This June, my friend and I packed our bags and boarded an eight-hour high-speed train from Shanghai to Aranya, China’s booming tourism hotspot, to attend a local theater festival.
Located in the northern Chinese city of Qinhuangdao, two hours from Beijing and just a short distance from the beachside sanatorium frequented by China’s leaders, Aranya seems an unlikely hipster hangout. Its rising popularity over the past decade parallels the country’s “urban flight” movement, as overworked urbanites dream of rural simplicity. Since 2013, this once-failed real estate venture has transformed itself into a haven for overstressed city dwellers, a place where you can seek non-materialistic fulfillment in art exhibitions, music festivals, and landmark architectures like the “Lonely Library,” a brutalist monument surrounded by sand and surf.
Aranya Theater Festival is a testament to that strategy’s success. We arrived to find the town flooded with visitors, and ultimately chose to stay at an Airbnb outside the town’s gated walls rather than at one of its hotels, where rooms were 2,000 yuan ($310) per night.
A stage photo from the Aranya Theater Festival. From aranya.cc
The next day was perfect, arguably excessively so. Aranya is surrounded by a mix of classic North China farmland and construction sites, but step inside its gates and you’ll find yourself in a different world. On the pavement there wasn’t a single stray leaf — much less litter. Security staff were dressed sharply in white polo shirts and white caps, and our fellow visitors were engrossed in discussions about the plays and contemporary art exhibitions they’d just seen. You could hear the sounds of the ocean in the distance. It was all too poetic, too idyllic, too symphonic, too unreal.
It wouldn’t last. Before arriving at Aranya, we had heard people at the railway station talking about how they could smuggle themselves into Aranya by “jumping over the wall.” We figured they were joking, but on the second day of the festival our cab was stopped at Aranya’s gates. Some of our friends didn’t have tickets for the day’s shows, and the security manager wanted to know whether we owned property inside Aranya. No tickets, no entry: There would be no compromise.
I was surprised. Why did we need to go through all this trouble to enter a place hosting a public cultural event? But I soon realized Aranya, despite its pretensions to being a cultural utopia, was never a truly public space. Inside, we were stopped in front of cafeterias and told they only serve property owners and hotel guests. At the restaurants that did accept outside customers, there were separate “property owner” dining rooms, and waiters asked to check our paper tickets to make sure we were in the right place. Later, we learned that many of these restaurants were operated by Aranya’s property owners.
A cardboard cut-out of the writer Lu Xun on display in Aranya, Hebei province, June 2021. Courtesy of Coral Yang
As a mere theater festival patron, I was apparently frowned upon. At its heart, Aranya is a real estate venture, and its arts and cultural events are not about serving the public. Rather, they’re a way to reinforce property owners’ feelings of entitlement as keyholders to “paradise.”
From the very beginning, Aranya was not a traditional real-estate project. By the time Ma Yin, the founder of Aranya, took over development in 2013, the Chinese government was already starting to crack down on the real estate bubble. With the traditional strategy of tossing up luxury buildings and selling them off no longer operable, Ma turned his sights to the country’s growing population of well-educated, middle and upper-middle-class urbanites, many of whom desperately wanted an escape from the stresses of metropolitan life and were hungry for a way to mark themselves as unique, cultured individuals.
A key selling point of Aranya — emphasized over and over by the development’s branding team — was the chance to build a self-governing utopian community with others who shared similar values. The community’s website touts the fact that the name “Aranya” derives from Sanskrit and means a “quiet, secluded place where you can recover your true self.”
In early 2015, not long after Aranya brought in its first group of residents, it announced the “Aranya Owner’s Pact.” The pact functions as a sort of informal constitution among owners, or, as they would put it, “community members.” It includes calls to construct a “cultural, emotional and spiritual community,” foster mutual assistance, communicate with courtesy, and avoid any behaviors that could “harm the community.”
Unlike so much else in Aranya, the pact was not initiated by the community’s developers, but the owners themselves. Life in a close-knit community where members are committed to a common ideal of life sounds appealing. The problem: It’s not particularly profitable and Aranya is still ultimately a place to be consumed. The fantasies of utopian life and tastes are only available to those with money to pay. The spiritual activities Aranya likes to market — art, literature, theater, meditation practice — have over the years been transformed into viral spectacles for online consumption.
Take the lonely library, for example. Its location is hardly practical, but that’s not the point. In videos targeting young middle-class Chinese on popular lifestyle platforms, the seaside library is marketed as “the loneliest library in China.” Together with other eye-catching works of architecture like Aranya’s community hall, these buildings are frequently referred to as the town’s “spiritual landmarks.” More to the point, they made Aranya a popular sightseeing spot and helped attract numerous bourgeois brands like Club Med to the area.
A GIF shows the Lonely Library. From aranya.cc
These architectural monuments not only signify Aranya’s aesthetics and spiritual aspirations to “outsiders,” but they also reinforce a sense of belonging and ownership among its members. They, and the stream of visitors they bring, offer confirmation that Aranya residents’ choice of community was the right one, while giving them the thrill of power: the right to choose who deserves entry into their paradise. From a self-governing utopia, Aranya has become an exclusive residential community that’s eager to build fences and defend its privileged lifestyle. The fences surrounding the community filter out the “vulgarity” of life outside Aranya’s walls, both literally and figuratively.
They also run the risk of locking out many of the dynamic and avant-garde ideas that Aranya ostensibly claims to value. Life there is stagnant in the way that gentry life — and Aranya residents are a modern-day gentry class — tends to be, marked by self-selection and deliberate gatekeeping. Stripped of any connection to reality, the cultural products Aranya allows in suffer the same fate.
Lost in all this is the fate of the area’s previous residents. Locals are not only denied access to the complex, they are treated as outsiders to its entire value system — at least until they learn to adapt. In an interview last December, Aranya’s developer, Ma Yin, noted that most employees in the community are young people from the surrounding county, and that “as they spend more time in Aranya, their countenance and temperament have grown into this place.”
By presupposing locals are unfit for life in Aranya, or somehow beneath the target crowd, the community positions itself as a kind of missionary organization, a beacon of “culture” in a benighted land. Rather than seeking to grow into the locality, residents arrogantly expect the locality to change to suit their preferences.
I left Aranya sure I would never come back. I prefer reality to life in a bubble, in part because the rawness of life is what breeds art. That’s the one thing Aranya’s fenced-in bourgeoisie paradise can’t sell.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell, portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Tourists sit near the community hall in Aranya, Hebei province, June 13, 2021. Guo Yanbing/Beijing News/IC)