A tale of two rivers: lifelines of a rising city and a rolling countryside
In a scene of eternal stillness unruffled by urban hustle and bustle, a vast strawberry field, a wild forest and muddy, puddled roads lie adjacent to a big river dubbed the upper reach of Suzhou Creek.
It was early in the morning of a sunny day last week when I chanced upon this pristine place on the southern bank of the ancient Wusong River, which flows from Taihu Lake in the west to Shanghai in the east. Its lower reach that runs through the city center was conveniently called Suzhou Creek, first by some foreigners who came to Shanghai in the 19th century as they found the river could carry them all the way west to Suzhou, a prosperous city on Taihu Lake.
I used to walk quite often along Suzhou Creek, especially after its 42-kilometer riverside pedestrian paths were connected around the end of last year. I would immerse myself in Shanghai's industrial and commercial history so well preserved in the now defunct factories, mills or trade halls that have been converted into art spaces or wetland parks along the creek.
I did not know, then, how different a world it could be at the upper reach of the creek, which is still called Wusong River.
Could it be a remote replica of the Suzhou Creek area, surrounded by similar modern amenities but probably less populated? Or could it be a cluster of factories belching smoke and polluting the river, as was the case with the creek area in its early stage of industrialization and urbanization? I had no idea. I asked friends and did online research, but got no ideal answer.
I decided to go and see for myself last week after I learned about the latest municipal masterplan to build an ecological corridor in the Wusong River valley in the near future. I had no specific itinerary in mind, because the masterplan has yet to give more details. I just wanted to walk as close to the river as possible.
As I threaded through the unguarded strawberry field at about 6:30am, I found it had been newly plowed, ready for sowing the seeds of this season's varieties. Usually a harvest comes in November. A couple of middle-aged women were collecting some other fruits, hardly stirred by the visit of a stranger. They spotted me as soon as I entered the field through the half-open main gate, but winked at my random walk without a word.
Cutting across the strawberry field, I found myself in the deep of a thick forest that grows wildly along Wusong River. Rain in the previous few days had puddled the path in the forest and there was no evidence of much foot traffic. It seemed a world unto itself, barely touched by the tentacles of outsiders.
I tiptoed along to avoid stepping into the puddles. As I trudged ahead, I realized that the forest was a natural northern boundary of the strawberry field. Piercing through the dense trees and groves that stand in the way of access to the river's embankment, I discovered, to my surprise, a formidable city with rows upon rows of high-rise residential buildings flanking the northern bank of the river like huge walls. It's the city of Kunshan, which belongs to neighboring Jiangsu Province.
"What are you coming here for?" asked a middle-aged man in amusement. We ran into each other as I sashayed out of the strawberry field at about 7:30am.
"Just having a look," I quipped. "You manage the field?"
He nodded, pointing to a signboard showing his family name and contact information. The day was so hot that he was beginning to sweat even at such an early hour. He unbuttoned his black shirt and used a corner of it to wipe beads of sweat from his face and neck. I found myself perspiring, too, from my field research.
"No strawberries now, but you can have a taste of our locally grown kiwi fruits," he said, grinning. "They taste good and are cheaper than imported ones."
Before I could answer, he turned on his heels and dashed into a thatched warehouse outside the gate of the strawberry field. "Try this," he said, handing me a kiwi fruit.
"Thank you, but I'll take it home and let my wife taste it," I replied in gratitude. "She is a food connoisseur."
"Well, in that case, I'll give you more – all for free," he said, turning a deaf ear to my plea for no more. In a few seconds, he swirled back with a big bag of kiwi fruits and pushed it into my hands. "Enjoy, pal," he smiled. "Don't pay me."
I counted and found about 20 fresh kiwi fruits in my bag. I thanked him again for his generosity. He told me he had contracted 300 mu (20 hectares) of farmland from Wuli Village to cultivate strawberries. Outside the strawberry field he has got an additional piece of land to grow local kiwi fruits.
"I own an agricultural cooperative and my clients include some leading supermarkets and convenience shops in downtown Shanghai," he said. "Agriculture is in my blood, I love it."
Now I saw in him – a farmer-turned-entrepreneur as he called himself – a candidness in sharing his "fruits" of field work. I felt his joy vicariously.
As I further ventured in the next few days along Wusong River from the east (before it flows into downtown Shanghai) to the west (where Shanghai borders Suzhou), I met many more farmers or "farm entrepreneurs" like the strawberry man. Some are locals, some are from other parts of the country. They all worked the land diligently to grow rice, vegetables, fruits or flowers. As ripening rice crops waved with the wind, fruit and flower fields wafted scents of the earth.
A week's field research along Wusong River gave me a pleasant surprise. The world's culture of growing rice, which started in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River thousands of years ago, has been well kept along Wusong River, which flows through the heartland of the Yangtze River Delta region, now poised for integrated development beyond administrative barriers between different provinces and cities.
I found the contrast between a rising city on the northern bank and a rolling countryside on the south to be constant along the river. Yet there's harmony in the contrast – no urban sprawl at the cost of villages. Ruthless urban sprawls tinge much of the early history of modern industrialization in the West.
Here is a river of two tales, or rather, of a symbiotic growth of urban and rural societies and economies. If we look at the Wusong River valley as a whole – beyond the administrative demarcation between Shanghai and Jiangsu – we'll see that the valley area lends itself to a new model of regional growth. This transcends a dualistic division between a city and a countryside – a division that has defined much of the world's urbanization. In certain other parts of China, some villages also have dwindled or disappeared in the early years of unscrupulous urbanization.
Fei Xiaotong (1910-2005), a renowned sociologist, championed the common prosperity of rural and urban societies. He said that China should not follow the Western way of modern industrialization which often resulted in the decline or bankruptcy of agriculture and the countryside.
"Urban-rural conflicts are a disease," he said.
The Wusong River valley is giving shape and substance to Fei's dream of urban-rural symbiotic growth. Indeed, some of Shanghai's villages are located on both sides of Wusong River. Wanshi Village, for example, has a vast stretch of rice fields on the northern bank of the river which grow into and mesh with Kunshan's urban districts. Kunshan itself has also cultivated huge rice fields in a national wetland park about 7 kilometers to the north of Wusong River. The park, featuring rivers, rice fields, lakes, swamps and forests, spans nearly 800 hectares in central Kunshan.
If you travel along Wusong River from east to west, you'll see a prosperous countryside to your left and a progressive city on your right. They're connected, rather than separated, by a river that has simultaneously nurtured agriculture and commerce for thousands of years.
In the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, the riverside Qinglong Town thrived on agricultural strength as well as international trade. Porcelain products from all over China were gathered here and then exported via Wusong River.
Zou Yilin, a professor of history and geography at Fudan University, once referred to Qinglong Town as "the root" of Shanghai's foreign trade. The relics of Qinglong Town lie in today's Baihe Town, which administers Wuli Village and many other villages that are expected to form a major part of the future ecological corridor along Wusong River.
Wusong River became narrower and somehow clogged after the Song Dynasty, due in part to a sudden increase of population in the valley area. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), one of its tributaries expanded significantly to replace it as a new water artery which was then called Huangpu River. Despite the decline of Wusong River as a "golden" waterway, it still remains a fertile valley for agriculture.
When the ecological corridor along Wusong River is completed in the near future, it will be a unique riverside space amenable to two-way pedestrian traffic between the countryside and urban centers at its doorstep. Those living in downtown Shanghai, for example, will be able to walk or cycle all the way from Suzhou Creek to Wusong River through connected riverside esplanades.
Mo Xia, a Shanghai-based expert on urban design and planning, said riverside spaces should, as a rule, allow public access through pedestrian paths. The ecological corridor along Wusong River is doing just that, following on the heels of Suzhou Creek whose major riverside pedestrian paths have been connected.
"Riverside boulevards are being expanded and will soon extend to our village," an old ferryman at Wanshi Village told me. He was referring to Kunshan's ongoing effort to adorn the northern bank of Wusong River with its own version of ecological esplanades that echo Shanghai's in one way or another.
At the end of August, Shanghai municipal planners announced a high-profile blueprint, calling for the protection of the upper reach of Suzhou Creek. As planned, Shanghai will build a 29-kilometer-long ecological corridor along Wusong River, ultimately covering an area of 111 square kilometers.
Although details are yet to be thrashed out, a senior official responsible for greenery in Qingpu District, which has many villages bordering Wusong River, including Wuli and Wanshi villages, told me in a recent interview that the district was ready to build a 12-kilometer-long ecological corridor on its turf as part of the city's overall project. In the district, the corridor will run through seven villages, between Huayi Village in the east (near downtown Shanghai) and Zhaotun Village in the west (bordering Suzhou).
The strawberry field in Wuli Village happens to sit somewhere in the middle of the corridor. In the future, riverside esplanades, scenic forests and conservation trees along the 12-kilometer-long corridor are expected to bring urban travelers closer to local rice fields and strawberry fields without spoiling their pristine landscapes or rural serenity.
Although formal construction has yet to begin, some villages on the route of the corridor have already launched preparatory projects, such as dismantling the remaining few small factories and restoring rice fields.
In Zhaotun Village, whose history dates back to the Song Dynasty, a special trash-processing plant has been busy treating the dismantled materials. Two farmers I met in the village told me that many plants had been removed in the past three years to make room for more agricultural activities.
In Huayi Village, a 78-year-old farmer said: "More and more trees are being planted. Small factories have disappeared – nearly all of them." And in Jiangnan Village that borders Suzhou, a local creek that meanders northward into Wusong River is being spruced up, with chopped tree trunks pumped into the ground to better embank the creek.
A bit further south, but still within the radius of the main corridor area, a town-level ecological belt is being built to protect the countryside and foster biological diversity. The belt will cover an area of nearly 1,200 mu (80 hectares) across Chonggu Town where cultural relics from 6,000 years ago all the way down to the Song Dynasty were discovered in the 1980s.
It takes about 15 minutes to drive from Chonggu's ecological belt under construction to the middle of the future ecological corridor along Wusong River. Such a short distance implies that the planned protection of the Wusong River valley area has produced a cascade effect not just for Kunshan in the north, but also for Shanghai's vast suburban areas further down south – all the way to the upper reaches of Huangpu River.
In fact, at the end of August, a similar municipal plan was also made to protect Huangpu River's upper reaches. The protected area spans 300 square kilometers, nearly triple the size of the Wusong River corridor area. Put together, the protected areas along the upper reaches of both Wusong and Huangpu rivers account for about 6.5 percent of Shanghai's total area and are close to the size of the city's downtown districts.
By ensuring the environmental health of the upper reaches of Wusong and Huangpu rivers in the long run, Shanghai stands to create a new center of city life in the bosom of a revitalized countryside that combines modern urban amenities with ancient farming practices. It's neither a story of the city eating into the countryside, nor a story of leaving the countryside high and dry.
The new center of Shanghai's future riverside life will be more than just a garden-like space. It may have urban elements, like art museums or incubator spaces, but fundamentally it fosters a life close to the earth, not away from it. It's a new type of urbanization being explored in the Yangtze River Delta region, where rural revitalization becomes a pivotal force in urban development.
In Dongxia Village of Songjiang District, where several upper reaches converge to form what's called Huangpu River, farmers are busy moving into new houses built with government support. Their old and dilapidated houses will be revamped or rebuilt to become bucolic inns or creative spaces that attract urban workers and walkers, especially young ones.
"I look forward to moving into my new house in two years," said a 77-year-old farmer. He was pedaling a tricycle when I met him in village. He pointed me to his old, somehow rundown house, which is a stone's throw away from both his future apartment in the north and the bank of Huangpu River in the south.
"I like my new house very much, it's much better than my old one," said a farmer in her 60s. "The government has supported us a lot in building our new houses." Unlike the 77-year-old farmer who has to wait a while to move into his new home, she has already got the key to her house. When I met her, she was busy having it furbished. Her old house, she said, will be dismantled and then rebuilt as part of the village's renovation project.
It was the quietest village I had ever been to. Time seemed to have stopped, especially when I walked through a conservation forest along the riverside.
"Plenty of sunshine here," said the 77-year-old farmer, catching up with me.
As I rambled around, I found myself inside an ecological garden that had started to be built in August. "It will eventually cover an area of at least 600 mu (40 hectares) when it's completed by the end of this year," a senior forestry manager from Songjian District said. He was conducting an on-the-spot check when I met him.
"We'll also build a 3-kilometer pedestrian path in the garden," his colleague added. "Another 3-kilometer pedestrian path will also be built outside the garden and along Huangpu River. On top of all this, we'll build a forest park for children, where families can camp and kids can scamper around in the arms of nature."
Dongxia Village may be different from Wuli Village when it comes to making itself more attractive and accessible to urban travelers, but they both focus on a parallel growth of rural and urban communities.
Indeed, when Ke Art Museum opened in 2018 in Jinqian Village near Taipu River (part of the upper reaches of Huangpu River), it hosted an exhibition under the title of "Parallelism Shanghai" – a theme implying the artists' call for rural and urban growth in tandem.
The site of the museum had originally hosted industry that inevitably affected local air and land quality, at least to a certain extent. Now, in place of an old factory, the art museum has become a meeting place between the city and the countryside – a place that boosts the charm of a rural village by bringing urban people back into nature to experience a life down to earth.
Franklin H. King, a US official and professor of agriculture, visited China, Japan and the Korean Peninsular in 1909 to study East Asian farming systems. He then wrote a book entitled "Farmers of Forty Centuries" to share his reflections with Western readers. He observed that Chinese people are like one link in a whole balanced ecology. And agriculture in China is harmonious to the land, not opposed to it.
More than 100 years have passed since King came for a field study, when China was still an agricultural society on the whole. Now China is already an industrial giant, and Shanghai is a leading example of its strength. But China's ancient wisdom of what King called "harmonious agriculture" has not been lost to Chinese policy makers. It's a miracle that Shanghai, a global metropolis, has kept a vast countryside in good shape. In doing so, Shanghai has inherited thousands of years of agricultural tradition and worked it into its urban development map.
In 1996, Ann Breen and Dick Rigby, two American scholars on urban waterfront design, famously classified a city's riverside areas into six major types: commercial, cultural and educational, historic, recreational, residential, and working waterfronts. They did not mention a key function of a city's waterfront: a nexus with its countryside.
The countryside and its attendant lifestyle dwarf such a simple classification. An urban waterfront extending along and into the countryside is fundamentally about expanding people's minds beyond urban limits.
In connecting its modern urban life with a rural world that has existed uninterrupted for 6,000 years, Shanghai is enriching the meaning of a waterfront city.