Pastoral Dreams: Bishan Village, Anhui, China

Tom Cliff

Chinese artist Ou Ning has a vision that runs perpendicular to the lodestar of the current Chinese leadership, the Chinese Dream. Or at least perpendicular to how the Chinese Dream is being presented and pursued in present-day China.

 Urbanisation and the Chinese Dream

State media declares that ‘The “Chinese dream,” put forth by Chinese President Xi Jinping, is to build a moderately prosperous society and realize national rejuvenation’ (Chinadaily.com.cn).  National rejuvenation is a long-running project that relates directly to the widely-held feeling that, beginning with the Opium Wars, China suffered at least “100 years of humiliation” at the hands of Western and Westernised powers. A moderately prosperous society is seen to depend on the continuation of rapid growth. Xi Jinping’s second-in-command, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, is pushing accelerated urbanisation as the core of a strategy to stimulate domestic demand and begin to shift China’s economy from the current export-oriented model to one driven increasingly by domestic consumption. Urbanisation has moved from third to first place in the rankings of development priorities at the national, right down to the county level.  Massive population relocations are underway, with about 21 million people per year to be moved from their rural homes to cities and periurban townships over the next 10 years. An official in charge of moving 2.4 million people from rural mountainous areas to newly-built townships on the flat lands in Shaanxi province said: “An objective role in the process of modernisation is we have to complete the process of urbanisation and industrialisation” (Johnson, New York Times, July 15, 2013).

In his own words: counter-urbanisation and the pastoral dream

Ou Ning advocates “counter-urbanisation” (ni chengshihua 逆城市化) as an alternative modernity – a modernity that is both more sustainable and more socially just.

The question that has existed since the Opium War is: How to make this country modern? And the most difficult aspect of modernisation is to modernise the rural areas … This question has existed for over 100 years, and many people have put a lot of effort into thinking about it and acting on it – some have been reformers, and others have been violent revolutionaries; all sorts of different approaches have been tried. But, up until today, China is not really a modern country.

Now, to today, many new problems have arisen. These new problems are due to the fact that China desires modernity… The 1980s reform and economic growth desired and depended on urbanisation… And that continues to today. The recent statement from the government about the need for urbanisation is an approach to this problem: how to push rural people and rural land into a process of modernity?

Both rural urbanisation and urban renewal involve redistribution of social resources[1] [through processes like] land dispossession, and demolition and relocation… And the reactions of society to these incursions, including rights protection and resistance, have brought this country to a very dangerous point. So if these contradictions are not managed appropriately, is possible that the country will fall apart…

The Central government’s starting point for urbanisation is very good: that is, to have rural people lead even better lives… But the capital cost of this project is very high. And employment for the new urban  dwellers remains a problem…

I asked Ou Ning: “What are you doing here, and what do you want to do?” He emphasised that he and his colleague Zuo Jing focus on history, culture and art in their project of Rural Reconstruction, then replied:

First, we want to move to the rural area for good, leave the city.… Behind this simple action is a very strong statement: you leave the city and go to the country because you recognise the value of the rural. And when you leave the city to come to the country, you are leaving behind a fairly secure income…

Other than that, we want to influence the values of the people in the country areas. This place has a rich historical and architectural heritage, but just about all of the people here believe that a successful person lives an urban life. Like most people in China, their standard of success is urban modernity. If you stay in the country, that means you are a failure. So we moved into these old houses, did them up and made them suitable for us to live in, and now they work as examples for the local village people to see and appreciate the beauty of this architecture. This is a part of our action.

It is difficult to get rural people to accept the value of the country before they even experience the city. In fact, we cannot ask them to critique the city at this stage because they haven’t experienced it . This project to change the perspective of rural people is a very very slow process.

Well-known examples of tourism-led rural economic development exist in the area, and trade on the cultural and architectural heritage of the region.  One of the elders of the largest family group in Bishan village, a Mr Wang, spoke admiringly and somewhat enviously of the income-generating opportunities afforded by service industries in the villages of Hongcun and Xidi. But Bishan’s architecture is not as well preserved, and it cannot compete on those terms. More importantly, Mr Wang says, rural areas lack talented people to lead the regeneration: “all of the youth and the energy has gone to find paid work elsewhere.”

Ou Ning also regards the lack of local talent as a serious impediment to the success of his Rural Reconstruction project. But he is at pains to point out that the fostering of local talent is but one of the aims of his project of Rural Reconstruction:

The core mission of Rural Reconstruction is to facilitate rural areas’ own talented people, own economic system, own way of governing, and own culture and history. These things are totally different in the city and in the country; there is no need to depend on the city to provide the models for these. I think that, regardless of whether you are talking about the Republican era (1911-1949) or contemporary Rural Reconstruction, this has been a core objective of the Rural Reconstruction movement (see here for background). But reaching this objective really is very difficult.

The movement must have a talented local person to work with, who can mobilise the local resources… If the movement lacks any local partner, then it is very difficult to operate successfully.

[Here in Bishan] we have also already considered this, but up to now we have not yet found an appropriate leader [from among the villagers].

A different way of governing

In the past, the Qing era for example, the national governmental system extended only to the county level, and everything below that was independent and self-governing (zili zizhi 自立自治).

This traditional governing structure at the locality level was an analogy of, and therefore used to depend heavily upon, the Confucian hierarchy of the large family groups in any given region. The decline of the family’s importance as a social and economic unit, hastened by out-migration to urban areas, has consequently eroded the possibility for a return to a similar mode of village-level self-governance. Ou Ning noted other positive aspects of large family groups, including labour exchange and mutual assistance, but his proposed mode of governance diverges significantly from  the rigid hierarchy of Confucianism. He advocates anarchy – not the negative and destructive ideology that anarchy came to be associated with in the post-war era, but rather the mutually respectful and mediation-based anarchy put forward by the likes of Peter Kropotkin at the turn of the 20th century (see here and here).

There is still some significant distance between the ideals and aims of the Bishan project and and the outcomes that are currently conceivable. I asked Ou Ning how he might go about operationalising anarchy in the Chinese countryside, to which he replied:

In China, this is extremely difficult to put into operation. The Chinese Communist Party extends its reach right down to the village level. Even a small natural village like this has a Party branch, and the government system extends down to the township… So the system of governing is the same throughout the country. After all these years, the structure is now extremely firm, and if you want to try out an anarchist experiment under those conditions then it really is difficult.

The most we can do is pass on some democratic principles – for example, if the villagers want to fix the road, they can all discuss the problem and suggest various approaches to it, and eventually decide on an approach, rather than a few village cadres making the decision without consultation.

The counter-urban dream has yet to be realised on any scale, but Ou Ning is one of a small group of people who are moving towards it in Bishan. Two questions which arise from scratching the surface of this self-conscious attempt at creating an alternative modernity are: “When does informal life politics exist?” and “Is intention sufficient?”


[1] chongxin fenpei shehui ziyuan重新分配社会资源