Antiques collector restoring ancient buildings piece by piece
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.”
“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.
Overview of Huizhenwu
(Far left) Wooden ornamentation of an old home (Below) Inside of Huizhenwu, an ancient window and old furniture