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Lion City: China’s Perfectly Preserved 600-Year-Old Underwater City

The city was flooded deliberately, but its ancient architecture has remained beautifully preserved to this day.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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An aerial photo of Qiandao Lake lake, showing various small and heavily wooded islands in the immense expanse of blue water. The photo was taken on a bright day, which adds a slight yellowish tone to the islands. In the background, a mountain ridge stretches from the right to the left, where it fades into the distance.

Qiandao Lake, otherwise known as Thousand Island Lake, hides a lost city that was flooded in the 1950s.

Image credit: ABCDstock/Shutterstock.com

Nestled beneath the tranquil surface of Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang Province, China, lies a submerged world frozen in time – the ancient city of Shicheng, a 600-year-old remnant from China’s Imperial past. 

Often referred to as the “Lion City” (due to its proximity to the nearby Wu Shi Mountain, or “Five Lion Mountain”), conflicting reports suggest this sunken wonder was first established either during the Han dynasty between 25-200 CE, or Tang dynasty (618-907), but it is agreed that it reached its peak during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 to 1912). 

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Despite its incredible architecture, the city was deliberately flooded in 1959 to make way for the Xin’an hydroelectric dam. Now, the city is hidden 40 meters (131 feet) below the lake’s surface, which is located around 400 kilometers (249 miles) south of Shanghai. At the time of its flooding, nearly 300,000 people were relocated. Many of them had deep ancestral and cultural ties to the city.

For decades, the city was essentially “forgotten” until it was “rediscovered” in 2001, when the Chinese government organized an expedition to see what remained of its aquatic creation. Interest in the site was further generated a decade later when Chinese National Geography published an article discussing the city and revealing some never-before-seen photos and illustrations of what it may have looked like in the past. 

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Since then, other expeditions and exploration have provided photos that have helped us reconstruct the life of this time capsule. Due to it being submerged in freshwater, and having relatively low exposure to light and oxygen, the city remains amazingly preserved.

The city itself wasn’t massive; it measured around half a square kilometer (0.2 square miles). It also had five entrances, which was unusual as traditionally, others like it only had four that aligned with the cardinal directions. The city also has many beautifully preserved stone statues of various animals, including lions, dragons, and phoenixes, along with historical inscriptions that date back to 1777. 

Today it is possible to visit this hidden world, but it is only available to those with proven diving experience, especially deep water, night, and buoyancy experience. This is because the site hasn’t been fully mapped yet and is thus considered unsafe for inexperienced tourists. 

Despite its existing state, keeping it so may well be a challenge. However, it is hoped that interest in this site will aid in its conservation, allowing Shicheng's silent but vivid remnants to be explored by future generations.  


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