Mar. 23, 2023

The First Owner of Unmanned Island in China: If you don’t have ecological consciousness, don’t touch

Date: 18th April, 2011

Source:Beijing Times



Zhu Renmin who first bought the unmanned island thinks that: "If you don’t have ecological consciousness, don't touch the unmanned island. Don’t change the original landscape just for profits.


Zhu Renmin, nicknamed the person of the ocean of lotus”, is a male born in November 1949, and is originally from Yuhuan in Zhejiang province. When he was four years old, he learned to paint from his grandfather Pan Tianshou. As a seven-year-old boy he began to live on an island with his parents. During this period he traveled through 15 countries. In 1992, after returning home, he became president of the Landscape Architectural Design Institute at China’s Academy of Arts. In 1996, he spent 9 million Yuan to buy a 40 year lease of an unmanned island. The island is located in Zhejiang province and is part of the Pu Tuo district. Zhu became the first owner of an unmanned island in China.

On April 12th, the State Oceanic Administration published the list of the first 176 islands that could be developed. Each unit or individual could submit an application to buy an island of their own, to achieve the dream of becoming the "Lord of an island."

As early as 1996, Zhu Renmin, then professor at the China Academy of Art spent 9,000 Yuan on an unmanned island in

Zhejiang. He continued investing tens of millions of dollars to create an “art island,” permanently free for visitors.

What qualifications do you need to develop an unmanned island? As the first owner of an unmanned island, what advice does he have to those who want to follow his example?

We talked directly to him

The unmanned island

An unmanned island refers to an island where no permanent people reside in its territory.

There are as many as 6500 islands larger than 500 square meters in China. Among them, Zhejiang has 3,061 islands, or about 44 percent of the total number; 2886 islands are uninhabited. Because unmanned islands do not have running water or electricity, their territory is in a very natural state.

Zhu bought this unmanned island with a 40-year lease, and paid more than ninety thousand Yuan.

Beijing Times (Microblog): Why did you want to buy an unmanned island?

Zhu Renmin: It's a long story; I was born in a traditional Chinese painting family. My grandfather Pan Tianshou is a master in Chinese painting and my mother is an art teacher. When I was four years old, I began to learn to paint with my grandpa, and then at seven years old, I began to experience the island life with my parents. At that time, I worked as a fisherman, a blacksmith and so on. I used to paint a lot, and won some awards. In 1978, I created a 300 meter long art piece called “Avenue, Sea and Sky.” After I hurt my torso falling from a shelf, my mother led me to a temple called Xiuyin to be cured.

From there, I had a view of an isolated island through the window. It was clear in between the sea and the sky, and looked like a goddess lying in the sea between Putuo and Shenjiamen, independent from both the sea and the sky. I was so excited, and I felt that my fate was related to that island.

Four years later, I could walk on crutches. With little more than 300 Yuan, I travelled to 15 countries, and everywhere I went I painted and did some landscape design. I was earning money so that one day I could come back and protect that island.

Beijing Times: how much did you spend, and who did you buy it from?

Zhu Renmin: After returning to China in 1992, I went back to the island to check on it. In 1996, I signed a contract with the east harbor of Zhejiang, and bought the lease for 40 years.

Beijing Times (Microblog): Was the government allowed to sell?

Zhu Renmin: At that time, there were 1793 islands in Zhoushan, nobody was willing to buy an island, and there was no policy in place.

Beijing Times (Microblog): How big is this island? What province was it at that time?

Zhu Renmin: It is 10 acres officially, but because of the tide, the area of the island is different every day. Probably the real area is bigger than that.

There is only grass and stones now before there were pittosporums but local residents destroyed them. I felt very sorry about this: pittosporum is a very precious tree in Japan.

Beijing Times (Microblog): Did you name the island?

Zhu Renmin: This sea is called the “Ocean of Lotus”; it looks like a Guanyin lying between the sea and the sky. It is 1.6 kilometers away from the Putuo Mountain. Growing up I often played on the beaches there. After I bought it, I named it the island of lotus.” I called myself the person of the ocean of lotus

Many people did not understand me, including the workers. However, they must do as I say because I am their boss. At the same time, I am also the engineer and the designer, and I work with them side by side.

Newspaper of Jinghua: How long did it take you to build this island the way you wanted?

Zhu Renmin: I began to explore this island when I came back to China in 1992, and this island is still under construction right now. I remember that I engraved 500 sculptures of Rohan. I also built an art square, and a memorial hall for this island. I also plan to build a boat museum and a marine museum on the island. Now, there are 500 sculptures of Rohan on the island; they are all made of granite from Fujian, and designed with images of local fishermen in different postures.

Additionally, all the construction on the island has been done using local materials. For example, the tiles were collected from collapsed local houses. Nowadays, I am very proud that all the construction is used as a teaching example for many other places.

Jinghua’s newspaper: How did you solve the problems with lack of water, electricity, coal, gas as well as transportation while you were working on the island?

Zhu Renmin: I did a survey at the start to protect the contour of the “Reclining Buddha” and the originality of the island. I designed the routes for water, electricity, heating, fire control and communication, but I also asked domestic and foreign experts to do some tests for lightning, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, wind tunnels and so on. I traveled to Hangzhou hundreds of times to prepare the various materials. I spent two years planning, designing, transferring and installing equipment. I had many drawings - piled up they covered half a van.

The cost of building on an uninhabited island is more than ten times the cost of doing the same thing on the mainland. At the beginning, without our own docks and shipping lines, I borrowed others’ docks and the process of getting approval from the authorities was very difficult. Boats transported the fresh water we used on the island, and the electricity was connected from the dock; we needed to lay submarine cables in order to get it. It’s evident that the cost of all this is very high.

Jinhua’s newspaper: We all know that it is a huge investment to buy an island, so how do you deal with the high risk of extreme natural disasters, such as tsunamis?

Zhu Renmin: It is necessary for one to have risk awareness when you buy an island. The first thing to do is to know the landscape and the weather of the island perfectly. For devastating natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons, it is also of paramount importance to plan and take protective measures in advance.

Jinghua’s newspaper: How did you protect the originality of the island when you chose to develop it?

Zhu Renmin: During construction, I asked the workers to not destroy any plants on the island. In my opinion, as the owner of this island, it is my responsibility to protect the originality of this island.

Jinghua’s newspaper: It sounds unbelievable when you said that you did not destroy any plant on the island, doesn’t it?

Zhu Renmin: Lots of people don’t believe this, including the workers. However, they must do what I say, because I am the boss. At the same time, I am also the engineer and the designer - we work side by side.

To maintain the originality of the island, all of our construction was completed by individual labor. During the construction, as the leader, I worked with the workers from the beginning to the end. We used the mound and the rolling log to transport the materials, which is the most original way. It was just like the way they built the Great Wall and the Pyramids.

It is not an exaggeration to say that all the plants on the island, including the grass and trees, the stones and the hills, have been maintained in their original condition.  

Jinghua’s newspaper: How much did you invest in total? Where did the money come from?

Zhu Renmin: The total investment was between 30-50 million Yuan. I ran the first domestic landscape design firm, and I also have other companies. Besides constructing this island, we also did many other projects to protect the environment with all the money we have earned. We have built wetland parks in the deserts for example.  

Jinghua’s newspaper: Who has the right to visit your island?

Zhu Remin: From my perspective, I am an art worker. The island is also one of my artworks, and it blends my artistic thoughts in painting, architecture, gardening as well as sculpture. After this island is constructed successfully, I will set up a sign which says “Permanent Free Admission” and then go out to raise money for the protection of the island. I also want to invite artists to the island. I will provide them with houses and food, and encourage them to do some artistic creation.  

With the “free visit” sign set up, anyone can tour the island for free. However, what hurts me is that some tourists litter everywhere and someone even broke the fingers of the Buddha statue. I have to send someone to follow the tourists and remind them to pick up the rubbish they leave behind.

Beijing Times: How is the island now?

Zhu Renmin: It’s faced with the crisis of being “swallowed”. Since 2003, the East Harbor Economic Zone has been working on reclamation, which costs a few tens of thousand Yuan but gets profits worth about a million Yuan per acre. LianhuaIsland is in the process of being reclaimed. I often feel terrified by what the developer is doing. The natural coastline around the island will diminish, and the island will no longer exist due to reclamation. The Reclining Buddha I saw will also be replaced for good by a jungle of concrete.

I tried to talk to the developer, and the local government. I even went to the provincial government to ask that development on the island should not end up destroying nature. I kept asking them, “Why don’t you want to keep all these free works of art which I spent countless money and efforts on, when other provinces are trying their best to build ‘provinces with rich culture’? Why do you, on the contrary, want to destroy them?”

Beijing Times: What results did you see?

Zhu Renmin: After a few negotiations, the developer finally gave in and left a twenty-meter wide ditch. It took an 800-meter voyage to get to the island from the dock a few years ago. Now, it is difficult to call it an “island” since it is only twenty meters away from the continent. The earthworks completed during reclamation have damaged the undersea cable and water pipes, which worsens the problem of water and electric services on the island. The 500 Buddha I carved have to be moved to the dike due to the reclamation project. I am worried that someday these statues will disappear all of a sudden.

It takes more than money to buy an uninhabited island. What it takes is the spirit of humanism and attention paid to the ecological conservation of the island. Otherwise, the island will be destroyed when people arrive.]

Beijing Times: Now the government asks the successful bidder to develop the island sustainably to ensure that there is better protection of the island. What do you think of the policy? Do you think it possible in the current social environment?

Zhu Renmin: This is a good policy. Society pays more attention to the protection of islands than it used to. But it has taken a long time. The awareness of ecological conservation of the island comes from economic development, the improvement of cultural qualities, and the love for the sea. I have my own reservations on this issue. In a time when money is everything, selling islands by auction will cause over mining and damage to the island. That is why I disapprove of popularizing the auction of islands.

Beijing Times: Some people think that auctioning the islands will make protection of islands easier while others think that it will cause more environmental problems. What is your opinion?

Zhu Renmin: Low-level, extensive development will bring disaster to uninhabited islands. The current development approach that includes farming, tourism and warehousing is utilitarian and blind What is worse is that reclamation or even quarrying by blasting on the island will result in the disappearance of the islands.

In my opinion, we need to perfect the law. Government planners should examine and supervise development proposals. Complementary policies on infrastructure like seaports, routes, communications, water and electricity supply should be made along with policies on how to sell islands.

Zhu Renmin: It takes more than money to buy an uninhabited island. What it takes is the spirit of humanism, and particular attention paid to ecological conservation of the island. Otherwise, the island will be destroyed when people arrive.

These islands are like pearls scattered in the sea. Some of the islands are points defining the territory of a nation without which the nation will lose the sea area around them. These unique sceneries are built through hundreds of million years of natural forces. Don’t get involved in these uninhabited islands without awareness of ecology. Don’t change the original landscape just for profits.

Translator: Li Jiahou

Proofreader: Rebecca Valli/Karen Marshall

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