Better village, better life: Shanghai forging ahead with rural revitalization
When I gazed upon a two-story farmer's house with newly renovated roofs and freshly painted walls on a brisk afternoon last week, a grandmother in a checkered cloth coat emerged slowly from the half-hidden courtyard and cast a courteous smile toward me.
"Is this your house?" I asked her as she came closer. I was standing between the refurbished house and a tree-flanked river in Zhangyan, an ancient village that dates back more than 1,000 years. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Zhangyan was one of the most prosperous areas along the Wusong River, whose lower reach passes through today's downtown Shanghai and is known today as Suzhou Creek.
"It's my eldest son's house," the elderly woman said with a smile. "I live with him."
"It's beautiful," I said. "It reminds me of those rustic houses in classic Chinese ink-wash paintings with white walls and gray tiles."
"I don't know," she said. "But that bridge is good indeed. You can take a picture of it from here." She waved me forward to the riverbank and pointed to a stone arch bridge.
"Oh, that one?" I exclaimed. "It was built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), wasn't it?"
"Yes," she nodded, pleasantly surprised by my knowledge of the bridge.
I remembered I had crossed that old bridge several years before. It sits in the village's 8.7-hectare core area, which is clustered with ancient architecture, including centuries-old rural residences.
"I walked on that bridge several times," I told her.
"Oh, you did?" she said. "Good for you. It's a beautiful bridge. It's old but good."
"You've lived here all your life?" I asked.
"How old are you?" I asked.
She raised her hands and began to count on her fingers.
"Sixty-eight," she replied, and then corrected herself. "Oh no, eighty-six."
She chuckled at her miscalculation.
At that moment, another villager joined us. She said she was 76 years old, but she looked much younger, probably a result of her farming life. In a few minutes, I followed her to her house about 100 meters away. In between the houses, there was a public square with a pavilion and benches made of wood, where villagers and visitors would meet or rest under trees.
I could see most houses and roads in the 199-hectare village had been renovated. While white walls and brick lanes create a cozy communal space dotted with sidewalk bamboos and potted plants, sloping roofs in the shape of the Chinese character ren (human being) delineate and define the low and open skyline.
When I first visited the area three years ago, there were decrepit dwellings everywhere. Overgrown grass grew over dilapidated structures.
If it once epitomized declining rural life on the margins of urbanization, Zhangyan now spearheads Shanghai's rural revitalization that aims for the common prosperity of the city and the countryside. In the words of Tongji University experts, who helped mastermind the "rebirth" of the village, a "pastoral complex" that combines and transcends traditional agriculture and modern urban amenities will emerge here in the near future.
In "Rural Design: Theoretical Exploration and Practice in Shanghai," a newly published book on how architects can help spruce up the city's rural image, scholars from Tongji University point out that the millennium-old rural landscape of Zhangyan will largely remain intact so that future tourism or creative businesses will be in tune with its traditional, idyllic setting.
The book was published by the Shanghai Bureau of Planning and Natural Resources in collaboration with Tongji University. Shortly after its publication, Shanghai released a detailed official plan of rural revitalization, which specifically called for strengthened efforts in rural design. The release of the city plan coincided with the convening of the central government's conference on rural work, which placed great emphasis on improving the image and living conditions of China's countryside in 2022 and the years ahead.
"How do you like your renovated house?" I asked the 76-year-old villager. In their courtyard full of potted flowers, her husband was cleaning the ground with a broom, while two dogs stretched their legs leisurely.
"It's like someone who has put on a new suit," she said. "I've heard that our village will become a tourist attraction. I hope more visitors will come when the renovation project is completed."
Seated on the southernmost border of the village's residential area, her house overlooks a vast stretch of rice fields that extends as far as the S26 expressway, linking Shanghai with nearby Jiangsu Province.
The entire village is about 15 kilometers to the west of the Hongqiao central business district and, more importantly, only 5 kilometers away from a "new city" coming up in the western suburbs of Shanghai.
Authorities responsible for the construction of Qingpu New City said on January 6 that a world-class waterfront urban space would be built this year around major local rivers, including the Shangda River and East Daying River, to make the future city water-friendly.
I walked by the two rivers over the weekend and found that the rivers' water quality and the nearby landscapes had improved. Then I drove about 5 kilometers from the area to Zhangyan Village. It took me only 15 minutes.
It dawned on me then that the waterfront urban space in Qingpu New City and the "pastoral complex" in Zhangyan Village, which are so close to each other, had created a case of simultaneous growth of a city and a village, in contrast to the urbanization that would spring up around a city at the cost of rural landscapes and life.
More field investigations earlier this week made me further realize that the emerging new city in Qingpu would share much of the bucolic outlook of Zhangyan Village at its doorstep.
As such, a new type of living space transcending the traditional rural-urban dichotomy is taking shape in suburban Shanghai, paving the way for an unprecedented symbiotic growth of the city and the countryside.
On January 14, Shanghai launched an international landscape design competition, inviting architects from home and abroad to help design green belts for Shanghai's five new cities. Aside from the one in Qingpu District, "new cities" are also being built in Jiading, Songjiang and Fengxian districts, as well as Nanhui in the Pudong New Area.
The organizers of the competition insisted that the existing rural landscapes remain intact and become an organic part of the green belts. Indeed, well-preserved villages, usually abundant in wetlands and wildlife, are a natural part of any city ready to go greener.
This requirement boils down to bringing existing villages into the future urban landscapes of all the "new cities." In other words, villages will no longer grow outside of or out of sync with cities.
While Zhangyan Village at the doorstep of Qingpu New City is one such case, Xiangyang Village at the edge of Jiading New City offers a more mature example of urban-rural symbiosis.
On January 17, I went to Xiangyang Village for the first time, only to be surprised by many urban dwellers walking on zigzag wooden paths in the middle of newly furrowed rice fields.
"I walk 3.5 kilometers in the village every morning," Hu, a man in his 70s, said. "I live in Anting Town, across the road from the village. It takes me about 10 minutes to walk from my apartment to the field."
When I first met him on a ridge in the field, I mistook him for a local farmer. He said he used to live in an old apartment in People's Square in downtown Shanghai. After being duly compensated in cash for relocation, he now temporarily lives in his friend's apartment in Anting Town, which is part of Jiading New City under construction.
"Look at Xiangyang Village, it is gorgeous!" he said. "Many friends who still live in downtown Shanghai envy me a lot for being so close to nature. "
"How long have you been living here?"
"About half a year."
"Are you going to buy your own apartment and settle here?"
"Yes, very likely. What better 'garden' can I have than a pastoral village with vast fields and tall trees?"
Indeed, Xiangyang Village and urban residential communities in Anting Town are separated only by a narrow road.
"I come here to exercise almost every day," said a 30-something man who was skipping on a wooden platform over the furrowed field. "When rice ripens in autumn, it's all green; it's great simply to stand here, in the middle of nature."
He said he moved to Shanghai from Beijing in 2017 and works in the auto industry in Anting Town. "And when it is harvest season, many of my neighbors in Anting bring their kids here to learn to remove rice husks."
The stories of this young man and Hu reflect a growing trend in which urban dwellers are taking the initiative or are encouraged to "be down to the earth" in villages for a slower pace of life.
Zhou Li, a professor of agriculture and rural development at Renmin University, said the countryside has become a new attraction to urban dwellers for its fresh air, fine food, idyllic landscapes and natural way of life. "But on the whole, Chinese villages have yet to increase their ability to attract urban visitors," Zhou said.
"Now we have entered an era that's called agriculture 4.0," he said, referring to a new type of rural life that thrives not just on traditional farming, but on ecological tourism, biodiversity and immersive education in agriculture as well.
In a way, the "pastoral complexes" of Zhangyan and Xiangyang villages come close to Zhou's agriculture 4.0. And it's not just Zhangyan and Xiangyang that are entering an era of agriculture 4.0; many other villages have taken the initiative.
"Costa Coffee will open an outlet in our village," said Hou Weifeng, a senior corporate manager, who is helping Xuyao Village grow beyond the traditional farming business. "It may open this year."
Xuyao is about 2 kilometers away from Zhangyan, linked by a bucolic country boulevard flanked by rice fields and farmers' houses.
"According to Shanghai 2035 urban planning, the city's villages will become the forefront of ecological civilization, a demonstration zone of Jiangnan-style pastoral culture, and a strategic space for scientific and technological innovation," said Wang Haisong, a professor of art from Shanghai University, who is also an expert on rural design. "In the future, Shanghai's villages will be suitable not just for the work and lives of farmers, but also for urban dwellers who come to experience the local rural culture." (Jiangnan means regions to the south of the Yangtze River.)
In this sense, rural revitalization means more than an economic boon or boom for the countryside. Ultimately, it is a revival of China's traditional rural culture that teaches people to excel in both physical labor and academic study.
"Rural revitalization is not just about bringing capital to the countryside," said Zhang Xiaode, a scholar from the China National School of Administration. "Villages are not about creating GDP."
The soul of rural revitalization, he explained, lies in the revival of China's traditional countryside culture that combines physical work and scholastic learning. In other words, it's our body's contact with the earth that counts, a contact that has long been lost in what he called "work in closed spaces."
Indeed, what Hu and his ilk derive from a stroll through the countryside is not a pleasure quantifiable by material concerns. It's a pure pleasure to be with nature ― being down to earth in an open space.
By breaking the barrier between a city and a village, Shanghai is creating a model of common prosperity that brings out the best of urban and rural life.