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What lies at the end of the river? The history of medieval Hangzhou is one of changing fortunes. Hangzhou was twice a government capital, yet it managed to escape ever being sacked in times of great violence. What is the story of this lucky, prosperous city at the end of the Grand Canal?

Hangzhou History

The History of Hangzhou stretches back to the Neolithic period. From 5500 to 3300 BCE, the Hemdu occupied the area. An earlier city, Yuhang, is mentioned in records dating to 2000 BCE. Yuhang would eventually become just one of Hangzhou’s districts.

Hangzhou Lingyin Temple StudySmarterFig. 1 - Lingyin Temple Today

International travelers would leave their mark on the city early. A Buddhist monk from India named Huili set up the Lingyin and Fajing temples between 328 and 330 CE. In 591, the city erected a tremendous protective wall. When the Grand Canal was completed in 609, it ended in Hangzhou. That connection by way of the Grand Canal would be important to Hangzhou’s future.

The Grand Canal connected the northern and southern ends of China, stretching from Beijing to Hangzhou.

Medieval Hangzhou

The Middle Ages were a time of great growth for Hangzhou. It would flourish under the Tang dynasty, before being used as a capital for the first time by the Wuyue. During the medieval period, Hangzhou became one of the great cultural centers of southern China. Its connection to the rest of China through the Grand Canal allowed Hangzhou to grow into a cosmopolitan center. Hangzhou’s medieval history led it to be known as one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China.

Hangzhou did not just experience the full breadth of Chinese culture but received important visitors from other regional powers such as Japan and Goryeo.

Tang Dynasty

Under the Tang Dynasty, one of the most important voices in Chinese literature became the prefect of Hangzhou. Bai Juyi was a Chinese poet whose work was also important to Japanese literature. Under his authority, irrigation projects improved crop stability in Hangzhou. West Lake, from whence the irrigation water came, became a favorite spot for the poet to visit.


With the decline of the Tang dynasty in the year 907, a prolonged period of Chinese political instability was initiated. This is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period for its rapid change of dynasties and many smaller, independent kingdoms. The most powerful of these independent states, the Kingdom of Wuyue, was established in the region of Hangzhou. The Wuyue called the city Xifu and used it as their capital.

Hangzhou Qian Liu StudySmarterFig.2 - Qian Liu

Qian Liu, the founder of Wuyue, did much to improve Xifu. Under the economic prosperity of his reign, the city grew in size. Additionally, he supported the city’s arts and culture, especially Buddhist works. Beautiful temples and other celebrations of Buddhism were erected during Liu’s time which still preserve today.

Hangzhou Government

From the years 589 to 1129, Hangzhou was governed as a prefecture. An accurate translation would be “Hang Prefecture”, as the Chinese word “zhou” means “prefecture” in English. A prefect is essentially a sort of governor who is not just a local authority but represents the national government locally. A prefecture is the division of land that the prefect is given to oversee.

Prefect: A governor who represents the national government instead of being a completely local authority

Song Dynasty

The Wuyue who had so developed Hangzhou was unable to stand up to the Song dynasty as it reunited China. In 978, Wuyue swore allegiance to the Song. Hangzhou may no longer have been the capital, but its place close to the coast and at one end of the Grand Canal maintained the city’s importance going forward.

As a trading city, Hangzhou prospered. Large estates and an abundance of material wealth filled the city. Hosting not just regional visitors but also Arab traders, the city’s international character developed. The well-crafted porcelain developed in Hangzhou has been found by archeologists as far away as Iran. This speaks to Hangzhou’s place as a trading center on the Silk Road.

Silk Road: A Eurasian trade network primarily active from the third to fifteenth centuries

Southern Song Dynasty

In the wake of the Jin-Song wars, the Song Dynasty was forced to give up the northern part of its territory to the Jin dynasty. Originally only intending to migrate the Song capital south for a brief period in 1129 until the north could be reclaimed, Hangzhou instead became the permanent capital of the Southern Song dynasty in 1138. Once again, a capital, government buildings were expanded in 1133 and 1143. To the Song, this city was known as Lin’an.

Hangzhou Lingyin Diorama StudySmarterFig.3 - Lin'an Diorama

Over one million people lived in Lin’an and it became the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The dense population and wooden structures created many safety issues, resulting in a great number of large fires occurring in the 13th century. A firefighting system was devised to warn of incidents and mobilize soldiers to fight the fires.

Yuan Dynasty

When the Song dynasty was overtaken by the invading Mongols who established the Yuan dynasty in 1179, Hangzhou once again lost its status as the capital. Yet also like with the transfer of power from the Wuyue to the Song, the Mongols did not sack Hangzhou. The city escaped the wrath of the Mongols largely unscathed.

While Beijing became the new Yuan capital, Hangzhou's strategic location allowed it to maintain its status as a major trading city under Yuan rule. Some of the most well-traveled people in the world at the time marveled at Hangzhou in their writings. Accounts of the European Marco Polo and the Moroccan Ibn Batuta made note of the splendor of Hangzhou. Both of them were extremely well-traveled men whose writings give us some of the best accounts of the world at that time, which gives major weight to their descriptions.

Polo recorded that between 40,000 and 50,000 people visited the markets of Hangzhou every day.

Hangzhou Province

Hangzhou has continued to be an important Chinese city to this day. Although never again a capital, its economic power through strong rice yields and a vibrant silk industry sustained its importance after the Yuan dynasty. As a cultural city, it also maintained its attractiveness to those interested in the arts, attracting many writers and painters. Today the city is the hub of the tech industry and entrepreneurship in China, and its connection to new ideas has not been lost.

Hangzhou - Key takeaways

  • Important trading city in medieval China
  • Capital of the Wuyue kingdom and Southern Song dynasty
  • Located at the end of Grand Canal
  • Was the largest city in the world in 12th century
  • Artifacts manufactured in Hangzhou have been found as far away as Iran

Frequently Asked Questions about Hangzhou

Hangzhou is best known as a trade and cultural center, as well as being on the Seven Ancient Capitals of China

Hangzhou is a cosmopolitan city known for literature and art. 

Hangzhou is significant as a trade city, artistic center, and two time capital of medieval China

Hangzhou is located in southeast China.

Hangzhou was the capital of the Southern Song dynasty 

Final Hangzhou Quiz


Hangzhou is connected to what?

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The Grand Canal

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Who made Hangzhou their capital?

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Southern Song dynasty

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Hangzhou was repeatedly sacked during changes of power 

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Hangzhou artifacts have been found as far away as

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What did Huili do in Hangzhou?

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Established Buddhist temples 

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What was the Southern Song name for Hangzhou?

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What happened to Hangzhou during the Yuan dynasty?

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It became the largest city in the world 

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Bai Juyi, the Chinese poet, led Hangzhou during what period?

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Tang dynasty

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From 589 to 1129, Hangzhou was overseen by a _____.

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What about Hangzhou was most central to it becoming important?

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Like many major cities, it is near a river, canal, or ocean. Water transportation allows access to the location, allowing it to grow into a hub. 

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