Helping villagers weather the winds of change
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.