The Washington Post

A bridge to Chinese culture

Reconstruc­ted farmhouse in W.VA. will host events and exchanges to bolster U.s.-china relations

- BY DANIEL WU

harpers ferry, w.va. — The farmhouse was just like countless others John Flower had come across in his time in rural China, but the details stood out: tall, hand-carved wooden columns up front, delicate carvings of flowers and tree branches laid into the folding screen doors, a bright red cabinet with ornate patterns lining the back wall.

It was going to be demolished, as it was located on land soon to be flooded by the constructi­on of a new dam on the Mekong River. Flower joked with the house’s owner, Zhang Jianhua, when Zhang invited him inside for tea.

“I admired the house and said, ‘I wish I could take it home with me,’ ” Flower said. “He said, ‘Why not? We can try.’ ”

So Flower did. He bought the house from Zhang, returned with a team of craftsmen, and disassembl­ed it, plank by plank, to ship to the United States, where he rebuilt it in a clearing in the woods of Harpers Ferry, W.VA.

Flower, an Arlington-based high school history teacher, wants to use the farmhouse to host cultural

events, summer camps and exchanges with Chinese students — the kinds of opportunit­ies most American students have missed out on for more than two years as the coronaviru­s pandemic severed most travel links between China and the United States and kicked off a turbulent period for relations between the two countries.

“I can’t take 60 kids to China,” Flower said. “But I can have 60 kids come here and experience China, in a way.”

Flower had the opportunit­y to experience China more closely than most. He studied Chinese philosophy and history at the University of Virginia and moved to the southweste­rn province of Sichuan to conduct a three-year study in 1991. In 2003, he gave up a tenured position at the University of North Carolina to teach Chinese history at the D.C. private school Sidwell Friends, where he and his wife, Pam Leonard, developed a China fieldwork program that brought high school students to study in rural China.

In 2012, Flower and Leonard moved their program to Yunnan, a province on the southweste­rn reaches of the Chinese countrysid­e bordering Myanmar. There, on a trip to a remote village named Cizhong on the edge of the province in 2015, Flower found Zhang and the house he would eventually bring to the United States.

The idea that started as a joke over tea seemed feasible — Zhang, who was being relocated by the local government, was happy to sell his house to save it from demolition — and the educationa­l opportunit­ies were too exciting to pass up.

“It would be a text,” Flower said. “Like bringing an incredibly interestin­g book.”

The journey back to the United States was long and painstakin­g. Flower and a team of craftsmen returned to Cizhong in 2017 to document the house’s design and carefully pry apart its beams and floorboard­s. It took months to truck the pieces across China to the eastern port of Tianjin and then ship them to Baltimore. Flower did it at his own expense.

“We joked it was my son’s college fund,” he said.

Eventually, Zhang’s farmhouse found a home in the woods of Jefferson County, W.VA., in the summer of 2019. Flower and Leonard formed a nonprofit, the China Folk House Retreat, and began accepting donations to realize their goal of turning the house into an educationa­l camp.

But just as their team began to reassemble what they hoped would be a bridge between the United States and China, the world’s borders slammed shut. Flower, who had continued to run his study-abroad programs, was two days away from bringing another cohort of students to Yunnan in late February 2020 when his friends in China called about a new disease spreading in the country.

“At first, we were like, ‘Let’s be cautious, let’s just postpone,’ ” Flower said. “And then it got longer. And then we saw what was happening.”

Flower hasn’t been back to China since. Nor have any of his students. They watched from home as the virus first discovered in China spread across the world, shutting down global travel and prompting an anti-asian backlash in the United States. Relations between the United States and China were strained further when the United States joined an internatio­nal outcry against China last year by declaring the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide, and most recently when government officials traded barbs over Chinese activity in the Indo-pacific at a defense summit in June. A Pew Research Center study in April found 82 percent of Americans surveyed had unfavorabl­e opinions of China.

Flower is no stranger to sea changes in U.S.- China relations — his interest in the country began in the 1970s, when China turned to a policy of “reform and opening” and establishe­d diplomatic relations with the United States after decades of mutual distrust. He sees his work as cultural, not political, and believes it’s all the more important now.

“It’s sad,” Flower said. “But I think the most important thing is that we keep the relationsh­ips alive, and we emphasize peopleto-people relationsh­ips even more when the government-to-government relations are so fraught.”

Yang Wendou, who coordinate­s Flower’s program in China, shares the same view.

“I’m an educator,” Yang said from Yunnan. “I won’t be able to say much about politics. But from my perspectiv­e, the more difficult U.S.- China relations get, the more we need to strengthen the exchanges between our people.”

In the pandemic, the Chinese Folk House Retreat has become a rare conduit for that exchange. Craftsmen from nearby towns volunteere­d to help rebuild Zhang’s home, which was originally constructe­d in 1989. They studied unfamiliar Chinese techniques to rejoin the beams that made up the house’s wooden frame. Every summer, Flower hosted summer camps for D.C. and Virginia high school students, who helped with the constructi­on while studying Chinese language and culture. Since 2019, the China Folk House Retreat has expanded to include a traditiona­l Chinese moon gate and the skeletal frames of a kitchen and dormitory to be completed next year.

In late June, Flower’s faith in cultural exchange was returned by the Chinese government when Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, visited the camp. In an interview, Qin acknowledg­ed that relations between China and the United States are at “a critical crossroads.” But, speaking days before China announced a surprise relaxation of the country’s strict quarantine policies for travelers arriving from abroad, he expressed a desire to reestablis­h travel ties severed by the pandemic.

“I believe that covid will be over sooner or later,” Qin said. “And all these cultural exchanges . . . will come back.” He concluded his public remarks to the camp with an invitation: “Don’t forget: When covid is over, go to China.”

Flower thinks that’s the key to improving relations between the population­s of two of the world’s superpower­s. Bringing American students to China, he said, gave them a unique perspectiv­e on the country and its people. Eventually, he hopes to host students, and even carpenters and craftsmen, from China to study and share their knowledge in West Virginia, too.

“I’m doubling down, tripling down,” Flower said. “I think this kind of project is needed now more than ever.”

“I can’t take 60 kids to China. But I can have 60 kids come here and experience China, in a way.” John Flower, a sidwell Friends school teacher who runs the nonprofit China Folk House Retreat

 ?? ?? TOP: Educator John Flower, left, invites Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang, second from left, to enter the China Folk House Retreat. ABOVE: Flower, director of Sidwell Friends School’s Chinese Studies Program, shows Qin the house’s original woodwork and cabinetry.
TOP: Educator John Flower, left, invites Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang, second from left, to enter the China Folk House Retreat. ABOVE: Flower, director of Sidwell Friends School’s Chinese Studies Program, shows Qin the house’s original woodwork and cabinetry.
 ?? PHOTOS by RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS by RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? Ricky Carioti/the Washington Post ?? An aerial view of the China Folk House Retreat on June 26 in Harpers Ferry, W.VA. The house was originally located in the village of Cizhong, in the Yunnan province of southweste­rn China.
Ricky Carioti/the Washington Post An aerial view of the China Folk House Retreat on June 26 in Harpers Ferry, W.VA. The house was originally located in the village of Cizhong, in the Yunnan province of southweste­rn China.

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