Submerged 85 to 131 feet deep below the calm surface of the man-made Qiandao Lake, also known as the Thousand Island Lake, a sprawling body of freshwater, covering 573 sq km, in the Zhejiang Province of China, lie the mysterious ruins of the ancient city of Shi Cheng. It is believed that Shi Cheng was built during the Eastern Han Dynasty that lasted from 25 to 200 AD, and was first set up as a country in AD 208. However, it is also maintained that the city was built during the Tang Dynasty in 621 AD, making it nearly 1,500 years old. The regal city of Shi Cheng, which loosely means the Lion City, was name named after the Wu Shi Mountain that majestically stands behind it and stands for the Five Lion Mountain.
Constructed with five city gates and towers, along with 265 arches throughout the city, it vanished from the face of the earth when the valley was flooded in 1859 and remained forgotten for decades until recently when a Shanghai based dive company located it. It was reported by them that nearly every structure in Lion City is still intact, including its wooden beams and stairs, even after lying underwater for over half a century. The report attracted the immediate attention of the archaeologists, and a film crew was hired to record the preservation of the lost ruins. Since then, divers have been repeatedly making trips to discover some of the most stunning architectural features inside the preserved walls that tell the story of several powerful dynasties, indicative of China’s history. Finally, Qiu Feng, a local official in charge of tourism, introduced the idea of using Shi Cheng as a destination for the diving clubs.
It may sound strange that the submersion of Shi Cheng, once a thriving city, known for its powerful statue throughout China, is not the effect of any natural catastrophic disaster. It was intentionally flooded by the decision of man to create the artificial Qiandao Lake, which in turn would power a hydroelectric plant.
The lake was created for the Xin'an River Dam project, the first dam constructed in China with a height of more than 328 feet (100 m), and its power plant with an installed capacity of 845 MW. As the entire valley was to be flooded to provide enough power and space for the city’s ambitious project, around 300,000 people had to face a forced evacuation, which displaced many families whose ancestors had known the area as their home for decades together and would not be able to return ever in their lives. Apart from that, for the sake of advancement and modernization, more than 1,300 villages and tens of thousands of acres of farmland were flooded, and the city of Shi Cheng that had been representative of China’s ancestry for centuries, and stood proudly in the valley at the foot of the Wu Shi Mountain, was submerged.
Often called the Atlantis of the East, and hailed as the most spectacular underwater city in the world, China’s Lion City is certainly a marvel. Since the water used to submerge the city did not contain any corrosive agents and was not conducive to marine life, many relics are found in perfect condition at the bottom of the lake and were easily identified.
As the city hidden under the water represents a completely different era dating back to 621 AD, those relics serve as a valuable source of research for scientists, historians, and archaeologists. They proved that during its prime time, the Lion City was bustling and full of life, complete with an advanced society, and had paved roads, horse-drawn carriages, and elaborate buildings, all of which remain as they were, untouched by human and undisturbed by the marine life.
It is estimated that the first constructions of the submerged city of Shi Cheng dated back to 25 AD, making it unbelievably valuable to evaluate the history of Zhejiang. While many of the city’s arches and statues were created of metal and stone, various wooden structures were found in pristine condition. Although wood submerged in water usually does not survive long due to the disintegration process, the wooden structures in Shi Cheng remained as it was before the inundation took place. Many have rightly referred to the city as a time capsule as it has preserved the ancient constructions in perfect condition, which includes many of its structures, arches, temples, carvings, guardian lions, and others. Usually, most of the structures of China are built with four major archway entrances, corresponding to the cardinal directions of a compass. However, the City of Lion had five city entrances, with two facing the west, which made it more unique.
Probably, due to the dirt and ground composition that existed before the flooding, the water of the artificial Qiandao Lake is not very clear, and not ideal for diving. Perhaps, dust and debris from the ancient structures are also likely contributing to the cloudiness of the water. Partially for this reason, the submerged city is now open only to the expert divers with much experience, since it can be incredibly disorienting to swim or dive in murky water. Apart from that, it is also reported that diving to the city’s depth is an eerie experience, due to the lack of marine life, where even the sight of a fish is incredibly rare. At one point, the government planned to provide submarine tours for the visitors of the underwater city, which would be relatively safe for them and would provide a decent viewing. But the plan was discarded due to the possibility of damaging the old structures by the frequency of the tours. However, Zhejiang has plans to open diving for the public and has proposed plans to build some type of underwater structure to complement it. Nevertheless, the most recent plan is the creation of an underwater tunnel that would allow the public to safely view the ancient structures of the famed Lion City.