Return to paradise

By Ma Zhenhuan in Hangzhou (China Daily Global) Updated : 2020-05-22

Years of effective environmental measures have seen the regeneration of China's essential ecosystems, not least in the beautiful city of Hangzhou, home to country's first national wetland park.

The green development strategy, which China has been advocating since 2013 by placing more emphasis on environmental protection over a previous focus on raw GDP growth, has resulted in some ecologically valuable wetland areas around the country getting a facelift.

When visiting Hangzhou Xixi National Wetland Park on March 31, President Xi Jinping pointed out that the value of the wetlands lies in their original ecology, and environmental protection should be prioritized in the wetlands.

"Tourism development should not be pursued at the expense of the environment," said Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

The Hangzhou Xixi National Wetland Park in East China's Zhejiang province, founded in 2005, is the country's first national wetland park.

The development of the park is widely regarded as an implementation of the strategy's green and ecological theories and has demonstrated an effective way to develop the economic value of such an ecosystem.

Situated in the western part of Hangzhou, Xixi is only 5 kilometers away from the West Lake, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site in the city.

Water is the soul of Xixi. With an area of 11.5 square kilometers, the park is mostly covered by streams, ponds, lakes and swamps, with six long rivers forming a tangled network of waterways. Nearly 70 percent of the park is water and the length of waterways inside the park surpasses 100 kilometers.

Additionally, about 85 percent of the land in Xixi is covered by plants such as reeds, willows and persimmon trees and a variety of wildlife living among them, making Xixi a great platform for animal and bird watching, scientific research and education.

Because of its abundant water resources and species, Xixi wetland is an important part of Hangzhou's ecosystem and helps purify water, mitigate flooding, regulate the climate and maintain biodiversity. Nestled in an urban area of the city, it is dubbed "the natural purifier of Hangzhou".

As well as providing a haven for people to enjoy the region's natural charm, Xixi wetland is also a cultural treasure trove which has been depicted and extolled by scholars throughout history.

Xixi was a land of idyllic beauty and a place of seclusion in the eyes of ancient people. Inspired by the elegance of Xixi, many literati-including Su Dongpo, Tang Bohu, Dong Qichang and Yu Dafu-created numerous literary works about the place. Some of them are showcased on the inscribed boards and tablets dotted throughout the wetland park.

The Xixi wetland was not quite so well-known to people further afield until the famous Chinese director Feng Xiaogang used it as a backdrop for part of his 2008 film If You Are the One, adding the wetland to the list of must-visit tourist attractions in Hangzhou.

Today, the pristine scenery, the rustic charm of a country lifestyle and the ancient traditions of Xixi lure tourists from around the world.

The official data shows that, since 2005, when the park first opened to public, to the end of 2018, around 40 million people have visited the Hangzhou Xixi National Wetland Park, generating a revenue of nearly 2 billion yuan ($282.6 million).

However, it wasn't always thus. Back in the 1950s, human activities, especially the establishment of nearby factories, had an adverse impact on the wetland, inflicting damage on both the culture and natural beauty of the area.

In 2003, Hangzhou initiated a project to restore Xixi, which received a lot of support from the provincial government in Zhejiang.

Upholding the principals of prioritizing ecology, respecting local culture, maintaining the original look and ensuring sustainable development, the Hangzhou government pushed forward with the project in a protective and restorative way.

The water bodies, landforms, flora and fauna, folk customs and historic and cultural items, which present the entire image of the Xixi wetland, have all been preserved as part of the project.

The folk activities that were popular among local residents in the past, such as dragon boat racing and the lantern festival, have been rejuvenated, making the wetland even more culturally valuable.

Officials have strived to return the wetland to the way it was in the past and have endowed it with greater value in terms of ecology, culture and economy.

At the opening ceremony of the Xixi National Wetland Park 15 years ago, Xi, then Party chief of Zhejiang province, sent a congratulatory message encouraging Hangzhou to "make persistent efforts to further protect, manage, operate and study Xixi wetland".

In recent years, the wetland park has been scientifically developed and has been playing a vital role in the development of Hangzhou.

Learning from the success of Xixi, many other wetland areas across China have started to follow suit. From 2005 to 2019, the number of national wetland parks in the country grew from 1 to 898.

Lei Guangchun, dean of the School of Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University, hailed the conservation project on Xixi as the beginning of a new era for sustainable development in Chinese cities.

He said the project reflects the forward-looking vision of the Hangzhou government, "The wetland scenery that has lasted for over 1,000 years epitomizes the harmonious coexistence of local residents and the wetland ecosystem, represents the highest pursuit of the Convention on Wetlands and is a great contribution to global civilization."

There is a story about Xixi that has been told by Hangzhou people for many years.

In 1127, when fleeing from invaders in the north, Emperor Gaozong of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) passed a town called Xixi and, captivated by the scenery, he wanted to make Xixi a new capital, but was talked out of doing so. Finally, he decided to build the new capital on Phoenix Hill, a strategically important spot in the southeast of today's Hangzhou, and before departing, Gaozong said "One will hate to leave Xixi when indulged by the beautiful scenery here" to express his reluctance to say goodbye to the beautiful town.

Today, this sentence has become a slogan for the Xixi National Wetland Park, enticing visitors from around the world as a testimony to how humans and nature can coexist in a harmonious and sustainable way in Hangzhou, a place aptly nicknamed "Paradise on Earth".

Qin Jirong contributed to this story.