Help­ing vil­lagers weather the winds of change

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU XIAOMIN in Shang­hai


An im­por­tant so­cial move­ment in China took place at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury when ac­claimed scholar Liang Shum­ing called on fel­low in­tel­lec­tu­als to par­tic­i­pate in the re­form of ru­ral ar­eas stricken by ex­treme poverty af­ter years of war.

As part of ef­forts to raise the qual­ity of life in th­ese ar­eas, this group of schol­ars had set up schools and came up with mea­sures to im­prove agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy. The move­ment con­tin­ued for seven years un­til the Sino-Ja­panese War started in 1937.

A cen­tury has since passed and some young in­tel­lec­tu­als still hold onto a sim­i­lar dream, though the move­ment has now taken on a new mean­ing — to pre­serve cul­ture and her­itage.

Zhu Shengx­uan is one such sup­porter. For­merly a land­scap­ing de­sign con­sul­tant with the Shang­hai Expo, Zhu de­cided to exit the in­dus­try af­ter a can­cer op­er­a­tion in 2010 spurred him to re­think his life and ca­reer.

“I be­gan to re­al­ize that the more land­scapes I de­signed, the fur­ther away I got from the green fields,” said the 40-year-old ar­chi­tect whose father is a farmer. “I can’t leave my city life, but I can’t give up the coun­try­side ei­ther.”

Though he has lived in Shang­hai for more than 10 years, Zhu said that he still has a strong emo­tional con­nec­tion to his vil­lage in Baoshan, Yun­nan prov­ince. Af­ter re­cov­er­ing from his op­er­a­tion, Zhu de­cided to re­turn to the coun­try­side in an at­tempt to lead a healthy life­style.

In 2011, Zhu vis­ited the Mo­gan­shan Moun­tains in Zhe­jiang prov­ince. There, he dis­cov­ered that be­cause the area’s wa­ter source was des­ig­nated as a pro­tected zone by the au­thor­i­ties, all live­stock and farm­ing prac­tices in the vicin­ity were out­lawed in or­der to min­i­mize pol­lu­tion.

Many peo­ple in the af­fected ar­eas who had re­lied pri­mar­ily on farm­ing to make a liv­ing now had to change their lives. Many young peo­ple soon left their homes to work in the cities, leav­ing their el­derly par­ents be­hind. Many homes were left va­cant. Swathes of land were left un­touched.

The scene sparked an idea in Zhu’s head. In 2012, he de­cided to use his own money to lease an aban­doned farm from the lo­cal govern­ment for 20 years. With his 8-mil­lion-yuan in­vest­ment, Zhu went about in­tro­duc­ing re­forms to the vil­lage, re­pur­pos­ing old houses and com­bin­ing them to form a 13-room bou­tique ho­tel. Nearby, he grew corn, sweet pota­toes and a va­ri­ety of other veg­eta­bles with­out the use of pes­ti­cide.

But Zhu was still dis­sat­is­fied with the progress. He knew that al­most all the tra­di­tional in­dus­tries in Mo­gan­shan, in­clud­ing those that har­vest bam­boo as a raw con­struc­tion ma­te­rial, were not go­ing to de­velop any more. To en­sure that the vil­lage re­mained rel­e­vant in the mod­ern era, Zhu ren­o­vated an aban­doned silk­worm farm at the foot of the moun­tain, turn­ing it into a cre­ative arts space fea­tur­ing tra­di­tional hand­i­crafts such as cot­ton shoe-mak­ing, as well as ameni­ties in­clud­ing a mod­ern cafe, tea houses, bi­cy­cle clubs, book­stores, a small the­ater and de­sign stu­dios.

“I am look­ing for ways to en­tice more peo­ple to come back and stay in the coun­try­side. I want to build a bridge to pro­mote in­ter­ac­tion be­tween cities and coun­try­side. Ru­ral re­form needs the govern­ment’s sup­port, but it also needs con­tri­bu­tions from in­di­vid­u­als,” said Zhu, who is also in­volved in sev­eral other vil­lage re­form projects and has set up the Shang­hai Ur­ban and Coun­try­side In­ter­ac­tive De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter.

Be­fore cre­at­ing the blue­print for his new vil­lage re­form pro­ject in Ji­jiadun, Kun­shan, Jiangsu prov­ince, Zhu talked to most of the 142 fam­i­lies in the area to find out what were the things they hoped to re­tain. He be­lieves it is im­per­a­tive that, re­gard­less of how beau­ti­ful the new ar­chi­tec­ture in the area are, tra­di­tions be kept alive.

“When the re­forms are com­pleted next year, I’d like to come back and help build up a farm­ing team to plant rice,” said Xue Rongquan, a 75-year-old farmer who in­di­cated that he would like to keep the old fish­ing boat he has used since he was 15.

Zhu’s ef­forts have not gone un­no­ticed by the au­thor­i­ties. Af­ter all, the Chi­nese govern­ment has in re­cent times been em­pha­siz­ing on the need to fully uti­lize empty houses and va­cant land to de­velop tra­di­tional hand­i­crafts, agri­cul­ture and tourism. This year’s No 1 Cen­tral Govern­ment Doc­u­ment, the first pol­icy jointly re­leased by the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Party of China and the State Coun­cil, again fo­cuses on agri­cul­ture, ru­ral com­mu­nity and farm­in­gre­lated is­sues.

To­gether with the lo­cal govern­ment in Ji­jiadun, Zhu will be set­ting up a gallery com­pris­ing old items be­long­ing to many of the old farm­ers, such as a cen­tury-old mill­stone and brick sculp­tures in the shape of tigers. One of the goals of this pro­ject is to draw more vis­i­tors from the cities to learn about the lo­cal cul­ture and way of life.

“Young peo­ple from th­ese ru­ral ar­eas don’t nec­es­sar­ily need to mi­grate to big cities. With such re­forms, land will be valu­able and their lives can ac­tu­ally be more com­fort­able than in ur­ban places. In the near fu­ture, more and more peo­ple from the cities will also be will­ing to re­lo­cate to vil­lages, be it to change their life­styles or to run busi­nesses,” said Zhu.


Zhu Shengx­uan en­joys some quiet time with his dog in the coun­try­side.

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