More than 1800 years ago, southern China was divided into three powerful kingdoms (the states of Wei, Shu, Wu), who were constantly at war over total dominance. After several fierce wars with local tribes,General He Qi of the State of Wu during the Three Kingdomsera, (AD 220-280), finally captured the expanse of land surrounding Shexian County (part of present-day Huangshan City, Anhui Province). Sun Quan (AD 182-252 the founder of the State of Wu) wrote to He Qi to congratulate him and offer him the title of Powerful General. The newly promoted general stood proudly before the military map, then took two go chess stones, and placed one of each on Chun’an and Sui’an, forever deciding location and establishment of these two counties.
After almost two millennia, we are no longer able to see all the details of this historical period, but there is much we may know from the repeated division and reunion of Chun’an and Sui’an. Presently, the bustling centers of these two counties are peaceful concealed beneath the deep water of the Thousand Islands Lake.
International archaeological explorations of the underwater ruins, including both sunken ships and buildings, have referred to these remains as “time capsules”. These ruins have remained for centuries beneath the surface of the water, out of the path of damage from the sun and wind, and for the most part have also avoided disturbance from human society,thus allowing the ruins to remain relatively intact. Each one of these underwater relics is a reflection of days past, providing us with a vivid snapshot of the area’s history.
As the flooding of the counties was an extremely gradual process, the buildings did not suffer damage from impact. In addition,the temperature of the water has remained within the range of 10-20 degrees Celsius, thus the locals believe that the city wall and the various wooden buildings and the brick walls inside these counties, still stand where they once did,virtually free from decay.
To bring its history to light once again with our cameras,we paid a visit to this underwater city.
The Xin’an River and the City of Lions
It is dusk on an evening in November, 2009, and we are just arriving at Thousand Islands Lake in Chun’an County, Zhejiang Province. Where I want to go is Shicheng (originally Sui’an County), which is under the surface of the lake scores of kilometers from here, so I’ve first come to the central port of the lake to take a look. The current Chun’an County is a combination of the historical Chun’an and Sui’an counties, and the Township of Thousand Islands Lake is located on a small peninsula stretching out into the lake. This town once was known as Pailing, a mountain covered with pine forests before the area was flooded.
The name Shicheng (literally “Lion City”) originates from Five Lions Mountain, which sits on the north side of the county. This mountain was the county seat of Sui’an from the year AD 621 (Tang Dynasty) to 1959, when the area was flooded to form Thousand Islands Lake, for a total of 1339 years, and served as the political, economic, cultural and transportation center of the original Sui’an County. After the formation of the lake, the mountains became islands, known as the Five Lions Islands, which are now located on the eastern edge of the Sui’an Islands, as part of the Thousand Islands Lake scenic area.
In the end of November, 2009, my colleague and I started our journey of exploring the ancient city under the Thousand Islands Lake. Driving a jeep full of diving equipment, we headed from Beijing to a small town in northern Zhejiang which is 1500 km away. We decided to shoot in winter because the amount of alga would drop dramatically with the decrease of temperature, and there would be less suspended matters in the water as a result of reduced rainfall, which improved the underwater visibility and made our shooting much easier. As Hecheng County (the original site of Chun’an County), located in the main channel of Xin’an River, the whole town had almost been removed before the reservoir began to fill, while Shicheng County was near a tributary of Xin’an River so the water was filling so quickly that part of the town was left undamaged. Therefore, we decided to focus on the underwater city of Shicheng during our exploration. A multi-beam sonar shadowgraph (above) drawn by The First Institute of Oceanography, SOA also showed that part of the city walls and buildings still remained.
Multi-beam Sonar Shadowgraph of Shicheng County Provinded / Wu Yongting, Li Zenglin (The First Institute of Oceanography, SOA)
The Xin’an River system runs a very long way, many rivers of the ancient Xiuning County, Huizhou Prefecture (today’s Huangshan City, Anhui Province) meeting at Tunxi District and forming the Jianjiangriver. As the later comes at Shexian County, it joints the Lianjiang River and forming the Xin’an River. From the Shendu Township, Anhui Province (located at eastern Shexian County), the Xin’an River entering the Zhejiang Province via Chun’an County. It calls at different reaches as the famous Fuchun River and Qiantang River.
Just as the Xin’an River passes through the border of Zhejiang it is joined by the Wuqiangxi River, and a town was built on the banks of each of the two rivers, namely Chun’an and Sui’an. Since this area was the main water route for Huizhou Prefecture and city of Hangzhou, these two counties both served as important transportation hubs through the history. Countless smaller towns and villages are spread throughout the surrounding areas, where many merchants enjoyed prosperous business. Not only were goods produced in the Anhui region shipped to other cities such as Hangzhou and Jinhua, and even to parts of the neighboring Jiangxi Province, the area is also blessed with abundant supplies of natural resources, including tea, medicinal herbs, lumber and tung oil, which were purchased by businessmen from throughout the country,and local merchants also sold these materials to other regions. Since the area borders on Anhui, the local customs and architecture are mainly based on Hui style(one of China’s three major regional cultures), thus along the Xin’an River endless clusters of the distinctive Hui-style white houses with black roof tiles can be seen.
The Chun’an and Sui’an of ancient times were known for their “picturesque scenery and illustrious culture”, and here the Hui style and Jiangnan style cultures were successfully integrated. Both counties have rich histories and have produced numerous scholars, including 308 “jinshi”(palace graduates) and three “zhuangyuan” (number one scholar). Among these,the most well known is likely Shang Lu (1414-1486), who served as premier for three emperors during Ming Dynasty. Many famous poets also visited and wrote poems about Chun’an, including the likes of Li Bai, Liu Changqing, Wang Wei,Zhu Xi and Hai Rui. Over the past thousand years, especially after the Sui andTang dynasties, the area has
Accumulated much history and developed its own unique culture and customs, as reflected in its many Confusion temples,pavilions, gates, classical academies, memorial archways(specialized Han Chinese architecture, which is used for commending accomplishments or virtues during feudal society) and ancestral halls.
But now all of these have submerged below water,when 50 years ago the Xin’an River was closed off by a dam to create a large reservoir. Now the two ancient counties lie peacefully on the bed of Thousand Islands Lake, separate from the world of human society. The peaks of the many mountains of Chun’an and Sui’an now form the islands of Thousand Islands Lake(of which there are 1078, to be precise).
Underwater Ancient Archway
The day after I arrived at Thousand Islands Lake, I visited a place called Jiangjia County, located to the northwest of the main scenic area, I embarked a small wooden boat floating around the Maotoujian area in the lake. At this time, the “time capsule” of Shicheng was at the base of the lake 20 m beneath me. Underwater photographer Wu Lixin and diving coach Li Jiafan were below the surface, combing the ruins of the ancient city.
While I was waiting on the boat, a red buoy suddenly floated on the lake to mark their location, and after about 10 minutes Wu and Li resurfaced. As soon as Wu had popped the breathing regulator out of his mouth he shouted to me, “There’s a huge archway! It’s a Qing Dynasty chaste memorial archway, made of brick and stone! And a city gate!” They got in the boat and showed me the video he had recorded, uncovering the mysterious veil of the ancient city beneath.
Different from the developed dive resort in tropical seas, there was no specialized diving club near the Thousand Islands Lake. So we couldn’t get the services of special ship, diving equipment and diving guide. What made the exploration even more difficult was the low underwater visibility and water temperature. In 2004, we customized dry diving suits from Britain and finished the course of using the suits. However, the project to explore the underwater ancient city was failed because of being unfamiliar with the dive site, lacking of local support and diving equipment at that time. In 2009, when the Chinese National Geography Magazine organized special team to explore the underwater city, we finally made our dream come true. The feeling is so surreal when we were carefully shooting every detail of the memorial archway underwater.
The depths of the lake were blackish with a tint of dark green as I watched Wu’s light search around; then something more distinctive appeared----a section of a city wall! The stone was covered in algae as it had been submerged in a deep slumber for so long, but I could still discern that the wall had been carved very meticulously, and despite the fact that some of the detailing had been worn away by the water, the wall was still quite intact.
In order to find out the background of this ancient memorial archway, we visited local elders and looked for historical materials. Then we found a brief record of the archway in the Local Records of Suian County: there was a poor scholar named Yao Wenjun, while his wife was from the rich Wang family. In the age of 18, Miss. Wang married to Yao, but one year later he died of disease. Under the social system and feudal code of ethics at that time, the Wang lady had been a widow for more than 50 years until her death. Later, when Yangzhou prefecture heard her story from locals, the official reported it to the imperial court and built this chastity and virtues memorial archway beside the north gate of Shicheng County in 1777 (Qing Dynasty). Illustration / Wu Lixin
The camera follows as the light shines on several individual large blue stones, and the not-so-clear video display indicates that this must be the top of the city gate. The camera moves back, then down, and the slabs of stone making up the gate come into clear view; the archway of the gate remains in surprisingly good condition, but one side of the wooden door has disappeared, the remaining side hanging half open as if frozen in time, in a rather awkward position, as if the gatekeeper left his post in haste. The camera then follows Wu and Li as they swim through the gate, bubbles from their breathing tank going up through the heavy dust on the top of the gate, then the dust dropping one by one. It would be a challenge simply to imagine how many people had passed through this gate in Shicheng’s more than a millennium of history, but this is the first time anyone has done so in the last 50 years.
They continue forward through the green darkness,quietly moving across the bed of the lake. Then suddenly the terrain changes and an archway comes into view, but the structure as a whole remains veiled in the murky water, and the only parts that can be seen clearly are the small patches upon which Wu’s light shines directly. Then something on the archway catches my eye, which upon closer inspection is an intricate hollow-out carving of a coiled dragon. The light moves down and I see, shrouded among algae and dust, two Chinese characters: 圣旨 (shèng zhǐ,“holy order”, a word used in ancient China to denote commands or statements made by the emperor). Moving along I also see the characters 节 (jié, “chastity”) and 孝 (xiào, “filial piety”). Among the other carvings are pairs of phoenixes and qilins (a auspicious animal in traditional Chinese mythology), as well as scrolls, books and pavilions, their immaculate detail astonishing to gaze upon. No wonder Mr. Wu was so excited at this discovery.
Next, Mr. Wu and Li turn and travel toward the city center of Shicheng. After passing through an empty area they come to a tight cluster of houses. The frames of few houses remain intact, but almost none of them have roofs; in Mr, Li’s words, they’re “like rows of open shoe boxes”.
The highlight of the expedition is hands down the archway. From the 节 and 孝 characters we may deduce that this is the chastity and virtues memorial archway, and the date tells us that it was constructed“auspiciously in the autumn in the 42nd year of the Qianlong Emperor of the Great Qing” (AD 1777).
According to the Local Records of Chun’an County, currently held at the Chun’an County Archives Bureau, a total of 265 archways were submerged during the filling of the reservoir, and a large number also remain on the land. In the nearby Luxing Village there is a chastity and virtues memorial archway very closely resembling the one found by Mr. Wu and Li. As it turns out Hecheng (theoriginal site of Chun’an) and Shicheng collectively form a large “museum ofChinese memorial archway art”.
Located in the shipping route, Xin’an River, the two small towns had become major distribution hubs of all kinds of goods brought by passing ships. The photo above shows the half removed old Hecheng County and the photo below is part of old Shicheng County, the rafts on the river were the logs floating from the upper reach, indicating the importance of the town as a shipping center.
Lost But Not Forgotten
In 1959, with the construction of the Xin’an River Dam, that which was flooded by the water of the reservoir was not only these ancient cities and villages. From that day on, the stories of countless lives were also quietly sealed away beneath the waters of the lake. But some of these stories live on.
We met a man named Yu Nianchun, who at the age of 24 moved to Pailing Town, where is now Thousand Islands Lake Township. His old house, on what we know to be called Xinggang Road, was populated by immigration who had relocated there since the reservoir construction. Mr. Yu is now more than 70 years old, and although he has a small figure and a head full of white hair, his words are firm and confident. In his cramped, dimly lit home he shares his tales with us with much zeal and enthusiasm.
Upon watching our underwater video Mr. Yu becomes very excited, and as he sees the city wall and gate he says: “The city wall of Shicheng was built in AD 1513, Ming Dynasty; before the city was flooded the walls had been kept in good condition, and when I was young whenever I came to Shicheng I would take a walk around the top of the wall.” The reason he liked city walls so much was that Hecheng, his original hometown, did not have any,thus the city walls of Shicheng were very special to him. And the entire length of the wall was actually not that long, so it would not take long to make it all the way around.
Mr. Yu has become a local hero, as he has been using paper and pencil to move Shicheng and Hecheng back onto the shore. Beginning in the 1990s, Mr. Yu, a regular retiree, has devoted himself to creating a set of restorative maps of the two sunken ancient cities.
Across his wooden bed, Mr. Yu unrolls a three meters long and one meter wide map, which is larger than the bed itself. The room is too dark, so we turn on light to see clearly, and it is the most neat and orderly as well as detailed hand-drawn city restoration map I have ever seen.The drawings are carefully spaced, and the map uses a single scale, explained clearly with a legend in the corner. We see water trickling in the river through the city, lofty mountains rising in the background, then inside the walls are networks of street lines with homes and shops, the county government buildings, and even details such as the town watermill and large camphor trees.Next to each building, Mr. Yu has included its name, as well as a brief introduction and history of important locations. But even more surprising is that on each of the homes he has included the name of the family head who lived there, and even the number plate of street address! This elderly man has singlehandedly completed a project of such scale and detail that not even an entire government management department would necessarily be able to handle.
In the tiny room the only work space available is a small desk of about 50 by 30 cm at the head of the bed, in front of which is an old stool. From the hand-copied book of county records sitting on the table, we may assume that this is where he writes his historical notes. But where does he do the drawings on his enormous map? He tells us that he spreads the map across his bed, kneeling on the floor, as he works on his massive project. He has worked like this virtually every day for more than a decade, bringing his hometown back to life one stroke, one building, one street at a time. No one gave him this task, and no one even knows he has been working on it, except for people like him who has been dreaming for their hometown.
The magnitude of this project lies not within the map itself, but the research that went into it. Since 1998, Mr. Yu has visited more than 600 families, paying for the expenses himself, not just in the near vicinity but also to cities and counties in the neighboring provinces. On his journeys he asked previous residents questions concerning the names of family heads and their addresses, names of shops and streets, and so on. After acquiring the information he sought, he would have the interviewee confirm that was correct, then have them sign a statement. He would then have the statement double-checked by several neighboring residents, verifying the accuracy of each and every detail. He also spent a considerable amount of time at the county archives, copying by hand the entire Ming and Qing histories of Chun’an and Sui’an, filling 13 volumes, with a total of more than 1.6 million characters, plus diagrams and illustrations. Coping the area’s history during the Guangxu period of Qing Dynasty (1875-1908) alone took eight months to complete, but this knowledge equipped him with an accurate historical source for creating his own sketches. After 23 drafts for Hecheng and about a dozen for Shicheng, Mr. Yu’s restoration map of epic proportion and detail finally“surfaced”.
Mr. Yu then takes us out onto his balcony. There we see meat and poultry being dried, an old local custom of food. He points out in the distance to a tiny island covered with foliage, and tells us, “My home is at the bottom of the lake right below that island.” On the map of Hecheng, the address, which Mr. Yu could never possibly forget, is neatly marked as “#2 Leijia Alley, Heng Street”.
Mr. Yu admits to us that his greatest aspiration is that his restoration map that he has put so much time and effort into may be one day published, so that future generations of the reservoir migration may have a permanent record of these two all but forgotten cities.
While performing further interviews and research, we discovered that Mr. Yu was not the only one restoring the ancient towns. In addition to numerous others who had also been drawing maps, there was also an elderly man named Xu Shulin, who had written a book titled Weiping, named after his hometown which he missed so dearly. Many others who had moved to other counties and provinces, as well as their descendants, were also searching for, collecting and authenticating records of their family and hometown’s history. Some had collected photos of the old hydropower station, and a handful had put their own money together to publish a magazine called The Chun’aner, so that former residents of the town could receive updates and contact each other. Inever imagined that so many people would be so devoted to their connection with their hometown and neighbors. They remind me of a line from a poem by Ai Qing (1910-1996,a famous Chinese poet): “Why are my eyes often filled with tears? Because I love my hometown so deeply.”
To these people who love their home and vigorously compile the histories of the city and its residents, what allows them to continue this search so relentlessly is not the city itself, which now lies underwater; it is the city that they hold in their hearts. By talking to these people I can see the true meaning of “picturesque scenery and illustrious culture” now combining with their genes, which will remain wherever they may go and whatever lives they may live, and will not be washed away with either water or time.
Will the City Ever “Resurface”?
In Hangzhou, local official Tong Chanfu, who is also a former resident of Weiping, tells us that Chun’an was flooded in quite a rush, and they didn’t have time to move everything. He says that he once interviewed a woman who recalled very clearly that her family’s red sandalwood table was still lying at the bottom of the lake. Xu Shulin, the author of the book Weiping,also describes the beauty of the town’s many temples, ancestral halls and memorial archways. In October, 2010, we returned once again to Thousand Islands Lake, this time with the sole purpose of paying a special visit to the underwater city of Weiping.
The location of the original Weiping is quite easy to find, as it right in front of the new town of Weiping. Sonar detection shows that there is a large cluster of structures in the water, but viewing them close up proves much more challenging, due to the rather rapid water flow in the area, which brings along with it large amounts of sediment, thus severely reducing visibility, rendering photography virtually impossible, left us no new discovery except some broken walls.
Mr. Fang Cai, who compiled the book The Emigrants of the Xin’an River, tells us that it’s not likely that anything is left in Old Weiping, because the town is located where Thousand Island Lake meets the river, right on the main shipping channel. So the remaining buildings would have been gradually worn away by the 50 years of sediment accumulation, along with the disturbance of ships passing by above.
We then begin to worry that the nearby Shicheng would face a similar threat. The future fate of this underwater ancient city has become the focus of many people’s attention.
In 2004, a sightseeing submarine called the Tianqing officially began launching in Thousand Islands Lake, thus awakening the ancient city from its slumber, and preparations began to welcome visitors. However, until now this submarine has been docked at the side of the lake for years, where it has not done much but accumulate rust. There are many reasons for the submarine’s disuse, among which are safety, but more importantly both authorities and heritage experts fear that this type of sightseeing will damage or even destroy the underwater city.
Presently, the Xin’an River hydropower plant has all but lost its ability to produce power, and is only used once in a while, and mostly for adjustment, thus to the citizens of Thousand Islands Lake the plant is less than meaningful.
Upon hearing that we had witnessed the underwater city of Shicheng first-hand, Tong Chanfu shared with us a rather radical plan of his: to remove the water from the reservoir. “If we lower the level of the water by 30 m, not only will the underwater city see the light of day, allowing us to reveal Shicheng to the world like a new Machu Picchu, it will also expand the land area of Chun’an, so that the locals can use it for other purposes, which in turn willgreatly improve the local economy.”
Tong Chanfu’s aspiration is very ambitious and exciting, but what will happen to this city of stone and wood, after being sealed underwater for five decades, when it is suddenly exposed to the air?Also, Thousand Islands Lake, with its many tiny tree-topped islands, has become a well-known local scenic attraction, and the high quality water of the lake is used to produce mineral water and beer, supplying the local residents with a sizable income. Will the lowering of the water level influence economic factors other than the hydropower station?
Then what doesthe future hold for Shicheng? Most of the locals I talked to hope that, while receiving protection, the touristic value of Thousand Island Lake and the ancient cities will eventually be increased, putting the area on the map as one of the top scenic sites in China. They give me the impression that while wanting to allow the people living nearby to enjoy a greater amount of extra income,they also want to do whatever is in their power to share their beloved ancient cities, which they hold so deeply in their hearts, with the rest of the world.
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