In a sun-dappled room on the outskirts of Shanghai, China’s Ming dynasty is alive and well. As my host, Jonathan Wolfberg, pours a cup of carefully aged pu’er tea from a Jingdezhen pot, all is quiet except for the gentle recorded pluck of a guqin, the seven-string wooden instrument once favored by Confucius. We’re sitting at a table made with smooth, golden nanmu wood from Sichuan, which was the wood of choice for Imperial palaces.
In adjacent rooms, I can take a calligraphy class, enjoy an incense ceremony or learn to paint a bamboo stalk using traditional brush painting. And I won’t have to take the exam that the Imperial gentlemen scholars had to pass, which didn’t just include literature and mathematics, but also horse-riding, archery and martial arts.
Wolfberg is the Sinophile American manager of Nan Shufang, a cultural center built around an ancient Qing dynasty villa and part of the lush new Amanyangyun resort, about an hour’s drive southwest of the Bund.
Designed around a recreated 17th-century scholar’s studio, it’s as pure an expression as you’ll find of a movement that is taking China by a very peaceful storm.
“As China has grown more prosperous, there has been a growing appreciation of Chinese history, and the past as a form of luxury,” says Wolfberg, as he pours another tea into a tiny ceramic cup. “The Chinese elite had very refined tastes and cultures that were ahead of their time, and the new elite are starting to rediscover that, too.”
Amanyangyun and Nan Shufang’s journey began with the threat of bulldozers. In 2002, 29-year-old real estate entrepreneur, Ma Dadong, went home to see his parents in Fuzhou City, looking forward to spicy food and swimming in the lake near his family home.
Instead, he heard about plans for a new reservoir, which would submerge a series of villages nearby that were up to 500 years old, and thousands of even older camphor trees, which many villagers worshipped as deities. “The trees and buildings were precious,” Ma says. “And they were just being destroyed. I had to do something.”
Ma told Aman Resorts about his plan to save a piece of Chinese history, and it involved moving 50 ornate stone Ming- and Qing-era dwellings plus more than 10,000 trees. Ma hired a team of botanists and ancient architecture experts for the painstaking process of trimming trees and recording every brick, before loading them on trucks to be driven about 720km northeast to warehouses in Shanghai.
The Chinese elite had very refined tastes and cultures that were ahead of their time, and the new elite are starting to rediscover that, too
One of the timber experts Ma worked with told him about nanmu, a Sichuanese wood that was close to extinction. Despite being the wood of Imperial palaces, it had also been used for a few farm houses. Ma started collecting, finding nanmu wherever he could, even dredging up fossilized bog wood from riverbeds. By 2006, he’d collected enough nanmu to start creating, enlisting furniture experts like Zhang Dexiang and American collector Curtis Evarts to come up with Ming designs that could be recreated using this fine recycled wood. Their first piece was an ornate incense table, made by master craftspeople the old way, using ingeniously interlocking pieces of wood so that no glue or nails were needed.
Today, these nanmu furniture pieces are proudly displayed in Nan Shufang in Amanyangyun, as well as Nan Shufang’s two other centers in Beijing and a branch in Xintiandi, Shanghai’s upscale shopping and entertainment area. The centers operate as furniture showrooms and private members’ clubs for wealthy Chinese wanting to live and learn like the ancient literati.
More than 15 years since Ma’s fated trip to Fuzhou City, 14 of the old villas form the soul of the Amanyangyun, where a previously unloved corner of Minhang district has become a gorgeous Zen retreat, designed by Australian architecture firm Kerry Hill.
The firm added windows and insulation, and private swimming pools and courtyards to the villas, inspired by the architecture of the Suzhou water town near Shanghai.
Another 12 of Ma’s rescued buildings were turned into the Aman Residences – private residences each with their own gallery space, IMAX cinema and temperature-controlled wine cellar. The bricks and beams of the rest are still in a warehouse in Shanghai. The design element that pulls the entire resort together are the well-manicured camphor trees, some up to 1,800 years old – and Ma’s team have also planted a vast camphor forest by the resort.
CHINA BOASTS ONE OF THE LONGEST continuous cultures on Earth, dating back to 1250BC. But it has had a fraught relationship with its past, including the Imperial dynasties that lasted from the Qin in 221BC to the final throes of the Qing empire, in 1912. The Communists under Mao waged war on China’s history, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 with the party newspaper urging China to “clear away the evil habits of the old society”. Imperialism became a dirty word as teachers and academics were attacked, books were burned and any sign of the bourgeoisie was destroyed.
Under Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, market-driven ideology was welded onto Communism as China rushed towards modernization and urbanization. But as the country has grown to become a global economic superpower, there’s been a cultural cost.