Saving China's Vanishing Past

Noah Sheldon

Could you stand by and witness thousand-year-old trees felled, villages razed, and an ancient culture erased? Meet the man who’s on a journey to restore China's history.  

Outside Shanghai’s city center, in the suburban district of Minhang, a private forest called the Gu Shan Garden is filled with thousands of evergreen camphor trees. They’re evenly placed in almost fairy-tale-like fashion; many have massive trunks and each bears a small numbered plaque, as if cataloged in a museum of antiquities. Some are a thousand years old.

Down a pin-drop-quiet road through the trees is a manicured brick path. Down the brick path is a series of traditional Chinese stone buildings, manicured gardens, and ponds with black swans. Inside the largest stone building are traditionally designed rooms with fully modern conveniences. There’s a lavish bedroom, a dining room, sitting rooms, and galleries, one with dinosaur eggs and other fossils filling glass vitrines. Ornate Chinese wooden furniture fills the rooms. And yet no one has ever stayed in the house. 

One assumes the stately property—a long-dead emperor’s hideaway, perhaps?—is ancient, having been gutted and modernized. That’s not the case. The structures are part folly, part architectural laboratory. 

In many ways, this creation is right at home in Shanghai, a city emblematic of a country in transition. The megacity is bisected by the Yangtze River, much like London is by the Thames. On the west side is the historic Bund, a promenade lined with stately Deco-era buildings from the city’s colonial past and overflowing with newly middle-class Chinese. Directly across is the modern skyline of Pudong, the financial district resembling the futuristic metropolis in Blade Runner at night. In Pudong, it’s not uncommon to see a brand-new tower glistening next to an old square block of petite brick buildings, abandoned and ready to be bulldozed in the name of progress. As visitors quickly discover, much of China’s ancient architecture—and even its 20th-century buildings—is either gone or scheduled to be demolished.

In 2015, despite slowing economic growth, a falling stock market, and brewing currency troubles, China increased its number of billionaires by 90 to 568, overtaking the United States for the most billionaires in the world (by 33), according to the Hurun Report. In the West, most large preservation projects wouldn’t be possible without the input of the wealthy. Meanwhile, in China, with so much money and history, there is little effort to preserve the past. With scant legal or financial benefits in place to support the idea, few with the means are motivated to make any effort. 

Then there are people like Ma Dadong.

Barely in his forties, the unassuming and soft-spoken Ma has thrived in the new China. A self-made success, Ma left his native Jiangxi Province—about 435 miles southwest of Shanghai—at 22 to start an advertising firm in the southeastern coastal city of Fujian. Successful businesses in investment management and residential real estate followed, and, with them, a level of wealth his family had never experienced before. In 2000, Ma moved to Shanghai, and a few years later he returned to his hometown, Jiangxi’s city of Fuzhou, to see his parents. The visit would alter the course of his life. 

In 2002, the government decided to build a dam in Fuzhou that threatened the area’s villages and camphor trees. The majestic species is significant in Chinese culture; locals believe the trees, which can live thousands of years and grow to 100 feet, are inhabited by deities. In some parts of the region, the camphor is called Daughter Tree. Fathers would plant one on their property when a girl was born so that passersby could tell how old she was from the tree’s size. When she married, the tree would be cut down to create a wooden chest to hold a dowry; the wood’s natural scent repelled insects, protecting the chest’s contents. 

Ma witnessed some of the trees being cut down and harvested to create furniture, and he realized that thousands more, along with dozens of villages, some dating back centuries, would be lost to make way for the dam. “I felt shocked,” says Ma. “I felt sad.” 

Even after he returned to Shanghai from his trip, he couldn’t stop thinking about what had already been lost. Fortunately, Ma’s businesses were booming. Over the next three years, he raced to save what he could, single-handedly funding a multimillion-dollar operation.

In all, 10,000 trees were transported on a fleet of flatbed trucks more than 400 miles to be replanted in Shanghai. The trees’ branches and roots were trimmed in an effort to decrease their size. Still, some roads had to be dug lower to allow the trucks to pass under bridges, and tollbooths had to be rebuilt to accommodate the trees. Dozens of trucks were overturned during the process. The trees eventually sprouted new leaves, branches, and roots, and after three years, almost 80 percent had survived the transplant. 

At the same time, Ma went about surveying and documenting the 30 or so villages—many from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, some with elements dating back even further—and then disassembling each one, brick by brick. Literally. Countless bricks, carved panels, wood beams, stone shingles, and other architectural elements were also transported to Shanghai. In 2005, the concept house was constructed. “I thought a lot about how to use the materials—to build a gallery or a museum, or a village for artists,” Ma says. “In the end I just rebuilt one village house to see how I could change it to be more fitting in the present. An antique house isn’t good for someone’s lifestyle today; no windows, much less air-conditioning or heated floors. They’re not comfortable.” 

Nearby, in a giant old factory compound that used to manufacture air conditioners, the village materials are still being cataloged and restored piece by piece. Most work is done by hand, with more than 200 employees on the project. Many are the last in China with the skills to care for the ancient pieces. Remarkably, Ma didn’t exactly know what he’d do with the entirety of the materials after his concept house was complete. It was an experiment, a proof of concept, to show that the components could be repurposed for a contemporary building. It showed him what could be.

Today, while Ma’s restoration project continues—he estimates it will take most of his working life to complete—he’s midway through a second phase: the construction of a nearby hotel complex using his treasure trove of wood and stone. Called Amanyangyun, the retreat will be operated by the luxury brand Aman and is being designed by Australian architect Kerry Hill, who is known for his hospitality work in Southeast Asia. Ma wants to create a place where visitors can not only relax in peaceful surroundings but also absorb authentic elements of traditional Chinese culture. Like his concept house, the complex won’t be a replica, but a blend of the past and present. “When we first met with Kerry and our local design teams, I prioritized what was important,” says Ma. “First, comfort. Second, beauty. Third, tradition.” For the latter, one of the largest buildings planned will host cultural activities relating to music, old texts, calligraphy, tea ceremonies, and more. 

According to Eva Hu, the vice president of Ma’s operation, his efforts will help repair the country’s knowledge of its history, much of it lost in the Cultural Revolution. “Mr. Ma is trying to patch up the past a little bit, so at least when people visit our property, they’ll better understand what our culture really is.” 

Other wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs are starting to step up in the effort to hold on to the past. A hundred miles away in Hangzhou, the recently opened Zhen Qi Hui Art Center is another self-made success story; the 64,500-square-foot private museum was constructed in the middle of an urban office park to display a fraction of the vast historic furniture-and-ceramics collection of its owner, Wang Yacheng. “I think others have the same ideas that I do, but it’s difficult to rebuild it, to design it well,” says Ma. “First, you should understand the old and understand the new. But that’s not enough. They need to know how to mix them.” 

Image Credits: Noah Sheldon