At the same time China is rapidly urbanizing, a new documentary explores how some former city-dwellers are trying to revitalize the countryside.
Roughly 300 villages disappear from China each day. The economic might of China's urban centers has decimated the country's agrarian communities in recent decades. According to Tianjin University, 1.1 million villages evaporated between 2000 and 2010. Many of them are casualties of an increasingly polarized society—where young, modern Chinese occupy sprawling cities, which eventually swallow eroding villages inhabited by older generations.
Yet not all Chinese are enthused by the country's seemingly unchecked path toward urbanization. A newly released short documentary, Down to the Countryside, profiles a growing social movement in which urban residents return to fading villages. The film follows Ou Ning, an artist formerly based in Beijing who has relocated to Bishan, a rural community in eastern China. Ou Ning's story speaks to the revelation among certain Chinese that the nation's urban development has become unsustainable. As an urban intellectual, Ning previously lived the perceived dream of modern China—yet he voluntarily abandoned it. Now, he and others dedicate their time to revitalizing the Bishan community, working to save the village from social and economic collapse.
Sun Yunfan and Leah Thompson co-directed Down to the Countryside, which was published by ChinaFile. The project also received support from the Pulitzer Center. Watch it below, and read CityLab's Q&A with the directors, in which they discuss the film, China's "back to the land" movements, and the glaring urban-rural divide afflicting the world's most populous country:
The narrator highlights in the opening scene that China became a predominately urban society in 2011. And the U.N estimates that an additional 300 million rural Chinese will relocate to urban centers by 2050. Given that so much of China’s future will take place in cities, why did the two of you decide to document China’s “back to the countryside” movement?
Sun Yunfan: I think the main reason is [Leah and I] really believed that “going back to the land,” or taking control of China’s rapid urbanization, is the next chapter of China’s development. I was reading this article on CityLab about the gentrification of New York City in the 19th century, and that really reminds me a lot of what’s happening in China today.
How so? Can you explain a little further how gentrification in China is unfolding?
Sun: People really want to become wealthy and a high-cultured nation in China right now. So the dominant ideology for everyone, not just in the cities but in the rural side, too, is to urbanize and commercialize. And get rid of the “dirty work” of agriculture and hide all the farmers. Nobody wants to be associated with agricultural lifestyle anymore. But I think at some point, which we can support with the history of all industrialized nations, that there will be a comeback when people start to appreciate their rural traditions. And I think this project in Bishan is the start of that.
Leah Thompson: When I first went to this village I was immediately struck by meeting people in the region who did feel left behind. You have a sense that people who haven’t been able to move to the cities feel like a failure. The disconnect between rural life and urban life is just so dramatic. But meeting Ou Ning and seeing what he’s doing [with Bishan’s revival], it really felt like this was the start of another movement to revalue rural life.
What is pulling urban residents like Ou Ning to leave the city for the countryside?
Thompson: I’ve been thinking about this. Is it about tradition or about reviving a more sustainable way of life? I feel it’s more about promoting a sustainable way of living.
In the cities there’s so much air pollution, there’s food-safety issues, growing inequality, and I think for these people that are taking part in what we’re calling the “back to the land" movement—we really see it as more of a global movement—they would call it being part of this new rural reconstruction. I think [the movement supporters] hope that what they’re doing can help solve some of these issues.
What’s the stronger influence for "back to the land" supporters like Ou Ning? A rejection of what urban China has become? Or a desire to preserve traditional lifestyles?
Thompson: I’m rejecting the term “tradition” here a little bit. I really think it’s less about preserving and maybe more about reviving tradition because [tradition] is not really there.
It is definitely a rejection of aspects of urbanization, but also what Ou Ning really wants to do is bring some of the aspects of city life to rural areas. So it’s not a total rejection [of urbanity] as much as it is trying to create a more equitable interaction between rural and urban.
A scholar recently told me that China’s “so called countryside” doesn’t truly exist in the historic sense. Cities are sprawling so rapidly that they’re gobbling up villages. What type of challenge does that pose for rural revitalization efforts, like the one profiled in your film?
Sun: That is definitely a possibility because Bishan village is less than two miles away from the county town, which is kind of like an urban center. And as the county town expands, if Bishan village doesn’t have anything unique to guarantee its existence — like cities and towns, or UNESCO tourist villages have —than very soon [Bishan] will be part of the county town.
Thompson: But if Bishan establishes itself too much as a tourist site, it creates a counter problem, which means it will become kind of frozen in time as opposed to a living village. This is the balance that they’re trying to reach.
What are the social dynamics like in rural Chinese villages like Bishan, where much of the working age population has fled for cities? I was struck by one elderly woman in the film who says, “Only the children and elderly are staying at home these days.”
Thompson: We just definitely noticed that the majority of people of working age are not in the village. It is grandparents and grandchildren. And if the migrant workers are successful in the towns and cities, it’s their goal as quickly as possible to bring their children with them. So it ends up being a lot of old people [staying in the village].
We were also there for Spring Festival [Chinese New Year], and that’s when all the migrant workers return home, and Bishan was a totally different place. It went from being a place that normally has two cars parked in it to a place full of cars. [There were] people in their twenties, thirties, and forties, all the kids had new toys that their parents had brought them, and everyone was so happy to see each other. But that's definitely not the dynamic on a daily basis.
I’ve been told there’s a growing trend among city-based artists to spend more time in China’s countryside, which have become popular vacation destinations for intellectuals. An artist himself, Ou Ning made a permanent move to the rural areas. Do you have an idea of the size and scale of the "back to the land" movement more broadly?
Thompson: Along with the video, we released a map [pinpointing rural revitalization efforts]. It was about 50 different efforts across China. They’re not all the same but they have similar qualities to them. And that map, I think, was produced by Zuo Jing, who was Ou Ning’s partner on the [Bishan] project in 2013. Since then, Ou Ning has said he thinks there is about 200 of these efforts going on around China, so we’re actually crowdsourcing different projects from people so the map is more up to date.
But this definitely does seem to be a trend among the artist and intellectual crowd in China. I really do think it’s somewhat of an emerging "back to the land" movement in China.
Urbanization is a major part of China's development plans. Has there been any indication whether the Chinese regime is supportive of a "back to the land" movement, or whether they plan to oppress it?
Sun: I think the government, on the one hand, is supportive of this concept of promoting traditional culture, which can be manipulated into building a “Chinese Dream,” or identity. On the other hand, the government is very afraid of losing control and stability. So Ou Ning’s commune project wants more autonomy in how to organize their community, their living space, their lifestyle, which the government doesn’t really want to relax.
Thompson: And I think there’s also a disconnect between the central government, that does want to encourage urbanization, and the local government, that is very supportive of economic development efforts in the rural areas.