After four decades of rapid economic expansion, China’s cities are among the world’s biggest, most modern, and most developed. But the benefits of this urban boom have been slow to trickle out to the country’s vast rural hinterland, where hundreds of millions of Chinese face a choice between scraping by in their economically backward hometowns or trying to build a better life for themselves in the city.
The government is attempting to address the yawning rural-urban wealth gap and related migrant outflow through a variety of policies and programs, including poverty alleviation grants and renovating impoverished villages into tourism sites. I believe there’s another way. Over the past decade, I’ve helped locals in two disparate villages — one northern, one southern — to revitalize their homes through engagement with the arts.
Situated deep in northern Shanxi province’s Taihang Mountains, Xu Village is located 1,000 meters above sea level and its fields are at risk of frost for half the year. Agricultural productivity is low, and, as is the case in many other villages around China, most locals have long preferred to seek work elsewhere, leaving behind their elderly and young children as the village’s only permanent population.
Qu Yan introduces his work in Qingtian Village. By Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Qu Yan introduces his work in Qingtian Village. By Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
I first arrived in Xu Village in 2008 when I was surveying the area for a photographic study of rural rights, beliefs, and lifestyles. When my photos were published, Fan Naiwen — a Xu Village native and high-ranking official in the county seat of Heshun — asked me if I would be interested in turning some of the village’s old, dilapidated buildings into an art studio. Instead, after immersing myself in the village and gaining the trust of the villagers, I proposed a grander scheme: establishing an international arts festival and art commune.
The first biennial Heshun International Art Festival took place in 2011. Every two years, we invite 20 artists — 10 international and 10 domestic — to take part. Each festival attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Xu Village, and together with the commune, it boosts business for family-run guesthouses in the area and provides a sales outlet for local artisans.
An international artist talks to local children as part of an art project in Xu Village, Heshun County, Shanxi province, 2015. Courtesy of Qu Yan
More than that, it gives the village a link to the outside world. Artists from all over the globe now gather in the Shanxi mountains, bringing with them new knowledge, thoughts, and skills. It’s not a one-way street, however. Festival performances are a celebration of local culture. We restored the village temple to use as a public meeting ground and convinced local cadres that, if the village’s old architecture is destroyed, it will lose much of what makes it unique and attractive to outsiders. In truth, just the existence of the festival — and the crowds it draws — reminds locals that their hometown matters and that it’s worth preserving.
In December 2015, after word of Xu Village’s success began to spread, the Guangdong University of Technology in southern China invited me to take on a similar project in that province’s Qingtian Village. Conditions in rural areas in northern and southern China are quite different, however, and I had to adjust my model accordingly. In the north, the villagers require a secure source of livelihood above all else. Villages in the south are comparatively better off, and residents care less about economic growth than they do social and cultural preservation.
My team and I spent a year researching Qingtian before identifying nine key cultural elements to be preserved and revitalized, including village customs, ancestral trees, local production techniques, and village deities. We brought back traditional holiday rituals like dragon boat races, propagated traditional production techniques for cultivating silk and mulberries, and built a statue to the wealth and war god Guan Yu.
What I’ve learned from my experiences in Xu and Qingtian villages is that, although artists must approach the work of rejuvenating a village differently than businesspeople or officials, that doesn’t mean we cannot be successful. In the absence of money or power, we can affect change through empathy and the rebuilding of emotional connections between villagers and their community.
Historically, the most valuable resource in Qingtian was water, which provided residents with everything from sustenance to transportation. But in recent years, the local water supply has become heavily polluted. As an artist, I lack the power to fix this problem directly, but my team and I were able to organize a four-part contemporary art project designed to remind locals of their historical ties to the water and raise awareness of the common need to protect the environment, reconnect with this heritage, and take pride in their village.
For something like this to work, artists must be able to play four roles. The first is to be a source of inspiration — not for villagers, but for local bureaucrats. Artists must be able to convince officials that their priorities — usually economic — can be served by investing in the arts.
The second role is that of a student. As an artist, I only have a limited understanding of village culture and how best to integrate myself. I’ve learned a lot from the people of Qingtian — what I can do, what I can’t, and how to show due respect. And from my time in Xu Village, I’ve learned that rural revitalization is a slow journey, even if the government or most people in the area want rapid development.
Artists and villagers prepare for a dragon boat race in Qingtian Village, Guangdong province, June 8, 2019. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Artists must also be mediators and coordinators between various entities, agencies, and organizations. In the two villages where I worked, I had to coordinate between villagers, the village committee, the local government, entrepreneurs, volunteers, scholars, artists, and academics.
Lastly, artists must be strategists capable of handling politics on a regular basis, while remaining firm on key principles. Burning bridges will only make it harder to finish the project.
For instance, for the 2013 Heshun International Art Festival, I chose the theme “Come Back, My Soul.” The focus was on rural traditions, but local officials believed the name suggested superstition and backwardness. That year, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s call to realize the “Chinese dream” was a key state priority, and officials insisted we rename the festival “Dreaming Back Xu Village”.
I chose to push back. I am not against the Chinese dream, but the underlying concept is a cultural import. The “soul” I was talking about was rooted in local ideas; it was a call to return to the soul of the Chinese people. I decided that I would never turn the event into a government-run festival — even if it increased funding — and in the end, they relented.
At present, the state and capital are jockeying for power in rural villages and markets, usually under the pretense of conservation. The majority of rural reconstruction methods are economy-driven, meant to serve the market above all else. My ultimate objective is different: to restore these villages’ dignity.
To the hundreds of millions of Chinese who were born in the countryside, their village isn’t just the place where they live or a site of value production — it’s a spiritual home. To protect these places is to give their inhabitants the chance to hold on to what makes them special. And that means restoring not just their houses, but their livelihoods, their customs, their traditions, and their faiths.
The goal of combining contemporary art and rural life should be to identify and solve problems. It’s not all superficial events or performances or making old things beautiful again. The artist has to mesh with and integrate into the village. Rural reconstruction through the arts is far from a smooth process. But if it works, you’ll be treated to the sight of a village slowly coming back to life.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Wu Huiyuan.
Translator: Katherine Tse, editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Qingtian Village at dusk, Guangdong province, June 7, 2019. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)