House & Home

A Trip to Lion City

Posted March 6, 2014

Have you ever wondered what would happen to a city submerged? That question is being answered in many corners of the world, where strategically placed dams have created reservoirs that surge over villages, towns, and cities, some of which are hundreds or thousands of years old. It's kind of appalling to think of centuries of construction gone in a flash, though such projects are justified on the grounds that they provide hydroelectric power, a stable water supply, or flood control as Minneapolis concrete contractors and other professionals work to build sturdy dams.

Dam politics are growing quite controversial in some nations, thanks to concerns about the environmental impact of dams, worries about what happens when they fail, and arguments about whether they really offer flood control. However, construction and maintenance continue on a range of dam projects and that's unlikely to stop anytime soon.

China has a number of such projects under construction and has been damming rivers for a very long time. In Zhejiang Province, one such project in 1959 drowned Lion City, an ancient and beautiful city that harbored some of the very best of classical Chinese architecture, art, and culture. Along the way, another city, a scattering of towns, and a vast swath of farmland were also destroyed, displacing almost 300,000 people.

This project came with terrible legacies, but it does offer an interesting silver lining. Because Lion City is largely intact underwater, it's a treasure trove of information about classical architecture, how people lived in Ancient China, and how people designed and created buildings, work of art, and more. It's also become a destination for tourists interested in swimming amid the spooky waters surrounding the underwater city, which looks like an amazing archaeological find trapped in amber.

Lion City isn't the only underwater city in the world -- there are a number scattered about for those who are interested in checking one out for themselves. Such sites offer an interesting window into the past, in addition to a bittersweet commentary on the more recent past and the decisions that drove the move to bury national heritage underwater. Some, like Lion City, were flooded and nearly forgotten before officials began to be interested in what might have been there before.

This site was buried during China's communist era, when the government focused on "the great leap forward," often at the expense of precious cultural heritage. For the Chinese government of the 1950s, the historic value of Lion City and the surrounding area was less important than the potential of a hydroelectric dam to meet the nation's growing electrical needs. (Those same needs are driving a huge coal-fueled power plant industry today.)

Fortunately, hardworking Chinese preservationists today are striving to keep Lion City as intact as possible for the enjoyment of future generations, as well as for use by researchers and other interested parties. After all, in addition to offering us a look into the past, Lion City is also a potentially grim glimpse into the future: we may be facing more drowned cities in coming decades and centuries, and those waterloggings may not happen by choice as sea levels rise to eat iconic cultural landmarks.

Katie Marks writes for

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