HANGZHOU & THE URBAN ELITE

Hangzhou and the Urban Elite

According to Marco Polo

Marco Polo described Hangzhou, capital of the Southern Song, as the finest and most splendid city in the world. Situated at the southern end of the Grand Canal, Hangzhou was a natural center for trade.

A lively street scene from the Beijing qingming scroll.

Get a closer look at this scene...

Marco Polo reported that Hangzhou had ten marketplaces, each half a mile long, where 40,000 to 50,000 people would go to shop on any given day. There were also innumerable restaurants and bathhouses with either hot or cold water baths:

When you have left the city of Changan and have travelled for three days through a splendid country, passing a number of towns and villages, you arrive at the most noble city of Kinsay [Hangzhou], a name which is as much as to say in our tongue “The City of Heaven,” as I told you before.

And since we have got thither I will enter into particulars about its magnificence; and these are well worth the telling, for the city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world. ...

First and foremost, then, [the city of Kinsay is] so great that it hath an hundred miles of compass. And there are in it twelve thousand bridges of stone, for the most part so lofty that a great fleet could pass beneath them. And let no man marvel that there are so many bridges, for you see the whole city stands as it were in the water and surrounded by water, so that a great many bridges are required to give free passage about it. ...

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All the streets of the city are paved with stone or brick, as indeed are all the highways throughout Manzi, so that you ride and travel in every direction without inconvenience. Were it not for this pavement you could not do so, for the country is very low and flat, and after rain ’tis deep in mire and water. ...

Map showing the Grand Canal, with borders of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126) and its neighbors, the Xi Xia and Liao, and the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) and its neighbors, the Xi Xia and Jin.

 

You must know also that the city of Kinsay has some 3000 baths, the water of which is supplied by springs. They are hot baths, and the people take great delight in them, frequenting them several times a month, for they are very cleanly in their persons. They are the finest and largest baths in the world; large enough for 100 persons to bathe together.

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At the opposite side the city is shut in by a channel, perhaps 40 miles in length, very wide, and full of water derived from the river aforesaid, which was made by the ancient kings of the country in order to relieve the river when flooding its banks. This serves also as a defence to the city, and the earth dug from it has been thrown inwards, forming a kind of mound enclosing the city.

In this part are the ten principal markets, though besides these there are a vast number of others in the different parts of the town. The former are all squares of half a mile to the side, and along their front passes the main street, which is 40 paces in width, and runs straight from end to end of the city, crossing many bridges of easy and commodious approach. At every four miles of its length comes one of those great squares of 2 miles (as we have mentioned) in compass. So also parallel to this great street, but at the back of the market places, there runs a very large canal, on the bank of which towards the squares are built great houses of stone, in which the merchants from India and other foreign parts store their wares, to be handy for the markets. In each of the squares is held a market three days in the week, frequented by 40,000 or 50,000 persons, who bring thither for sale every possible necessary of life, so that there is always an ample supply of every kind of meat and game, as of roebuck, red-deer, fallow-deer, hares, rabbits, partridges, pheasants, francolins, quails, fowls, capons, and of ducks and geese an infinite quantity; for so many are bred on the Lake that for a Venice groat of silver you can have a couple of geese and two couple of ducks. Then there are the shambles where the larger animals are slaughtered, such as calves, beeves, kids, and lambs, the flesh of which is eaten by the rich and the great dignitaries.

Hangzhou Today

Photographer's Journal: A Teahouse in Hangzhou [New York Times, July 2, 2006]
A narrated slide show about the Tai Ji teahouse in Hangzhou, with 14 photographs by Times photographer Chang W. Lee.

On an Ancient Canal, Grunge Gives Way to Grandeur [New York Times, July 24, 2007]
“Until the early 1990s, crews on barges and boats chugging down China’s 2,400-year-old Grand Canal did not need familiar landmarks to tell them they were approaching the scenic city of Hangzhou. ...”

 
   

Those markets make a daily display of every kind of vegetables and fruits; and among the latter there are in particular certain pears of enormous size, weighing as much as ten pounds apiece, and the pulp of which is white and fragrant like a confection; besides peaches in their season both yellow and white, of every delicate flavour.

Neither grapes nor wine are produced there, but very good raisins are brought from abroad, and wine likewise. The natives, however, do not much are about wine, being used to that kind of their own made from rice and spices. From the Ocean Sea also come daily supplies of fish in great quantity, brought 25 miles up the river, and there is also great store of fish from the lake, which is the constant resort of fishermen, who have no other business. Their fish is of sundry kinds, changing with the season; and, owing to the impurities of the city which pass into the lake, it is remarkably fat and savoury. Any one who should see the supply of fish in the market would suppose it impossible that such a quantity could ever be sold; and yet in a few hours the whole shall be cleared away; so great is the number of inhabitants who are accustomed to delicate living. Indeed they eat fish and flesh at the same meal.

All the ten market places are encompassed by lofty houses, and below these are shops where all sorts of crafts are carried on, and all sorts of wares are on sale, including spices and jewels and pearls. Some of these shops are entirely devoted to the sale of wine made from rice and spices, which is constantly made fresh and fresh, and is sold very cheap. (1)

 

Pastimes of the Urban Elite

The elite of the city often formed clubs. A text written in 1235 mentions the West Lake Poetry Club, the Buddhist Tea Society, the Physical Fitness Club, the Anglers’ Club, the Occult Club, the Young Girls’ Chorus, the Exotic Foods Club, the Plants and Fruits Club, the Antique Collectors’ Club, the Horse-Lovers’ Club, and the Refined Music Society. Members gathered for lively discussions and socializing.

 

For Further Reading

• “Housing, Clothing, Cooking,” from Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), 113-43.

Notes

(1) Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVI: Description of the Great City of Kinsay, Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi” and “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVII: Further Particulars Concerning the Great City of Kinsay,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. The excerpted text is from pages 179-180, 182, and 190-191 of this online text.

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