilion over her tomb near the Xiling Bridge by her beloved West Lake.

Today, you can visit the Xiling Bridge and Mucai Pavilion where Su rests, and it is said that at night you can still hear the bells of her gown tinkling in the dark.

The ‘White Snake Lady’ of West Lake

Bai Suzhen was one of the most cunning and powerful snake spirits living in the waters of the West Lake. Yet, she was never content with her life and ever envied those who tread the stone paths above.


After a lifetime studying magic, she transformed herself from a white snake spirit into a beautiful woman, finally free to roam the earth above her beloved West Lake.

One day, as she hid from rain under Broken Bridge on the lake, she encountered the young scholar Xu Xian who offered her his umbrella. It was not long after this that they fell in love. But such romance between man and spirit violated heavenly law. Bai Suzhen carefully kept her origins secret from young Xu Xian, but the powerful monk Fa Hai soon uncovered the truth.

In zealous anger, Fa Hai captured Xu Xian and imprisoned him alone in a temple high up in the mountains challenging Bai Suzhen to save her beloved. It was a trap. Fa Hai knew Bai Suzhen carried Xu Xian’s child and her power was greatly weakened.

Legends of Hangzhou's West Lake

Bai Suzhen came to the temple and battled Fa Hai with a ferocious display of strength, finally freeing Xu Xian. But, she could not overcome her enemy. Fa Hai eventually trapped her in a golden alms bowl and imprisoned her in Leifeng Pagoda above West Lake. There, he vowed she would never be free until the lake dried up or the pagoda was destroyed.

In 1924, the Leifeng Pagoda collapsed and some say a beautiful woman was seen emerging from the ruins. Today, when you visit the West Lake you can view the Broken Bridge where Bai and Xu first met as well as visit the restored Leifeng Pagoda to see the view that Bai Suzhen looked out on for all her imprisoned years.

Begin your own journey to the beautiful Hangzhou.

Photo credits: #3 Jakob Montrasio via flikr; #4 Xianyi Shen via flikr, #5 John K via flikr.