Why Chinese Artists are Moving Back to the Countryside

Bishan Village, 2011. Photo by Ou Ning; Shennong, 2015, drawing by Chen Duxi. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Location Map: Bishan Village, Biyang Town, Yi County, Huangshan City, Anhui Province, P. R. of China. Drawing by Xu Yijing and Neil Mclean Gaddes / San Practices, 2012. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Ou Ning, Bishan Commune: How to Start Your Own Utopia, Moleskine sketchbook, 108 pages, 13 x 21cm, heavy acid-free paper, 2010. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Wenheyou (文和友)
Chudifang Dance by Bishan Villagers, Bishan Harvestival. Photo by Hu Xiaogeng, 2011. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Mutual Aid and Inheritance, main exhibition, Bishan Harvestival. Photo by Hu Xiaogeng, 2011. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Bishan Bookstore. Photo by Matjaž Tančič, 2012. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
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After decades of globalisation, Chinese artists, writers and entrepreneurs are finding new energy in the countryside. The “New Rural Reconstruction” movement announced by the CPC in 2017 has important roots in the work of cultural activists such as Ou Ning’s Bishan regeneration project. 2020 may have proven to be a turning point, as China’s immense intellectual and cultural energy starts to be turned inwards.

 

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

China’s Inward Turn

In the year 2020, I began to realise that Chinese society was turning inward. We had heard about a backlash against globalisation for years, but in Shanghai, it had seemed largely fictional—until the closed borders of 2020 made those issues into a reality, and forced us to ferment in our own juices, questioning what directions we wanted to take, and where the future was leading us to. For many, the answer was the Chinese countryside, an immense zone that can seem inscrutable and mysterious even to those who have lived in China for many years. For Chinese and foreign journalists, artists, and intellectuals living in China, it feels almost inevitable that we’d live in Beijing, Shanghai, or some other big, rich city, and that we’d spend a lot of time speaking with people in similar big cities in other countries—that’s globalisation, right? Today, we are discovering the hidden continent of rural China.

 

Bishan Village, 2011. Photo by Ou Ning; Shennong, 2015, drawing by Chen Duxi. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Location Map: Bishan Village, Biyang Town, Yi County, Huangshan City, Anhui Province, P. R. of China. Drawing by Xu Yijing and Neil Mclean Gaddes / San Practices, 2012. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.

 

The world outside of Chinese borders seemed chaotic and unpredictable; and as I tried to find diversions before ‘normalcy’ resumed, I met more and more people who had chosen to ignore that outside world. The Swiss eco-entrepreneur who had moved to a commune in rural Chengdu; the British hotelier who, with his wife, restored an ancient mansion in Wuyuan County, Jiangxi; the French curator who travelled the Manchurian northeast looking for artists, memories of Communism and organic hazelnuts. Krishna from Miami who spends half of his time in the mountains of Ningxia at a vineyard he works for. And of course, many, many Chinese, who for one reason or another decided that the cities were too expensive and that living in them was counterproductive. Instead, they went to villages to raise children, to start businesses of their own, to make a different sort of life—nowadays, we call them fanxiangqingnian (返鄉青年). In May 2020, the government announced a new economic policy called dual circulation, seeking to build China into a closed circuit feedback loop, even as I cancelled my plans to visit London in May, to visit Taiwan in August, to visit my hometown in Virginia in October, then at Christmas. With no international travel possible, we spent the year visiting small towns and villages in Fujian, in Zhejiang, in Heilongjiang, in Sichuan, looking at old farmhouses and wondering whether, if our future was so definitely in China, we shouldn’t buy one to renovate it. If in the past decade, the Chinese situated their fantasies in big cities, they’re now increasingly set in the rural world.

In the past 20 years, China has been aggressively globalised. Nowadays, you can go anywhere in China and there will be a clean and good hotel, maybe an eco-resort as well; interesting and easily accessible restaurants with local cuisine, probably some nearby mountains or rivers that are protected as parklands. The notion of national parks in China is quite recent, with major legislation dating to 2012, but it has been rolled out quickly. Over the summer, I visited Xiong’an New Area with an American curator and writer; we went to a restored wetland, taking a boat through endless aquatic vistas of lotus plants. On the highway that took us there, red banners with President Xi Jinping’s slogan “Mountains and rivers green are mountains of silver and gold”[1] (綠水青山就是金山銀山) were plastered onto the brick cottages locals lived in. With the national energy focused on eliminating rural poverty, creating a middle class society, and doing so in an ecologically friendly way, it feels increasingly likely that the Chinese countryside will become as lovely and friendly as anywhere in the world.

 

Ou Ning, Bishan Commune: How to Start Your Own Utopia, Moleskine sketchbook, 108 pages, 13 x 21cm, heavy acid-free paper, 2010. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.

 

China Becomes A Closed Circuit

There is a larger social backdrop, of course. The Chinese Internet started discussing the agricultural term neijuan (内卷) as a metaphor for life in the country—the phrase literally means ‘rolling inside’, like a person trapped in a barrel, their energies prevented from being released into the outside world. For the Chinese, this word holds a negative connotation as a term used for online griping; the image that it evokes reminds me of the stoic philosopher Diogenes, who voluntarily lived in a barrel, and sought to see life as it really was, without bias or delusion. Perhaps the countryside is where we would all go, if we were able to de-programme the marketing, social media, and other addictive forms of media that have colonised our brains. Competition in the big cities is so intense, and the pace of economic growth has changed—matured, perhaps. Some are deeply frustrated at how difficult it is to get ahead, but others who I know simply feel that consumerism isn’t very fulfilling, and the traditions, ecologies, and cuisine of the countryside makes it more appealing than the city.

This has happened before; William Morris pursued a different sort of life, oriented towards social justice, design, and tradition in 19th century England, the hippies of the 1960s in California or upstate New York left the cities in search of themselves. It’s not necessarily chauvinistic for people to invest their energy into a small community in their own country; often, the most unique and progressive thinkers in a society choose this path, a sort of internal emigration—what the late German solider and author Ernst Jünger called ‘the forest passage.’ It’s positively a social good for rich urbanites to travel domestically rather than going abroad. A society is a group united by shared experiences, landscapes, and ideas; for people in Shanghai to head to old temple towns, or for Beijingers to go camping on the Great Wall, encountering the lives of the others in the most direct way—at the dinner table—is more ecologically sustainable than going abroad, but it’s also egalitarian, uniting different social classes in shared joyful experiences.

 

Wenheyou (文和友)

 

The world of hotels and airports—neijuan—gives us a sense of a historical claustrophobia, a sense that we are trapped in a hell of our own devising. The sight of old temples crumbling in the jungle, the sound of vegetables being chopped, of an old man laughing and cursing in dialect, is tremendously soothing in this context. In China, there is a renewed interest in heritage, a collective nostalgia. In Changsha, an ambitious young man bought old peasant shacks on the outskirts of town, set to be demolished, and used them as props in his restaurant Wenheyou (文和友), themed on the recent past of the city that it’s in. As nature becomes alien to the urbanites, it becomes desirable; the pigs I saw in K11 Art Mall in Shanghai in 2014[2] now feel as though they were a portent of the world that we now live in. What comes at the end of modernity, when one has given up on the struggle for enlightenment? Voltaire said, tend to your garden. The familiar Chinese term for the nation, jiayuan (家園); describes China as being a mix of a home and a garden.[3]

 

New Rural Regeneration

The existential dilemmas I describe are the problems of a new middle class with disposable income; but urban alienation, known as chengshibing (城市病), afflicts almost everybody. There have been reports of national strikes by the kuaidi (delivery) drivers, whose long hours in poor weather conditions on motorbikes fuel China’s e-commerce economy, and helped urbanites make it through COVID-19 lockdowns; the misery of housing prices, commutes, pollution and the rest is the core experience of Chinese popular culture today. From Hong Kong to Seoul, housing shortages, low wages, and income stratification have created the sense of schizophrenic societies living side by side. Hao Jingfang’s 2012 science fiction story Folding Beijing (北京折疊) perhaps captures it best: the city of the rich and entitled coexists with the city of the urban strivers, which coexists with the migrant workers whose desperate labour keeps the whole structure afloat. Despite occupying the same terrain, these groups never truly interact, unless it is in the handshake of a deliveryman handing a plastic bag to a disembodied hand at the door of an apartment. In many ways, the colonisation of the countryside by Chinese urbanites merely replicates the social hierarchies of the city, in a rural setting.

Today’s generation, torn between idealism, practical concerns, and personal desires, strongly echoes the 1930s generation of writers such as Qian Zhongshu, who in Fortress Besieged (圍城) writes about a Shanghainese urbanite floating down the river to Hunan province, or the romanticised couple Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, traveling through the country, sketching temples. These archetypes stand behind us; the boutique hotel stands before us. If we’re serious about trying to create a more egalitarian society, and not just satisfying our own bourgeois desires, then how can we move forward? Artist and activist Ou Ning, in Bishan, made a very sincere effort to share new agricultural techniques with villagers, to draw cultural and financial capital into the village, to renovate beautiful old homes into Airbnbs, and more. His project was appropriated by the government, and doesn’t exist anymore.

 

Chudifang Dance by Bishan Villagers, Bishan Harvestival. Photo by Hu Xiaogeng, 2011. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Mutual Aid and Inheritance, main exhibition, Bishan Harvestival. Photo by Hu Xiaogeng, 2011. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.
Bishan Bookstore. Photo by Matjaž Tančič, 2012. Image courtesy of Ou Ning.

 

At the 19th CPC Congress, in 2017, President Xi announced a policy called 鄉村振興戰略, or ‘rural revitalisation[4],’ which the urbanised real estate industry has translated into 城鄉振興, a more business friendly equivalent thereof. Everybody from the CPC to painters, curators and writers understands that the rural-urban divide in China is a huge problem, making for boring, bland cities and abandoned, shabby, polluted villages. Already in 1982, when Chinese spaces were relatively egalitarian because all of them were equally poor, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells wrote, “The planet is being segmented into clearly distinct spaces, defined by different time regimes. The global economy will expand, but it will do so selectively, linking valuable segments and discarding irrelevant locales and people. The territorial unevenness of production will result in an extraordinary geography of differential value that will sharply contrast countries, regions, and metropolitan areas.” What was true for the globe then is true for the Yangtze tributary delta today, which is why going from Shanghai a few hours inland feels like time traveling. In search of answers, I went North, to the polar star of Chinese political history and the struggles and collective memories which coagulated into the concept ‘people,’ renmin (人民).

 

When The Personal Becomes Political

Over the dinner table in Daqing, I debated with my girlfriend’s father, a provincial official in the local government, struggling to translate half-remembered quotations from Marx to interpolate into our discussions of the tedious American present, the Chinese future, or Daqing’s past. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past,” wrote Marx. Reflecting upon this as I walked through the snow of Daqing’s ‘Western garden’ (西苑), I thought to myself how we don’t write the stories of our lives, but observe them as they unfold. We are born to our parents; we choose our partner. I was born in Virginia; but I find myself spending more and more time in Daqing, a city built ex novo in the 1960s by CCP cadres living next to oil fields, with my partner’s family members playing central roles. As we drive through the downtown, she would point out—my grandfather opened that shopping mall, back in the 1990s; my father worked in that office; that compound used to be our home. Her father spent years working on a seven volume history of Daqing’s oil fields; opening a book at random, I read the songs that they’d sing as they constructed the city. In English, Daqing literally means ‘Big Celebration’.

I’ve loved Russian literature my whole life, recording as it does the history of bourgeois Europeans who live in a tragic leviathan of a society. Here in Daqing, with history coursing around me like a waterfall, I felt like Dr. Zhivago. Some of my friends have gone to the country to find greenery, and others to study local cuisine. Some go, like Liang and Lin before them, to sketch temples and restore old buildings; others, like Ou, seek to uncover collective forms of living that might be buried in the sediment of human experience; washing away the detritus of the past few decades, as we find a new/old way to live. Of course, I never felt that I chose Daqing; I fell in love with a person from Daqing, but that is also a kind of fate. In this land, which Japanese writers like Natsume Sōseki identified as the ‘pure land’ of Buddhism, I found myself, so accustomed to being counterposed to capitalist worlds, face to face with a gigantic, living monument to the history of communism in China. The traditions here, vividly embodied in my partner’s relatives, are of idealist communism; of love stories that were sparked in Suihua in the 1970s, of fresh fruit and vegetables from farms torn out of the ‘great northern wasteland’ (北大荒) within living memory. In the mornings, my partner’s mother would push rice from Wuchang county in front of me; her grandfather keeps a kind of dacha there. As a child, I somehow felt that I was immune to history; that all of the important decisions had already been made, and I sought literature as a way to break out of that. It was possible to sustain this illusion until very recently. Now, like Zhivago, I wandered the snowy fields asking myself how to live ethically, how to digest the fact of existing in a world with great injustices, a world with vivid loves and a shining sun, a colony of buildings which were both imposingly grand and fragile. And like Sōseki and the thinkers of the Kyoto school, in this ‘pure land,’ I found the dirt of experience, the superficial trivia of the city, scraped away; even in looking at the buildings and the trees, I felt my self confronting clean lines and concepts, as if life had become an algebraic equation, with the right answer awaiting. I’ve visited dozens of nice little towns over the past few years, but it was only Daqing that made an impact on me; this was the only place that asked me to contribute, as well as to consume. In entering the life of my partner’s family, I entered the history of Daqing, and it became mine, and I began to think of my future as being punctuated by visits to Daqing.

Looking at the frozen pond in Daqing, I thought back to all of the Chinese villages that I’ve known and loved. I remember visiting Ou’s Bishan village in 2014; in the tradition of ‘new rural reconstruction’ (新鄉村建設), a 1920s modernising movement, he sought to revitalise a village with an art biennial, with organic farming, with boutique tourism, and a deeply thought approach to China’s rural-urban divide. The population of Chinese villages in 2020 was over 550 million—more than the US or the European Union—and in their relationship with nature, in the ways that spending time within these traditional settings wakes us up, more and more of us are finding that the Chinese village is an interesting place to be. As I boarded my flight from Daqing back to Shanghai, I knew for certain that I’d be back again soon.

 

 

 

[1] http://english.www.gov.cn/news/topnews/202012/13/content_WS5fd56f5dc6d0f72576941cbb.html

[2] https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-07/17/content_17816165.htm

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/08/china-new-national-park-system/

[4] https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1163841.shtml

 

 

 

 
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