South Lake: a treasure of scenic beauty and history

Stanley Chu
One of Zhejiang Province’s three great lakes, South Lake is a harmonious mix of natural beauty and history, including its key role in the birth of the Communist Party of China.
Stanley Chu
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A panoramic view of the South Lake from the Haogu Pagoda.

South Lake is one of Zhejiang Province’s three great lakes along with Hangzhou’s West Lake and Shaoxing’s East Lake.

South of Jiaxing's city center, the 540,000-square-meter lake is not just an attractive tourist spot; it is also steeped in history.

The man-made Mid-Lake Island was formed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the local government decided to dredge the waterways in 1548.

The resulting mud was then piled up in the center of the lake, where the island would eventually form. After its formation, the garden-style buildings of the Ming Dynasty that still stand there today were built. Along with the structures, the isle is filled with lotus flowers, ponds, willow trees and plants.

The buildings are spread out across the island. The pathways connecting the scattered structures are mostly on flat land with a few stairs to help navigate the bumpy terrain.

The stone paths are complimented by the island’s plant life and lie next to ponds filled with water lilies and water chestnuts. Inside the buildings are portraits and biographies of the government officials who once lived there. There are also calligraphy works and paintings by local artists, along with old photos of South Lake and the surrounds.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The Yanyu Pavilion is the centerpiece of the Mid-Lake Island.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The Yanyu Pavilion, or the Pavilion of Mist and Rain, is considered the centerpiece of the island. Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Qianlong often visited South Lake and loved the pavilion so much he had a replica built at the imperial resort in Chengde, Hebei Province.

The pavilion derives its name from Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) Du Mu's poem: “Of the 480 temples built by the Southern Dynasties, many towers and terraces still remain in the misty rain.”

The two-story Yanyu Pavilion faces south, and its architecture is simple yet elegant. Red wooden pillars hold up the green overhanging Chinese-style eaves with a small balcony layered on top and a plaque with the Chinese characters for Yanyu underneath the roof.

Over the years, the pavilion has been periodically refurbished.

Zhang Changqing, a magistrate with the Jiaxing government, was the last to renovate the pavilion, in 1918. Zhang kept the artworks and furniture of its ancient residents and mostly worked on the pavilion’s exterior. A set of stairs in the back leads to the second floor where visitors can take pictures and view nature.

On the balcony, one can see the large willow trees and rectangular pond in front of the pavilion, along with the clear waters of South Lake. The best view is said to be during the spring after a light rain shower as the resulting mist amplifies the splendor of the island.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A replica of the boat where Party members secretly held the First Congress of the CPC in 1921 floats in the waters today in front of the Mid-Lake Island.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The South Lake Revolutionary Memorial Hall was built to mark the founding of the Communist Party of China.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Objects displayed at the South Lake Revolutionary Memorial Hall

While South Lake is associated with ancient dynasties, it also played a key role in modern Chinese history.

During the First Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1921 in Shanghai, the meeting was impeded by French policemen. Delegates had to move to Jiaxing and continue the meeting onboard a boat on the South Lake. It was on the boat that the Party was founded. A replica of that boat floats in the waters today in front of the Mid-Lake Island.

To commemorate the founding of the Party in Jiaxing, the South Lake Revolutionary Memorial Hall was established on the eastern shore. It comprises three floors, with each progressively going further into the timeline of the Party.

Plaques spread throughout the museum tell the story of the Communist Party. Visitors well-versed in history can also look at the models of workers, statues of Chairman Mao and other founding figures, a replica of the Red Boat and a mural of the Chinese civil war to illustrate the modern history of China.

Other features in the museum include artifacts from that era such as radios, weapons and notebooks. 

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