The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Chinese farmhouse in West Virginia bridges politics and a pandemic

Yang Qianye of the Chinese embassy reads literature inside the China Folk House Retreat on June 26 in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — The farmhouse was just like countless others John Flower had come across in his time in rural China, but the details stood out: tall, hand-carved wooden columns up front, delicate carvings of flowers and tree branches laid into the folding screen doors, a bright red cabinet with ornate patterns lining the back wall.

It was going to be demolished, located on land soon to be flooded by the construction of a new dam on the Mekong River. Flower joked with the house’s owner, Zhang Jianhua, when Zhang invited him inside for tea.

“I admired the house and said, ‘I wish I could take it home with me,’ ” Flower said. “He said, ‘Why not? We can try.’ ”

So Flower did. He bought the house from Zhang, returned with a team of craftsmen, and disassembled it, plank by plank, to ship to the United States, where he rebuilt it in a clearing in the woods of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Flower, an Arlington, Va.-based high school history teacher, wants to use the farmhouse to host cultural events, summer camps and exchanges with Chinese students — the kinds of opportunities most American students have missed out on for more than two years as the coronavirus pandemic severed most travel links between China and the United States and kicked off a turbulent period for relations between the two countries.

“I can't take 60 kids to China,” Flower said. “But I can have 60 kids come here and experience China, in a way.”

Flower had the opportunity to experience China more closely than most. He studied Chinese philosophy and history at the University of Virginia and moved to the southwestern province of Sichuan to conduct a three-year study in 1991. In 2003, he gave up a tenured position at the University of North Carolina to teach Chinese history at the D.C. private school Sidwell Friends, where he and his wife, Pam Leonard, developed a China fieldwork program that brought high school students to study in rural China.

In 2012, Flower and Leonard moved their program to Yunnan, a province on the southwestern reaches of the Chinese countryside bordering Myanmar. There, on a trip to a remote village named Cizhong on the edge of the province in 2015, Flower found Zhang and the house he would eventually bring to the United States.

The idea that started as a joke over tea seemed feasible — Zhang, who was being relocated by the local government, was happy to sell his house to save it from demolition — and the educational opportunities were too exciting to pass up.

“It would be a text,” Flower said. “Like bringing an incredibly interesting book.”

The journey back to the United States was long and painstaking. Flower and a team of craftsmen returned to Cizhong in 2017 to document the house’s design and carefully pry apart its beams and floorboards. It took months to truck the pieces across China to the eastern port of Tianjin and then ship them to Baltimore. Flower did it at his own expense.

“We joked it was my son’s college fund,” he said.

Eventually, Zhang’s farmhouse found a home in the woods of Jefferson County, W.Va., in the summer of 2019. Flower and Leonard formed a nonprofit, the China Folk House Retreat, and began accepting donations to realize their goal of turning the house into an educational camp.

But just as their team began to reassemble what they hoped would be a bridge between the United States and China, the world’s borders slammed shut. Flower, who had continued to run his study-abroad programs, was two days away from bringing another cohort of students to Yunnan in late February 2020 when his friends in China called about a new disease spreading in the country.

“At first, we were like, ‘Let’s be cautious, let’s just postpone,’ ” Flower said. “And then it got longer. And then we saw what was happening.”

Flower hasn’t been back to China since. Nor have any of his students. They watched from home as the virus first discovered in China spread across the world, shutting down global travel and prompting an anti-Asian backlash in the United States. Relations between the United States and China were strained further when the United States joined an international outcry against China last year by declaring the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide, and most recently when government officials traded barbs over Chinese activity in the Indo-Pacific at a defense summit in June. A Pew Research Center study in April found 82 percent of Americans surveyed had unfavorable opinions of China.

Flower is no stranger to sea changes in U.S.-China relations — his interest in the country began in the 1970s, when China turned to a policy of “reform and opening” and established diplomatic relations with the United States after decades of mutual distrust. He sees his work as cultural, not political, and believes it’s all the more important now.

“It’s sad,” Flower said. “But I think the most important thing is that we keep the relationships alive, and we emphasize people-to-people relationships even more when the government-to-government relations are so fraught.”

Yang Wendou, who coordinates Flower’s program in China, shares the same view.

“I’m an educator,” Yang said from Yunnan. “I won’t be able to say much about politics. But from my perspective, the more difficult U.S.-China relations get, the more we need to strengthen the exchanges between our people.”

In the pandemic, the Chinese Folk House Retreat has become a rare conduit for that exchange. Craftsmen from nearby towns volunteered to help rebuild Zhang’s home, which was originally constructed in 1989. They studied unfamiliar Chinese techniques to rejoin the beams that made up the house’s wooden frame. Every summer, Flower hosted summer camps for D.C. and Virginia high school students, who helped with the construction while studying Chinese language and culture. Since 2019, the China Folk House Retreat has expanded to include a traditional Chinese moon gate and the skeletal frames of a kitchen and dormitory to be completed next year.

In late June, Flower’s faith in cultural exchange was returned by the Chinese government when Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, visited the camp. In an interview, Qin acknowledged that relations between China and the United States are at “a critical crossroads.” But, speaking days before China announced a surprise relaxation of the country’s strict quarantine policies for travelers arriving from abroad, he expressed a desire to reestablish travel ties severed by the pandemic.

“I believe that covid will be over sooner or later,” Qin said. “And all these cultural exchanges … will come back.” He concluded his public remarks to the camp with an invitation: “Don’t forget: When covid is over, go to China.”

Flower thinks that’s the key to improving relations between the populations of two of the world’s superpowers. Bringing American students to China, he said, gave them a unique perspective on the country and its people. Eventually, he hopes to host students, and even carpenters and craftsmen, from China to study and share their knowledge in West Virginia, too.

“I’m doubling down, tripling down,” Flower said. “I think this kind of project is needed now more than ever.”