Ur­ban­ites lead cul­ture re­vival in coun­try­side

They fled to the cities look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties, but now they have re­turned to their coun­try roots, con­quered by the power of art and cul­ture

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By DENG ZHANGYU dengzhangyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

As Wang Shouchang sits sip­ping from a cof­fee cup, he rev­els in a photo book on Hui-style ar­chi­tec­ture. Be­hind him on book­shelves sit One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude by Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez and The Moon and Six­pence by Som­er­set Maugham, among many other books, and be­yond the walls, in the dis­tance, with moun­tains cov­ered in mist, a cow earns its daily keep in the rice fields.

The 200-year-old an­ces­tral hall in the vil­lage of Bis­han, in An­hui prov­ince, in which Wang is sit­ting now serves as an art book­shop.

“We were all a bit dubious about how this would go when it opened three years ago,” says Wang, 71, a lo­cal who works for the book­shop, its wares in­clud­ing works on ar­chi­tec­ture, art, his­tory and lit­er­a­ture.

“On week­ends many peo­ple from nearby towns and cities come here to buy books be­cause they can’t find else­where what we have.”

The vil­lage, nes­tled at the foot of Bis­han Moun­tain, is a drive of more than hour to the clos­est city, Huang­shan, and for those who need to rely on pub­lic trans­port, get­ting to the vil­lage can be a has­sle, a com­muter bus pass­ing through it just twice a day.

Yet the book­store has be­come a cul­tural drink­ing hole, and vil­lagers are the ones who draw most read­ily from it, Wang says. It reg­u­larly holds ac­tiv­i­ties such as “poetry par­ties”, art ex­hi­bi­tions and lec­tures ad­dressed by writ­ers. For lo­cals whose daily rou­tine con­sists of farm­ing and rais­ing silk­worms, these ac­tiv­i­ties of­fer them some­thing “fresh with an ur­ban taste”, Wang says.

The book­shop-that-was-once-a-tem­ple is part of a ru­ral de­vel­op­ment project ini­ti­ated by Ou Ning, an artist and cu­ra­tor who moved to the vil­lage in 2011, keen to re­vive the coun­try­side through cul­ture and art.

Next to the book­shop is a cof­fee bar that used to be a cow­shed, and sev­eral blocks away is an old rice store that is now a show­room dis­play­ing ar­ti­sanal clothes and bam­boo prod­ucts.

Over the past few years the vil­lage, once in­hab­ited mainly by the el­derly and chil­dren, has at­tracted aca­demics, ar­chi­tects, artists, de­sign­ers, mu­si­cians and schol­ars from China and fur­ther afield, many of them in­vi­tees of Ou, to take part in ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing giv­ing lec­tures or per­for­mances.

“There is a trend in China for ur­ban elites, es­pe­cially artists, to go to the coun­try­side and help re­vive it, mostly cul­tur­ally,” says Li Huadong, an ex­pert on ru­ral de­vel­op­ment in China at the Bei­jing Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy.

From 2005 the cen­tral govern­ment be­gan to strongly ad­vo­cate ru­ral re­vival as count­less vil­lages across the coun­try lost a great chunk of their soul, the ur­ban ex­o­dus leav­ing many of them with rump pop­u­la­tions con­sist­ing mainly of el­derly folk look­ing af­ter their grand­chil­dren. Artists such as Ou then de­cided to see whether they could cre­ate a pro­to­type of how parts of ru­ral China could rein­vig­o­rate them­selves in novel ways.

“For these ur­ban elites this was all very new,” Li says. “In fact ru­ral de­vel­op­ment lies very much at China’s roots, but any­one who crosses a river needs to feel the stones.”

Qu Yan, an artist who works with in­stal­la­tions, paint­ings, pho­tos and videos, de­cided to use the power of art to help re­vive Xu vil­lage in Shanxi prov­ince, some­thing he sees as “an artist’s re­spon­si­bil­ity” as he re­flects on the state of China’s cul­ture af­ter the un­doubted eco­nomic suc­cesses the coun­try has notched up over the past 30 years or so.

When Qu was on an artis­tic scout­ing mis­sion in 2007, tak­ing pho­tos, he was at­tracted by houses of var­i­ous dy­nas­ties in Xu vil­lage at the foothill of Tai­hang Moun­tain. In 2011 he put on an in­ter­na­tional art fes­ti­val in the pic­turesque vil­lage, invit­ing artists from 25 coun­tries to dis­play works there.

At the time the vil­lage was a husk of its for­mer self, most of its adults hav­ing gone off to pur­sue brighter prospects in the city.

Xu and his team helped ren­o­vate old houses dat­ing back to the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644) and trans­formed a rice store­house into an art mu­seum to dis­play works made by artists tak­ing part in the art fes­ti­val. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val artists

The chil­dren here ... I hope they can be con­fi­dent about their own cul­ture and value the his­tory of their vil­lage by con­nect­ing with artists from around the world Qu Yan, artist

stayed in the homes of vil­lagers.

“Lo­cals didn’t dare talk with these for­eign artists,” Qu, 62, says. “But now they can com­mu­ni­cate with each other, their chil­dren act­ing as in­ter­preters.”

Dur­ing sum­mer holidays Qu in­vites NGOs to teach English in the vil­lage and mu­si­cians to teach chil­dren the pi­ano, an in­stru­ment many of them will never have seen be­fore.

“The chil­dren here are much more con­fi­dent than when I first came here,” he says. “I hope they can be con­fi­dent about their own cul­ture and value the his­tory of their vil­lage by con­nect­ing with artists from around the world.”

Art fes­ti­vals

With old houses hav­ing been ren­o­vated and art fes­ti­vals be­ing reg­u­lar fare, Xu vil­lage has at­tracted many art stu­dents who go there to cre­ate works, and trav­el­ers who are in­ter­ested in art as well.

In fact, adults who had aban­doned the vil­lage for the city are now mak­ing the home­ward jour­ney and stay­ing to make the most of work and busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties such as set­ting up home­s­tay es­tab­lish­ments or run­ning inns.

The core of ru­ral de­vel­op­ment is restor­ing the re­spect of vil­lagers for their fore­bears, Qu says. He en­cour­ages vil­lagers to take out ge­nealog­i­cal books of­ten hid­den un­der a bed and put them on dis­play in their sit­ting room.

Sun Jun, a painter, pro­moted a similar idea when he helped re­vive Haotang vil­lage in He­nan prov­ince from 2011.

Haotang, which many now re­gard as one of the most beau­ti­ful vil­lages in China, has a clean river run­ning through it, rows of two-story court- yard houses — com­plete with sit­ting rooms in which the owner has laid out books dis­play­ing fam­ily ge­neal­ogy.

“We en­cour­age them to do this so they know who they are and where they come from,” Sun says. Vil­lagers once had a tra­di­tion of valu­ing their an­ces­tors, but in the fre­netic din of mod­ern­iza­tion they threw this away, he says.

Re­mote vil­lage

He re­calls his first im­pres­sion of Haotang, a re­mote vil­lage with­out tra­di­tional houses and an­cient his­tory: shock at the state of the river and its filthy roads.

“For three months my team and I cleaned up rub­bish, and then the lo­cals joined in with us,” Sun says.

Next he came up with new de­signs for vil­lagers’ flats, some­thing they re­sisted for a long time.

“Peo­ple want to live in beau­ti­ful apart­ments like those in cities. Some­how they re­gard houses with ce­ramic -tiled walls as at­trac­tive,” Sun says.

Hao Pengcheng’s abode was one of the first trans­formed into a twos­tory court­yard house with red walls and grey-tiled tops. He had bought an apart­ment in the city of Xinyang, a drive of about two hours from the vil­lage, and ran a dry-clean­ing busi­ness there.

“I and many vil­lagers dis­agreed with Sun over his re­build­ing plans,” says Hao, who gave up his apart­ment and re­turned to his home­town.

“Now I’m re­ally happy with what has been done,” he says.

Hao, 37, says that once Sun ex­plained the cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of the col­ors of the wall and tiles, for which he gained in­spi­ra­tion from tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture in He­nan, he un­der­stood what it was all about.

Hao has fruit trees in the court­yard and tea? trees in the back­yard, key in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties in the vil­lage.

He has a son and daugh­ter, both of whom at­tend the vil­lage school, the size of whose roll has swelled from just 50 stu­dents in 2011 to about 200 now.

“The whole vil­lage is full of life and, like me, many of those who moved away to cities have come back home,” Hao says

Ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter

Far from the sorry sight that Sun found when he first went to the vil­lage six years ago, it now has book­shops, tea­houses, an ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter and tem­ples. Many tra­di­tional fes­ti­vals and rit­u­als have been re­stored, and this at­tracts tourists, he says.

“It is crit­i­cal in ru­ral de­vel­op­ment to re­store life­style, cul­ture and his­tory, which have been strongly com­pro­mised by mod­ern­iza­tion,” Sun says.

The idea of ru­ral re­vival is not to give farm­ers what is pop­u­lar in cities, he says, but to re­spect a vil­lage’s cul­ture.

Li, the ex­pert on ru­ral de­vel­op­ment, says China has been an agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety for thou­sands of years, and all of Chi­nese cul­ture is ul­ti­mately de­rived from vil­lages.

“In­dus­tri­al­iza­tion has been in con­flict with Chi­nese cul­ture, and the elites and artists have gone back to the roots to re­vive that cul­ture.”


Clock­wise from top left: A mu­ral paint­ing event in Xu vil­lage; an art book­shop in Bis­han vil­lage that used to be the vil­lage’s an­ces­tral hall; artists from Aus­tralia teach paint­ing in Xu vil­lage; the land­scape of Bis­han vil­lage.


Once an old house has been trans­formed into a bar in Xu vil­lage, Shanxi prov­ince.

The dragon dance in Xu vil­lage pro­vides a grand spec­ta­cle; a US artist learns Chi­nese pa­per­cuts from a vil­lager; a home inn in Bis­han vil­lage.


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