The county of Qiantang was first established at this site under the Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE) but did not start developing until the 4th and 5th centuries CE, when the Yangtze River delta area began to be settled. A prefecture named Hangzhou was created there in 589, during the Sui dynasty (581–618), which is the source of the city’s name. It became a major local centre with the completion of the Jiangnan Canal (then the southern section of the Grand Canal) in 609. During the Ten Kingdoms (Shiguo) period (907–960), Hangzhou was the capital of the state of Wu-Yue. In the later Song period (960–1279), northern China fell to the Jin (Juchen) dynasty (1115–1234); from 1127 the Song rulers were confined to southern China, and they made Hangzhou (then known as Lin’an) their capital. A centre of commerce, it was visited in the late 13th century by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who called it Kinsai, or Quinsay; it then had an estimated population of 1 million to 1.5 million.
Although it never again reached the peak of importance that it had achieved as capital of the Nan (Southern) Song, Hangzhou remained important. Under the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911/12) dynasties, it was a superior prefecture, in addition to being the provincial capital of Zhejiang. It became immensely wealthy, being at the centre of a fertile rice-growing area as well as being the site of the most important silk industries in China. It also was famous as a centre of culture, producing numerous writers, painters, and poets. Its importance as a port dwindled, however, as Hangzhou Bay gradually silted up and as its outport, Ganpu, became useless. From the 14th century its trade gradually shifted to Ningbo to the southeast on the southern shore of the bay and, in the 19th century, to the new city of Shanghai, some 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast at the mouth of the Yangtze. In 1861, during the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the city fell to the rebels and suffered severe damage.
Subsequently, although no longer a major port, it remained a commercial centre for domestic trade and was opened to foreign trade in 1896. Its commercial role was later augmented by the construction of a railway to Shanghai (1909), of another to Ningbo (1914), and of a main line to Jiangxi and Hunan provinces in 1936–38. Since the construction of railways in Fujian province in the 1950s, Hangzhou has become the focus of rail traffic from the southeastern provinces to Shanghai. It was also the focus of the earliest network of modern motor roads, constructed in the 1930s. Hangzhou was held by the Japanese from 1937 to 1945.
The contemporary city
Since 1949 Hangzhou, though it has been carefully preserved as a scenic district and tourist attraction, has also developed into an industrial centre. The textile industry, originally confined to silk production, now produces both silk and cottons. In addition to thermal electric-generating plants, the city is connected via the regional power grid to the large Xin’an River hydroelectric project to the southwest and to Shanghai and Nanjing. A chemical industry has also been established. In the late 1950s a major tractor plant was built in Hangzhou, and a machine-tool industry subsequently developed. Electronics manufacturing has also become a major component of the city’s economy.
Hangzhou is an economic centre of and export base for east-central China. A railway network connects Hangzhou to Shanghai and Ningbo, as well as to Xuanzhou in Anhui province (northwest) and Nanchang in Jiangxi province (southwest). A Shanghai-Ningbo expressway via Hangzhou was completed in the 1990s, and a Nanjing-Hangzhou expressway opened in the early 21st century. There are scheduled flights to Singapore and to Hong Kong and other major cities in China from Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport (opened 2000), 17 miles (28 km) east of the city. With increased growth since the late 20th century, the city has spread to the southern bank of the Qiantang River in recent years, and its metropolitan area includes the city of Xiaoshan to the southeast.
Hangzhou’s architecture and gardens are renowned, and it is situated among hills and valleys in which some of the most famous monasteries in China are located. Thus, the city, with its beautiful scenery and sites of historical interest, is among China’s most popular tourist destinations. Notable are Xi Lake, nestled in hills, and, on a slope northwest of the lake, Lingyan Temple, considered one of the most famous Buddhist temples in China. Hangzhou is also a national centre of higher education. Zhejiang University (1897) is among the largest and most prestigious institutions in China; its size was expanded considerably in 1998 when it was reconstituted after amalgamating with the former Zhejiang Agricultural University (1910) and Hangzhou University (1952).