Although the least tall of the redwoods, it grows to at least 200 feet (60 meters) in height. Local villagers refer to the original tree from which most others derive as Shui-sa, or "water fir", which is part of a local shrine. Since its rediscovery in 1944, the dawn redwood has become a popular ornamental tree in the Pacific Northwest. Metasequoia was first described as a fossil from the Mesozoic Era by Shigeru Miki in 1941. Later in 1944, a small stand of an unidentified tree species was discovered in China in Modaoxi (磨刀溪; presently, Moudao (谋道), in Lichuan County, Hubei province by Zhan Wang.
While the find was exciting, it was overshadowed by China's ongoing conflict with Japan. In 1937, a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge, just outside Beijing, led to an all-out war. A year later, by mid-1938, the Chinese military situation was desperate. Most of eastern China lay in Japanese hands: Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan. Many outside observers assumed that China could not hold out, and the most likely scenario was a Japanese victory over China. Yet the Chinese hung on, and after Pearl Harbor, the war became genuinely global. The western Allies and China were now united in their war against Japan, a conflict that would finally end on September 2, 1945.
With World War II behind them, the Chinese researchers were able to re-focus their energies on the sciences. In 1946, Wan Chun Cheng and Hu Hsen Hsu were able to further study the trees from Lichuan County and publish their work describing a new living species of Metasequoia in 1948. That same year, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University sent an expedition to collect seeds and, soon after, seedling trees were distributed to various universities and arboreta worldwide for growth trials.