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When The Countryside Becomes a Home Hard to Return to

October 19, 2017
topic:Economic Inclusion
tags:#Bishan Project, #urbanisation, #China
by:Li Dawei
I met Ou Ning, a social activist and artist, for the first time in Aspen, Colorado. It was during the Aspen Idea Festival in 2012. Ou Ning gave a brief speech in the main tent on the campus, among big names such as Elizabeth Diller, Michael Eisner, Barbara Streisand among others, who all shared with the audience some insights into the world we were living in. His big idea later became known as the Bishan Project, a social experiment aimed at rural life renaissance.

Ou Ning later told me that he himself had come from a village in southern China. As a young pupil, he dreamed to escape his village’s confinement. In China, most people have rural backgrounds because the country’s urbanisation had only kicked off in recent decades. If you come from China, your parents or your grandparents, if not yourself, once lived in the countryside.

Ou Ning succeeded to become a part of the avant-garde cultural scene of Guangzhou and then Beijing. What soon helped him stand out from his peers was his mastery of English. The lingua franca allowed him more exposure to the outside world. He soon became a spokesman of a homegrown alternative culture and had many ears attuned to him from Western observers. Since then Ou Ning hardly ceased traveling around the world, giving lectures or carrying out curatorships. Meanwhile, his uprooted feel strengthened.

“The nostalgia is not about your absence from home, physically or psychologically”, he said. “It’s more of a cultural thing.”

According to his research, many people in China who have already found footholds in the city wish to retire in the countryside. The obstacle they confront, however, is the household system carried out after the communists took over the country. As a measure to prevent the free flow of the population, it practically forces citizens to remain where their households, better known as Hukou, are registered. And it is tied up with people’s health care and their children’s schooling. Essential components of daily life people cannot live without.

The countryside was on the way to industrialise itself, Ou Ning said. Many farmers took pains to shoehorn themselves into the new mode of production, excessively relying on fuel-thirsty machineries and chemical fertilisers. He knew an organic agriculture expert who had spent much time in the countryside introducing alternative planting techniques; he was often laughed at by the villagers as a layman.

Ou Ning chose Bishan, a village in Anhui Province, the site for the social project intended to provide a prototype of rural life revival. He founded the Bishan Commune along with Zuo Jin, an artist, and a team of other like-minded friends. The core of the project was School of Tillers.

The building now housing the school was a cowshed converted from a local clan’s ancestral hall before Ou Ning purchased it in 2014. He personally redesigned the derelict temple and divided it into variously functioning sections, including a small library, an art gallery, a tea chamber, a café, along with a convenient store in the courtyard where farmers could sell their products. He was also responsible for arranging residences for visiting researchers with the villagers’ families.

This is not what the locals would expect to see in their neighborhood, despite many vernacular elements used here and there. Most of them might not have seen an expresso machine in their lifetime, but unfamiliarity didn’t stop them, especially the younger who had become accustomed to spending hours inside the school with portable devices, benefiting from the free wifi, or browsing the books and magazines prepared for them.

The Bishan Bookstore is situated nearby for those who really want to read. It is an outpost of the book chain business named Librairie Avant-Garde. The store is similarly remodeled from an old timber-structured building, in which a steep flight of stairs leads to a reading room on the upper floor. This space at once serves as a tearoom and sightseeing platform. More eye-striking than an expresso machine were the bookshelves standing against every wall, on which most titles were in English.

Bishan lies in the midst of a region traditionally called Huizhou. This area, regarded as backwater since the New China was established, became a tourist attraction in the 1990s, famous for its stylish traditional architecture. The white-walled houses, whose crow step-gables topped with dark gray tiles, are a legacy from the late antiquity. The region’s reputation has gone viral since Ang Lee chose it as the setting of his Academy Award-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Ou Ning and I had a simple meal on the campus of Aspen Institute. By our table was Sun Yunfan, a New York-based young artist. She would later travel to Bishan with her colleague Leah Thompson, to make a documentary titled 'Down to the Countryside'.

Her ambition was to capture a glimpse of the new episode in Chinese history, a moment when urban inhabitants exceeded half of the nation’s population and the urbanisation movement has started revealing its own consequences. Her camera shows you around a village where hardly see anyone of working age is visible. Instead, those who remain in the villages are the elderly, looking after their grandchildren whose parents are working away in the cities. They support the old and their young by sending money home, besides paying to build new houses.

The recent boom of China has now brought more than one generation of labour force to large cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, whose economies are closer connected to the global market. The new urban dwellers come back only before the lunar calendar of New Year, and return to where they work and live as soon as the holiday season is over. It's likely that the influence of pop culture equally contributes to their reluctance to resettle down in their rural homes. For many of them, their agrarian heritage is a synonym of poverty in China and an incomplete citizenship that they are more than eager to leave behind.

For Ou Ning, the project seemed quixotic from the very beginning. He tried to bring in new jobs to this much depopulated community in order to recover its socio-cultural vitality. Yet this created an artificial economy, based on tourism attractions rather than fundamental economical growth in the community. 

Besides the aforementioned ancestral halls, the only other building in the village that carries some traces of age is the Old Oil Factory. Sesame seeds used to be pressed there to produce cooking oil. A Shanghai couple purchased the place and revamped it into a boutique hotel that embraces not only guest quarters but a library and meditation rooms. Slogans from the Maoist era remain on the walls, along with wood plates painted with the names of local governments that have long ceased functioning, such as the Sino-Soviet Friendship Society and the Cultural Revolution Commanders Office. It also has its own organic farm.

A milieu as chic as such can by no means appeal to budget travelers, and therefore invites suspicion of gentrification. The project, and Ou Ning himself, fell prey to criticism. More interestingly, negative comments tended to come from Western university scholars. Othering and romanticising were terms frequently heard in regards to his approach. Ou Ning felt misjudged and became disheartened. When I ask him the same questions, he waved them off, explaining that the boutique hotel was not a part of the Bishan Project.

“The hotel was already there before the Project”, Ou Ning argued. “I told the villagers how to manage their own AirBnB business.” As one of the earliest critics who had introduced the concept of gentrification to the Chinese public, Ou Ning thought many accusations against him were textbookish at best, if not completely of poetic un-justice. “I’m fighting against it and not trying to make Bishan a resort for the nouveaux riches.”

Bishan is mired in an issue that differs from many typical case of gentrification, such as Venice, Brooklyn or some ancient towns in southern China, where tides of rich newcomers drive up living costs and where the skyrocketing market prices out many locals. Bishan was never on the map of tourism and most young people had already left before the capital invaded its geography.

On a recent trip to Huizhou, I met Amy Liu, a young landscape architect researching for a proposed programme of rehousing a community near Shanghai, which had already been the subject of her master thesis at the University of Melbourne. The chosen site was an ancient township built on a canal historically known for aqua farming and pastoral scenery. Its population had suffered a hemorrhage since higher paid jobs loomed elsewhere.

The officials in charge of the town planned to re-schematise the whole place as a tourist destination. Liu noticed that there were already a dozen theme park towns in that area, competing for the already thinning resource of tourism. She redesigned the deserted fish ponds, grain houses, and underutilised docks as new-tech fish farming labs to help upgrade what traditionally retained employment. She told me that the Bishan Project ignited her interests in rural China.

When I went to visit Bishan Ou Ning was not in the village. A one-year visiting programme of Columbia University later saved Ou Ning from becoming entangled in further clashes with the government, after it had cut off water and electricity supplies to his house, lest politically inconvenient activities take place. In turn, he became occupied with evangelising his Kropotkinian ideas abroad. His absence allowed me to hang around aimlessly. When I passed his house, an old building with several air-conditioners hanging on the walls, it was dark inside. Since his absence, the School of Tillers has been closed. Only Bishan Bookstore still had some visitors. They climbed upstairs to the reading room but soon left after taking a few selfies in front of the shelves filled with foreign language books.

Today Ou Ning is more talked about in Beijing. The comments he received there are mixed, too. Some insiders say that he is more of a businessman than a thinker. None of his projects proved financially profitable, though, including the bilingual literary magazine, Chutzpah, in which some works appeared in English. Two years after initially going to prin, the bimonthly periodical also suspended its publication. 

Fundraising might be the better word to define the nature of his public arena. But Ou Ning is hardly loved by the money-men, either, according to a journalist I met in Beijing. The journalist explained that the investors were cool-hunters when it came to the money they handed out as admission to join a world of celebrities associated with their investments. “Ou Ning is always on a high horse and never gives them the ticket to get in. So they quit.”

Article written by:
Li Dawei
Embed from Getty Images
“The nostalgia is not about your absence from home, physically or psychologically,” he said. “It’s more of a cultural thing.”
Embed from Getty Images
According to his research, many people that have already found footholds in the cities wish to retire in the countryside. The obstacle they confront, however, is the household system carried out after the communists took over the country.
Embed from Getty Images
“I told the villagers how to manage their own AirBnB business.”
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