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China’s shift from urban development to rural reconstruction

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Source of both peasant revolution and cultural continuity, the countryside has long held a place in Chinese mythology

Exactly 50 years ago, in the midst of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong launched his famous Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside movement. Intellectuals and students were forcibly removed to remote farms and peasant villages to learn the simplicity and integrity of rural poverty. 

A few years earlier, Mao had initially mobilised students to smash the old ways of thinking, but things quickly got out of hand. By 1968, armed student militants battled with soldiers, tortured teachers and were challenging the central authority of the party. Mao’s answer was to expel them. Almost at a stroke, 17 million young people were exiled. It resulted in a lost generation. Their tragic story is beautifully told in Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

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Posters such as this by Du Jiang, entitled ‘Build a Prosperous and Cultured New Socialist Countryside’, promoted a rural existence. Image courtesy of Stefan R Landsberger Collection/International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam)

The countryside has long held a place, albeit a contradictory place, in Chinese mythology as a source of peasant revolution and of cultural continuity. For the last two decades, it has been marginalised while policymakers concentrated on urbanisation. However, as the tensions and paradoxes of modern urban life – pollution, stress, house prices, and so on – become more explicitly contentious, once again the countryside is being heralded as a place of virtuous national values.

‘As the tensions and paradoxes of modern urban life become more explicitly contentious, once again the countryside is being heralded as a place of virtuous national values’

Within the last few years, there has been a policy shift from urban development to rural reconstruction; from new cities to countryside. It is a way of promoting various traditional peasant ‘ways of life’ to provide fresh ideas for the cultural elite. The China Pavilion at 2016’s Venice Biennale, designed by Liang Jingyu of Approach Architecture Studio, was called ‘Back to the Ignored Front’, exploring designs ‘that embody traditions of the past and have a lasting presence’. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Wang Shu claims that ‘to live in the countryside with nature has always been an important theme in Chinese culture … regarded as cultural seeds, a source of intellectuals for the larger cities’. 

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Li Chao carries wood for his stove in the rural village of Chashan, China. Photograph courtesy of Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times/Eyevine

It seems to be catching on. Next year, Rem Koolhaas will open an exhibition about the future of the countryside in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, working-titled Countryside: Future of the World

In China, there are clearly important infrastructural improvements needed in the rural heartlands, as was amply displayed by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Post-Earthquake Reconstruction Project in Guangming Village; a project that won the WAF World Building of the Year Award last year. Similarly, the architectural collective Rural Urban Framework (RUF) regularly attempts to redress the problems wrought by large-scale rural-to-urban migration in China. RUF claims to ‘resist the overwhelming process of urbanisation’. Their Angdong Health Centre in Hunan Province, for example, aims to promote community-building in villages that have been drained of their working-age population. 

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Rural Urban Framework’s Lingzidi Bridge in Shangzhou (2012) has become a social hub for the village. Photograph courtesy of Rural Urban Framework

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Rural Urban Framework’s Lingzidi Bridge is constructed from cast-concrete dyed with black pigment. Photograph courtesy of Rural Urban Framework

With the recent launch of the Chinese government’s National Strategic Plan for Rural Vitalisation which seeks to modernise farming communities and infrastructure by 2022, there is a lot of money sloshing about. While world-famous international practices continue to win high-profile architectural projects in urban areas, emerging Chinese architects are happy to learn their trade in the villages. For many, they are discovering their rural roots. 

The shift from urban to rural is the new, big idea. It is what China commentator, Wu Fulong, calls a ‘conceptual shift from urban-orientated development’. Urbanisation is still happening, of course, but the Communist Party knows that even if they manage to reach their target of 75 per cent of the population living in urban areas by 2025, there will always be a rural population that needs to be catered for. In other words, by hook or by crook, a large proportion of the population will need to be kept on the land and so the government will continue to control migration through its internal passport system (the hukou) to restrict urban in-migration. Undoubtedly, it will also continue to use forced evictions from urban areas back to the countryside. Finally – the carrot – it will improve rural areas so that people will not want to leave the countryside. 

‘”To live in the countryside with nature has always been an important theme in Chinese culture … regarded as cultural seeds, a source of intellectuals for the larger cities”’

A New Socialist Countryside Movement started in 2004 but was only formalised into a clear development strategy in 2011 when the rural reconstruction bandwagon began supported, of course, by the state. That same year, 2011, one of the first examples of countryside regeneration, Li Xiaodong’s Liyuan community library opened to global fanfare. A leading advocate of rural reconstruction, Wen Tiejun claimed that the movement represented a campaign against ‘vulgar growth’ and ‘blind advocacy of consumerism’. Ironically, last year Li’s library was closed while the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications seized hundreds of donated books. It just goes to show that vulgar growth is everywhere.

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Chen Haoru’s Lin’An Village Bamboo Ecofarm project featured in the 2014 Venice Biennale. Photograph by Lv Hengzhong

It was in 2011, too, that the Chinese Society for Urban Studies created the first checklist of eco-city credentials and the Chinese government instituted the Village Beautiful movement – a subset of the Beautiful China project. The Village Beautiful initiative has a threefold objective. One is to improve the decrepit infrastructure and conditions of villages (to demonstrate that agricultural land and rural farmers are held in high regard in Chinese society). Second, upgrading villages is a way of stimulating the domestic consumer economy through investment and tourism. Third, it is a humane intervention because significant numbers of people in rural China live in utterly appalling conditions. 

So nowadays, we find some of the most talked about architects in China are no longer the flamboyant parametricists or the mega-city masterplanners of old. The era of weird architecture is over. Instead, architect Chen Haoru is feted for his pig barn; Arch Studio have designed an Organic Farm project in Tangshan. Then there is He Wei’s Shangping Village Regeneration, Zhou Ling’s local shop in Huashu Village, Wang Lu’s Village School in Maopingcun in rural Hunan, and Atelier Y’s Jixian kindergarten in remote Ya’an. Of course, there is also Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu’s never-ending renovation of Wencun village in Fuyang.

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Shangping Village – refurbished houses by He Wei Studio and 3andwich Design have pristine timber, chunky details and local stone plinths. Photograph courtesy of 3andwich Design/He Wei Studio

All of these are bringing something back to neglected areas of China’s distant territories. Many architects – and their host communities – are rediscovering traditional techniques, such as bamboo and timber jointing, brick construction, as well as localised manufacture, and using natural materials and local labour. It is hardly surprising that Kenneth Frampton’s Towards a Critical Regionalism is the book de nos jours in Chinese university libraries. Professor Wang Lu’s vernacular architecture course at Tsinghua University that advocates ‘low, simple methods’ is heavily subscribed. 

‘Unlike Mao’s forced rustication of intellectuals to learn from the villages, the new Down to the Countryside movement features urban intellectuals volunteering to tell the peasantry about how bad cities are’

The new generation is also getting inspired by rurality – as opposed to the urban condition. Field Architecture Office (FAO), a practice run by female architect Wang Wei that has been practising since 2015, specialises in rural reconstruction and local village development. Her buildings are not a simple replay of urban forms in a rural context but are appropriate to these complex non-urban environments. In my forthcoming book 20 Chinese Architects, she says that she is trying to create ‘not only an architecture that belongs to the country, but an architecture that belongs to this country’.

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Wang Wei’s Village Landmark, Bai-ma, Sichuan Province, is an entrance at the edge of the boundary between two villages. Wei terms it ‘an opening framed by two pieces of wall, its function is not only the spiritual landmark of the village, but also a gathering place and a lookout over the village scenery’

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One of Wang Wei’s many village regeneration projects. Photograph by Ashima, courtesy of the architect

A central figure in the rural reconstruction movement is Cui Kai, reputedly with so much work that he has drafted in other, younger architects to assist the project (Wang Wei has been co-opted, for example). His farm reconstruction project in Xibang Village, by Yangcheng Lake, was completed last year. In the birthplace of Kunqu culture, his proposal restores the farm with a Kunqu opera pavilion integrated in the design, playing to external guests across the water or facing inwards to a secluded audience. As is often the way, the idea is to drive the revival of this countryside region: not only through tourist dollars but also bringing back a sense of pride in their locality. 

These plentiful attempts at rural renewal are much less well known outside China than Ou Ning’s exploits. Ou is an activist who seized on the early government policy swerve towards rural reconciliation to found the  Bishan  Commune and School of Tillers in 2011 in Huizhou. It is run as an alternative cultural enterprise that encourages locals to trade on their skills, creating a small village industry network projected to earn enough to subsidise rural penury. It is a retreat where urbanites go to get fresh air and meet the labouring classes. 

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Bishan Harvestival in China’s Anhui Province (2012) encouraged locals to trade on their skills and reverse the rural decline. Photograph by Sun Yunfan

But by 2016, Bishan was floundering. Ou says: ‘Although rural reconstruction needs financing, corporate and government funds would undermine the movement’s independence while funding from the general public is inadequate at this time and will not be a viable source of financing without persistent effort’. The biggest tension is that, while urban visitors came for a romantic mini-retreat in rural simplicity, the locals sought infrastructural improvements, progress and real jobs.

Artist Qu Yan states that ‘the core of rural development is restoring the respect of villagers for their forebears’. In reality, going down to the countryside to learn from the simplicity and integrity of rural poverty is not something that the rural poor want to indulge any more. 

‘Nowadays, we find some of the most talked about architects in China are no longer the flamboyant parametricists or the mega-city masterplanners of old’

Unlike Mao’s forced rustication of intellectuals to learn from the villages, the new Down to the Countryside movement features urban intellectuals volunteering to tell the peasantry about how bad cities are. The Bishan Project is one rural regeneration scheme that has turned out to be unsustainable. Sadly, in some ways, those who haven’t yet made the escape to the city may have left it too late, as more and more pressure is being exerted to keep them where they are.

Farm reconstruction project in Xibang Village by Cui Kai, 2017

With the designation ‘Chinese master architect’, Cui Kai, a leading light in China’s countryside movement, is well-respected for his large-scale urban projects as well as his return to more traditional architecture, low-key countryside renewal. This project is near Yangcheng Lake, the birthplace of Kunqu culture. Four old houses were repaired and the courtyard edged with bamboo and chrysanthemum. A new veranda overlooking the water provides a stage for public performances or for quiet Kunqu study.

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The new veranda overlooking the water provides a stage for public performances or for quiet Kunqu study

Jixian kindergarten in Ya’an by Atelier Y, 2017

Atelier Y’s Jixian kindergarten in Ya’an is a response to the Lushan earthquake of 2013 in which 186 people lost their lives. This renewal project celebrates new young lives, in playful primary colours and clean pristine white. The link corridor provides four-storey access to the projecting classroom boxes, terraces and roof gardens – looking down over the active pasture and farmland below.  The ground floor ‘street’ provides a protected internal public space and stairs lead from the upper floors directly to the playground.

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The Jixian kindergarten celebrates new young lives, in playful primary colours and clean pristine white. Image courtesy of SouthArch.Liky

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Shop in Huashu Village, Nanjing, by Atelier Zhou Ling, 2015

The Country Shop in Huashu Village, Nanjing, designed by emerging practice Atelier Zhou Ling, is a play on the historic village pavilion of this region. Buildings such as this signified entry into the village: a landmark, a resting place, a community meeting point, and were often funded by locals as an expression of the pride in their village. Zhou used local materials, proportions and construction practices to create a covered market providing a public square for villagers and tourists buying and selling goods.

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Local materials, proportions and construction practices create a covered market that provides a public square for villagers and tourists buying and selling goods

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Organic Farm in Tangshan by Arch Studio, 2016

There are echoes of the famous Wang family Qing Dynasty compound in Pingyao, in this 1,700m2 organic farm in Tangshan. A mini-village, the project uses a combination of external lanes and central courtyards to create a modern interpretation of a historic cultural form. The timber structure and traditional roofscape is combined with translucent PVC walls bringing light deep into the building. The expanse of hardstanding around the building is an industrial-scale version of local village spaces for sun-drying grain.

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A mini-village, the project uses a combination of external lanes and central courtyards to create a modern interpretation of a historic cultural form. Image courtesy of Jin Wei-Qi

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Lead image: China’s educated youth reclaim wasteland in Jilin Province, 1968. Photograph courtesy of VCG/Getty

This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Rethinking the rural – click here to purchase a copy

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