Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature

Wang Yong
Shanghai is championing biodiversity by meshing weitian, an ancient agricultural practice, fields into a future watertown.
Wang Yong

Editor's note:

By sprucing up its vast rural and riverside spaces, Shanghai is becoming a global leader in biodiversity and sustainable growth. This series of exclusive and in-depth reports sheds light on how the metropolis is achieving that goal.

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

A view of restored weitian, or low-lying cropland walled against lake floods, at Xinchi Village in Qingpu District. The weitian fields lie at the center of a future residential and business area, which will cover 36 square kilometers and encompass Shanghai and its two neighboring provinces – Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

"What did you take the photos for?" two curious villagers asked me when I passed by them on a narrow country road yesterday. I was raising my cellphone to capture the rustic scenes that caught my eye.

"Isn't it beautiful here?" I smiled in reply to them. "Look, here's what I have taken." As I opened my phone screen and showed them the pictures of old bridges, boats and trees I had just snapped, they began to scratch their heads and burst into a reserved smile.

Now they saw I was an interested visitor. Still, their self-doubt seemed to run deep. They looked as if they were not sure whether I was sincere in praising the pristine beauty of their village, tucked away in a lake area on the upper reaches of the Huangpu River.

"You mean our village is beautiful?" they asked simultaneously. "Ours is primitive and poor indeed."

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

Xinchi Village survives mainly on traditional agriculture that features intensive care of the soil.

By "primitive and poor" the two middle-aged women meant their village was lackluster in economic terms – it had survived largely on traditional agriculture and fishery, with little "aid" from industrial projects like factories that had peppered some other villages over the past few decades with profits and pollutants.

"Don't you know that now is the best time to be 'primitive'?" I said. "Look at your village. You have one of Shanghai's best environments in terms of biodiversity and low carbon emission."

To further buoy them up, I added: "And don't you know you are at the heart of a future world-class residential and business zone now under construction?"

They beamed broadly at my final words, a distant hope kindled in their wrinkled eyes. Yes, they knew, they said. Then, when I asked where I could find the famed weitian fields in their village, they gladly pointed the way for me – in great detail.

Weitian is an ancient agricultural practice in which farmers cultivate low-lying cropland or fish ponds in lake areas by building banks against floods while properly inducting lake water for irrigation or fishery. In contrast to popular mechanized farming that could hurt the health of the soil, the ancient Chinese practice requires intensive care of the land from individual farmers.

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

A biologically healthy fish pond at Xinchi Village

A prominent feature of weitian is biodiversity. For example, farmers dig up mud to create a fish pond, and then use the mud to grow mulberry trees on the ridges of the pond. Mulberry trees feed silkworms, whose excrement nourishes fish in the pond.

This mulberry-tree-based fishery, which causes a natural biological cycle without recourse to artificial feeds or fertilizers, dates back 2,500 years in China. Similar biological ponds are now being created or revived in a 55-hectare exemplary weitian project in Xinchi Village I visited yesterday. Xinchi, located in western Shanghai's Qingpu District, literally means "new ponds" in Chinese.

Shanghai Landscape Architecture Design Institute, which helps mastermind the village's revival of environmentally-friendly agricultural practices, announced last week that the exemplary weitian project had been basically completed. That news prompted me to go and check it out for myself.

It was not until I stood on the exemplary weitian fields that I realized they lie at the very center of a 36-square-kilometer new-concept residential and business area to be built in the near future, which encompasses vast rural areas in Shanghai and two neighboring provinces – Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The future residential-business area has a poetic name in Chinese – shuixiang huiketing, which means "the parlor of a watertown."

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

Vegetables are grown at the edge of weitian fields. Not a single piece of arable land is wasted.

By introducing weitian fields into a future new-concept town, China will create a new model of urban development by breaking the barriers between the city and the countryside. In so doing, carbon emissions associated with a typical city life carved by the Industrial Revolution will taper off, paving the way for an eventually carbon-neutral lifestyle.

Moreover, restoring ancient weitian practices means less reliance on mechanized farming, which often results in waste of arable land. As I ambled through trees and rice fields in Xinchi Village, I found that not a single piece of land is wasted. On every slope at the end of a rice field, or even on two sides of a road, the soil has been cultivated to grow various kinds of vegetables, in contrast to what American writer and philosopher Wendell Berry calls a modern Western "model farm" on which machines would only work within a clearly cut boundary, or even under a roof.

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

Above and below: On a slope at the end of a crop field, the soil is cultivated to grow various vegetables.

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

In Xinchi Village's weitian fields, you don't see extremely vast and flat rice fields subject to the tyranny of what Berry calls big machines. Instead, rice fields of proper sizes are separated by tree-covered ridges and dotted by vegetable plots.

According to Rachel Carson, the late American biologist who wrote "Silent Spring" to warn against the overuse of chemical insecticides, this mixed growth of different plants as you see in Xinchi Village can effectively keep any insects that live on a particular plant from quickly increasing population.

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

Crop fields are separated by tree-covered ridges.

In boosting biodiversity, Xinchi is not alone. In Baijia Village, Jinshan District, biodiversity also beckons. I went there about a week ago to see how it could qualify as one of China's newly elected "beautiful villages for recreation."

The moment I entered the village, I found myself engulfed in and engrossed by a vast and thick forest. As I groped my way forward through bushes and around lakes in the forest, I noticed there are more than 70 types of tress, such as water-borne firs and ginkgo trees. There is even an Osmanthus Path and a Magnolia Boulevard.

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

A vast forest in Baijia Village, Jinshan District

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

In Baijia Village, life is in harmony with nature.

"We have 320 hectares of various trees, that's huge!" said a farmer who was plowing his vegetable garden when I visited and asked him about the size of the forest. As we talked further, I found he was 66 years old, a retired senior cadre of the village.

I spent a whole day exploring the village. It's like a gigantic natural park of trees and lakes, which are spread between rice and vegetable fields. You do not always see farmers' houses "clearly" – many are hidden behind tall trees and vegetable fields.

Rediscovering an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature
Wang Yong / SHINE

A green parking lot paved with trample-resistant grass in Baijia Village

In addition to keeping many pristine plants, Baijia Village has built a "green" parking lot capable of accommodating 35 cars at one time – "green" in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense of the word. The parking lot is paved with real grass all over – a special kind of trample-resistant grass developed by a local firm. Such a grass parking lot allows the soil to breathe.

The stories of both Baijia and Xinchi villages boil down to a rediscovery of an ancient Chinese way of life – one with nature. By meshing weitian fields into a future watertown, Xinchi stands to redefine what a city means beyond hardened roads and high-rise buildings. Baijia, on the other hand, will help redefine the countryside by turning itself into a biodiverse forest park beyond just growing rice.

Come and see for yourself next time. If you want to know Shanghai's future as a city championing biodiversity, come and feel the pulse of the earth.

Special Reports

Top