Home Away from Home
When Sidwell Friends’ John Flower found a house in rural China that would soon be demolished, he had a wild idea: Move it to the hills of Appalachia. Now, the China Folk House is connecting one mountain culture to another.
It was, John Flower freely concedes, an audacious idea. He would move a family home from the mountainous Chinese province of Yunnan and faithfully reconstruct it in rural West Virginia. “It would go from the Himalayas and the Mekong to the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah,” Flower says almost casually.
All Flower was proposing to do was to pry apart a house beam by beam, nail by nail, ship it, and rebuild it identically in a new country on another continent. It was a leap born of optimism. As he reflects on it today, more than five years later, Flower recalls a Chinese saying: “When the cart reaches the mountain, there must be a road.”
The structure, now known as the China Folk House, has traveled countless roads, from its first home in a small southwestern Chinese village, Cizhong, to its current one in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where it now stands as a symbol of cultural exchange.
Flower, a history teacher and the director of Sidwell’s Chinese Studies program, along with his wife, Pam Leonard, and a small staff use the house and its campus as a place to teach Americans about Chinese culture, preserve folkways of rural communities in both Appalachia and China, and create opportunities for personal interaction between people of both nations.
The initiative has drawn attention from some of the highest echelons of diplomacy. Last June, Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, visited the China Folk House, where he helped raise a timber frame for future bunkhouses and signed a wall with a Chinese message encouraging the continued architectural friendship that the house represents.
“You have to have people-to-people connection,” Flower says. “It’s when that goes away that I think things are in danger, because we only fear and hate what we don’t understand.”
In 2015, Flower was in his second year of taking Sidwell Friends students to Asia for a semester-long experience in rural China. They studied Chinese language, literature, history, art, and environmental science, and they wrote reports on the region’s material culture that incorporated what they’d learned from the breadth of their studies.
The trip was made possible by Sidwell Friends’ nearly 40-year-old Chinese Studies Program, the first of its kind in any DC-area school. Founded in 1983, the program was established in memory of John Zeidman ’79, who died of viral encephalitis while studying in China as a Duke undergraduate. The program funds an alumni fellowship, a student-exchange program, student travel to China, and the annual John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Lecture, which invites scholars and dignitaries to talk about China and the U.S.
Their base in Yunnan Province, near China’s borders with Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, is home to an unusual mix of cultures. The area, known as Three Parallel Rivers, named for the course of the Mekong, Yangtze, and Salween Rivers that run through it, is the central community of the roughly 1,000 Tibetan Catholics who are the legacy of 19th-century French missioners. A number of other ethnic groups also live there, along with a more populous Buddhist community.
Flower and Leonard took the students to a part of the Three Parallel Rivers that was several years away from being flooded by a new dam. “We went down to see what was going to be inundated,” says Flower.
There, they ran across Zhang Jianhua, who invited him into his home. “I said to him, ‘Oh man, your house is beautiful, and it’s a pity that it’s going to be flooded. I wish I could just take it home with me to Virginia,’” says Flower. “And Zhang said, ‘Well, let’s try to do that.’”
In fact, the house was fairly ordinary. It had been built by hand in 1989 using a very traditional design, without architectural flourishes. Flower relished its everyday quality, believing that its lack of specialness was precisely what made it a valuable window into daily Chinese life.
There was one intriguing aspect of the house: It was a metonym for the area’s confluence of cultures. It was built by Bai people, an ethnic group renowned for their carpentry skills. But the leaders of Cizhong, the village, were Naxi, so the house had the deep upstairs porch often found in Naxi communities. Zhang also admired the Han habit of having a courtyard. Plus, a number of crosses throughout the house nodded to the family’s Catholic faith.
Zhang, who owned a vineyard, would be compensated by the Chinese government for the new home he’d have to move into when the dam was built. He offered Flower the house for about $5,000. Flower jumped.
In 2017, with the support of a Sidwell Friends venture grant, Flower began the arduous process of studying, disassembling, moving, and rebuilding the house. Flower recruited Steve Steinbach, Sidwell Friends’ History Department chair, to come with him to China and help with the house; he also enlisted his friend, the Purcellville, Virginia–based guitar-maker Marty Fair, who Flower knew to be a master craftsman. Former students Nikhil Chaudhuri ’15 and Alison Steinbach ’14, Steve’s daughter, also came along to help. Funding for the project came from a Sidwell Friends Venture Grant, grants from Stanford and Harvard, as well as from the Daofeng and Angela Foundation, and the Bedrock Foundation. (Now, the China Folk House is its own nonprofit.)
For several weeks, the team examined the house from the peak of its roof to its foundation, investigating joineries, drawing maps of the floor plan and where each piece of furniture was placed, measuring the columns, posts, and beams. They created a comprehensive 3D model of the house, showing every structural element, wall, and joist.
After several weeks of preparation, Flower and his team, along with a group of local Bai carpenters, took the house apart piece by piece. For a week, they pried nails from every wood panel and plank, maneuvering the beams up and down stairs and through gaps in ceilings. “It was very harrowing,” says Flower. Adding to the structural stresses were legal ones. The team was working with a hard deadline: In just about a year, the dam would be completed and the land would be underwater. A project this complex would usually take several years of planning and execution, but Flower and his group were pressed for time and had to handle some decisions on the fly.
Shortly after deconstruction began, the forestry bureau of Deqin County, Cizhong’s home, decided that all wood— young or old, living or not—should stay within the county, denying Flower’s team permission to export the house’s materials. Flower’s Chinese intermediary, Yang Wendou, eventually worked out a deal with the local governor: They would get a permit to move the wood from Deqin to Dali, a Chinese city about nine and a half hours away. From there, they could get a second permit to transport the house’s pieces to Beijing, and from there, they could take it out of the country.
With that problem solved, the matter of moving the house began. The terrain was treacherous: craggy mountains, deep gorges carved by swift rivers, and narrow, don’t-lookdown roads. Logging trucks clambered up these roads, winding around curves and over bridges until they reached the house, where they were loaded up and sent back on their way.
Shipping from China to the United States took about two months at a cost of some $40,000. Once it arrived in Virginia, it went to a storage unit in Winchester, Virginia, its temporary home until Flower could find it a permanent location.
With his tuft of brown hair, round glasses, and predilection for baggy cardigans, Flower strikes the classic professorial tone. Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Flower first meaningfully encountered Chinese culture as an undergraduate at Haverford College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1982. “My introduction to the Chinese language,” he says, “was reading the analytics of Confucius.”
It was also the era of normalization of relations between China and the United States. New opportunities to visit began opening up.
After college, Flower worked as a stone mason, house painter, and bass-playing bluegrass musician. He also took classes in Chinese language at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his now-wife, Pam Leonard. Soon, Flower began doctoral work in Chinese history at the University of Virginia and Leonard, went to Cambridge University, where she developed an interest in the role of dairy goats in the agricultural economy of the Chinese countryside.
In 1991, Flower made his first visit to China, where he studied the poets and intellectuals of cosmopolitan Chengdu before meeting up with Leonard in the village of Cizhong. “It was so amazing to live in a village and get to understand the history that they had lived through,” which had included the traumatic Great Chinese Famine that began in 1959, says Flower. Soon, his work began to focus more on the intersections between the perspectives of the villagers and the urbanites.
Flower began working at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1996, earning tenure before coming to Sidwell Friends in 2007, a move that brought Flower and Leonard closer to her family in her hometown of Washington, DC “I chose Sidwell because I thought I could have a bigger impact working with younger students in a more intimate educational environment, and because of the School’s commitment to the Quaker values of simplicity, social justice, and peace witness,” says Flower. “Those values were important to me personally as well as professionally: My family are Quaker—my direct ancestor was Enoch Flower, the first Quaker schoolmaster working for William Penn in Philadelphia—and I wanted my son to grow up in a caring community, a community to which I hoped I could make some meaningful contribution.”
From the beginning, he focused on experiential learning, says Qihui Tang, a Sidwell Friends Upper School Chinese teacher. “He would give students artifacts and then have them go and do research and discover what those artifacts are,” she says. “I’d have students coming to me, bringing me artifacts, asking for help.”
Flower “is a pioneer in terms of his ideas about education,” says Tang, a Sidwell Friends Upper School Chinese teacher. “He sees opportunities and potential before everyone else sees them.” That experiential philosophy is key to the mission of China Folk House. Students from Sidwell Friends and other schools have been involved since its inception. They have volunteered to help with the construction, gone on site visits with teachers, and learned about sustainable building practices. Every summer, Flower hosts a two-week session called Camp Wholesome, where students learn Mandarin, work on building the China Folk House, and hike the nearby Appalachian Trail.
The site that Flower eventually found for the China Folk House has a sense of being preordained. After one potential spot fell through, one of Flower’s acquaintances directed him and Leonard toward the Friends Wilderness Center.
The Quaker Friends Wilderness Center is a 1,400-acre wilderness preserve in the mountains of Harper’s Ferry. Getting there entails a long drive up a gravel road, twisting and turning through the dense trees. At last, upon arriving at the peak, a small walking path takes visitors to the China Folk House campus, where they’ll see the Zhang house, a courtyard with a decorative gate, the wood frame of a future bunkhouse, and a kitchen and winter room (a gathering space) under construction. There’s a woodsy smell in the air, and just beyond the courtyard lies a small, sun-dappled pond.
It’s the material culmination of an idea Flower never really knew for sure if he could pull off. “We talk about taking risks, right?” says Flower. “This is an example of a very crazy idea that came to fruition purely through people helping people along the way.”
On a clear October morning, under a bright blue sky and trees just beginning to tiptoe their way into autumn color, August Caldwell ’17 shows a group of visitors the upstairs bedrooms of the China Folk House, each of which will eventually also take on a theme of some aspect of Chinese rural folk life. One will be about religion and rituals, one about agricultural policy, and the third on kinship and family ties. “The idea is to have a living museum where you can really experience what it’s like to live in a traditional Chinese farmhouse,” says Caldwell.
The group gathered here today is made up of friends of the China Folk House, mostly former campers at Camp Wholesome, but also local volunteers and a few curious neighbors. Bob and Bonnie Jacobs, from Clarke County, Virginia, have been watching the site’s progress on their periodic walks along the Appalachian Trail. “This is an important thing to have happening,” says Bonnie. “It’s kind of a spiritual journey, as well, to see this and be a part of it.”
Caldwell, who now works part-time at the China Folk House as program coordinator, feels the same draw to the project. After joining Flower on a trip to China while in Upper School, Caldwell was taken with the country’s cultures and the idea of the China Folk House. Now, she devotes much of her time to the long project of finishing the site’s construction and working toward bringing teachers and artisans here from China. Eventually, the team hopes to have weekend workshops on topics like Chinese medicine, botany, and wood carving. “This is really my favorite place in the world,” says Caldwell. “You just hear the frogs croaking, and it’s so, so relaxing.”
Soon, the salty, meaty smell of Mongolian barbecue hits the crisp air; guests are beginning to congregate around the table of beef, pork, and mushrooms that Flower and Leonard have laid out, along with bowls of rice vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, and more, to encourage a marinating free-for-all. Flower hopes that in the future, bigger groups of Chinese and American people can come to the folk house for similar bread-breaking. “Kids need to meet kids from other countries,” he says, “and have a kind of, as they say in China, exchange of revolutionary experiences.”
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