Shi Cheng: China’s Underwater Lion City

The tale of the sunken city of Atlantis has consumed the brains of explorers and archaeologists for centuries.

The origins of this peaceful utopia were first fabled by the Greek Philosopher Plato but even with potential evidence the world is no more closer to finding the lost empire. East of the Mediterranean Sea and thousands of kilometers from the former Greek philosopher’s home in China lies a real sunken city ensconced in the translucent waters of Qiandao Lake 千島湖.

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Shi Cheng, Atlantis of the East Discovered! Photo by on Instagram
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Artist render of Shi Cheng, Atlantis of the East. Photo by: @victoria.pfeiffer on Instagram

Lion City, or Shi Cheng 狮城, remained a submerged mystery for decades, no one thought to search for an ancient metropolis underneath the surface of Qiandao Lake in the Zhejiang Provence of China. The city was “rediscovered” during an archaeological expedition undertaken by the Chinese government in 2001.

With a size compared to that of 62 football fields, it’s easy to wonder why such a mammoth of a site wasn’t discovered sooner.

Qiandao Lake isn’t just some lake. It is man-made and was created as part of a large hydroelectric project constructed between 1957 and 1977. The main component of the structure is the dam that is 344 feet (105 meters) high and 1,525 feet (465 meters) long. The hydroelectric station rests on the Xin’an River 信江. To create a reservoir, the valley was flooded, thus creating the lake.

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Qiandao Lake is also known as Thousand-islet Lake because it is dotted with approximately 1,078 large islands and a thousand small islands. Photo by @hangzhou_china on Instagram

The lake is now used to generate fresh water for Nongfu Spring, one of China’s largest bottled water producers. The company is praised because of its ads promoting their waters natural minerals. The lake has become somewhat of a tourist sensation, with themed islands like Moonlight (love) Island, Yule (entertainment) Island, Lock Island (an island full of locks) and so many more.

The highlight of this lake, however, isn’t the crystal-clear water or the themed islands, it’s what lies 131 feet (3992.88 cm) beneath the green-blue waves.

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Turns out Lion City was a big fan of lions. Photos by @paladinishhistory on Instagram

Just below the surface lies the remains of an ancient empire. Shi Cheng (“Lion City”) was built between 25-200 AD during the Eastern Han Dynasty, and it has resided beneath the man-made lake for 50 years. Shi Cheng was intentionally drowned by the Chinese government during the hydroelectric and river dam project.

The city’s glory days on the surface lasted from 1368-1644 during the reign of the Ming Dynasty. Shi Cheng has a plethora of notable historical attractions from walls that date back to the 16th century to the wide streets sheltered by some 260 archways.

Despite being submerged for decades, it is remarkably well-preserved. Ironically, Shi Cheng is safer beneath the lake than for its archaic architecture to endure the harsh climate and sun erosion.

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Shi Cheng Archways. Photo by @paladinishistory on Instagram
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Shi Cheng ornate wall. Photo by @paladinishistory on Instagram

Interest in the underwater landmark skyrocketed after its “rediscovery” in 2001 when the Chinese National Geographic revealed unique photographs and sketches of what the city looked like in its heyday. Pictures divulged curious characteristics from the infrastructure. Instead of the traditional four entrance gates, Shi Cheng has five. The archways shielding the roads are decorated with stone carvings of lions, phoenixes, and dragons with inscriptions dating back to 1777.

Licensed diver-tourists can marvel at China’s Atlantis of the East through dive operations namely Zi Ao Diving Club and Big Blue. Dives are scheduled between April and November. The ruins remain a fresh discovery and is still considered “exploratory” therefore only limited to divers with deep water and night experience.

Allison Hinrichs

Content Editor Associate

Hailing from Minnesota, Allison is a vegetarian, meditating yogi who practices a conscious lifestyle. An adrenaline junkie at heart, she has gone rock climbing in Germany and surfing the waves in Mexico. She is a keen reader who loves to learn, as long as it’s not math. And she has hopes of discovering “the secrets of the universe” by exploring the globe, experiencing other cultures, and finding a variety of different perspectives.

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