Se­cret gar­den

An­tiques col­lec­tor restor­ing an­cient build­ings piece by piece

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By Chen Shasha

At the north­west of Jiut­ing town in Shang hai’s Songjiang district, a gar­den stands solemn and lonely, with its doors closed most of the time. Most pass­ing pedes­tri­ans with their heads look­ing down might be obliv­i­ous to this place, but any­one who takes a mo­ment to look around will no­tice that this build­ing is promi­nently dif­fer­ent from its sur­round­ings

The gar­den, cov­er­ing more than 0.9 hectares, is home to a dozen an­cient build­ings of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dy­nas­ties and over 10,000 pieces of old wooden fur­ni­ture made in cities south of the Yangtze River, in­clud­ing Songjiang district of Shang­hai, Suzhou, Wuxi and Chang­shu of Jiangsu Prov­ince. The gar­den’s owner is Zhao Wen­long, a 61-year-old Shang­hai na­tive who has been col­lect­ing an­tiques for decades. Zhao grew up in a fam­ily of gar­den­ers; his grand­fa­ther and fa­ther worked at Guilin Park of Xuhui district. The well-planned airy pavil­ions, ter­races, open halls and ex­quis­ite fur­ni­ture in Guilin Park, which was built in 1932, in­spired and cul­ti­vated his taste in wooden struc­tures and his love for his­tor­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture. While work­ing in a spa­cious court­yard in a ru­ral area of Min­hang district af­ter grad­u­at­ing high school in 1974, he be­came deeply at­tracted to the build­ing’s wood­work and fur­ni­ture. He then started to col­lect fur­ni­ture from the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties. In 1996, Zhao opened an an­tique fur­ni­ture shop, which pro­vided him with the fi­nan­cial sup­port to con­tinue col­lect­ing. In 1999, he found that Chi­nese an­tique fur­ni­ture, even with dam­ages, were of­ten given high at­ten­tion and ex­hibits at mu­se­ums he vis­ited while trav­el­ing in Europe. In­spired by that, Zhao de­cided to do more to pre­serve and pass down the an­tique pieces that he be­lieves de­fine Chi­nese his­tory and cul­ture. Zhao pur­chased a piece of land in Jiut­ing in the year 2000 where he could ren­o­vate and re­store an­cient build­ings and fur­ni­ture.

The trea­sure house

Zhao’s col­lec­tions have turned the space into a clas­si­cal Chi­nese gar­den, which he

named Huizhenwu (trea­sure house). Dur­ing the past 17 years, he has con­tin­ued col­lect­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive an­tique build­ings and fur­ni­ture from Shang­hai, An­hui Prov­ince, Jiangxi Prov­ince and Zhe­jiang Prov­ince.

Most of his col­lec­tions come from the pri­vate gar­dens of rich lo­cal fam­i­lies from an­cient times. “I spend each penny of my money care­fully and I know well that some pieces are in­valu­able,” Zhao said con­fi­dently.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhao, he also owns over 300 types of doors and a 40,000-square-me­ter build­ing not yet on dis­play. The high­est doors in his col­lec­tion are 5 me­ters long and 1.2 me­ters wide. “Most are fine, hand­crafted works from large-scale tem­ples,” he told the Global Times.

How­ever, nei­ther col­lect­ing nor ren­o­vat­ing is easy work. The build­ings need to be dis­man­tled into move­able pieces at their orig­i­nal lo­ca­tions and then trans­ported to Jiut­ing. There, Zhao and his em­ploy­ees re­build the build­ings piece by piece.

Zhao said that the tenon-and-mor­tise joint work of these an­tique pieces is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of tra­di­tional Chi­nese car­pen­try. “It is a pity that now fam­i­lies sell their an­tique fur­ni­ture passed down over the gen­erao tions just to buy new, mod­ern fur­nish­ings,” Zhao lamented. “An­tique fur­ni­ture em­bod­ies our cul­ture and de­serves our pro­tec­tion and study­ing.”

Aban­don­ing tra­di­tional cul­ture

“Our works and cul­ture are highly val­ued abroad,” Zhao said. “The auc­tion price of a piece of Chi­nese fur­ni­ture made of scented rose­wood could pos­si­bly reach 100 mil­lion yuan ($15 mil­lion) be­cause of its fine ma­te­rial and

joint work,” he said.

He ex­plained that, in an­cient times, the gar­den was a place where well-ed­u­cated or suc­cess­ful peo­ple spent their time. The com­pli­cated de­sign and lay­out demon­strated their un­der­stand­ing of aes­thet­ics and life. How­ever, he said, mod­ern Chi­nese peo­ple have mostly aban­doned such tra­di­tional ideals.

Zhao men­tioned an Amer­i­can lady named Nancy who spent 125 mil­lion yuan to trans­port a 200-year-old build­ing from An­hui Prov­ince to the United States. “It has brought great in­flu­ences both in China and abroad,” Zhao told the Global Times.

“Many orig­i­nal things dis­ap­pear when our liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment changes so rapidly be­cause of tech­no­log­i­cal or eco­nomic devel­op­ment,” he said. “Chi­nese peo­ple used to em­pha­size crafts­man­ship, that is why our his­toric relics are so valu­able.”

But Zhao still holds an op­ti­mistic at­ti­tude to­ward the fu­ture of Chi­nese cul­tural her­itage. “More and more peo­ple are be­com­ing in­ter­ested in that (high qual­ity and crafts­man­ship),” Zhao said, adding that a de­vel­oper re­cently asked him to help de­sign and build a hall for a new res­i­den­tial quar­ter us­ing an­cient build­ing pieces from his col­lec­tion.

“I ac­cepted hap­pily,” he said. “Why not? It is a good idea, be­cause peo­ple will be able to taste and learn our his­tory when they are sit­ting and chat­ting in­side the hall.”

Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions

“What I am think­ing about now is how to open my gar­den to the pub­lic so that more peo­ple can be­come fa­mil­iar with our tra­di­tional cul­ture,” Zhao said.

He is cur­rently teach­ing at Over­seas Ed­u­ca­tion Col­lege of Shang­hai Jiao Tong Uni­ver­sity, but asks his stu­dents to at­tend classes at Huizhenwu. He be­lieves the at­mos­phere there is per­fect for learn­ing about an­tique ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

Zhao also al­lows in­sti­tu­tions to hold cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties and events at his gar­den. “There was once a com­mu­ni­ca­tion ses­sion about the qi­pao (cheongsam) here, walk­ing around a tra­di­tional gar­den wear­ing clas­sic clothes, isn’t that nice?” Zhao grinned.

He con­tends that mod­ern so­ci­ety should teach chil­dren to cher­ish China’s past. “Maybe schools can in­clude this in their cour­ses and en­cour­age the younger gen­er­a­tions to learn more about what our an­ces­tors have left us,” he told the Global Times.

Zhao said that ev­ery in­di­vid­ual can help “res­cue” Chi­nese her­itage just by buy­ing small an­tiques. “Keep­ing this gar­den and these trea­sures is my life­time re­spon­si­bil­ity and ca­reer,” said Zhao, who hopes his daugh­ter will join him so that he can pass it down to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“I feel happy when I res­cue these things from be­ing de­stroyed by ig­no­rance,” said Zhao, who is also writ­ing a book about his col­lec­tion and the sto­ries be­hind them.

Photo: Chen Shasha/GT

Over­view of Huizhenwu

Pho­tos: Chen Shasha/GT

(Far left) Wooden or­na­men­ta­tion of an old home (Be­low) In­side of Huizhenwu, an an­cient win­dow and old fur­ni­ture

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