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January 23, 2024

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2 Shanghai villages:How to create a symbiotic rural-urban landscape

No sooner had I spotted a giant dog in a bamboo grove than it pulled on the leash and leapt at me. Despite shrieks from its surprised master, the canine closed in fast. In just a few seconds, it stood on its hind legs and pawed my chest and knees with such a strong force that I almost lost my balance on the side of a newly paved rural path.

“Oh I’m sorry, did it hurt you?” the middle-aged woman who was walking the dog on a long leash asked me in earnest as we met during a country walk last week.

“Not all all,” I said, collecting myself and looking at the sturdy dog still sniffing around me while waving its tail.

“I think it likes me a lot,” I said, laughing. “By the way, what breed is your dog? I’ve never seen such a heavy one before.”

“German Shepherd,” she replied with an apologetic smile. “It’s big and we’ve put a muzzle on it, but still I’m afraid it may frighten or hurt people unawares.”

In our casual talk that ensued, she told me that it was the first time she had brought her German Shepherd for a field exercise along the newly neatened lane in Fangxia Village in Shanghai’s western suburbs.

Her daughter, who joined us a few minutes later, said they hadn’t heard of the bucolic scene of the ancient village until one of their acquaintances uploaded its latest pictures online a few days before.

Fangxia is home to an archeological site where artifacts like bronze knives and pottery jars dating back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC) were excavated in 1976 when a canal was being built.

The village is only about 15 minutes’ walk from the Jade Laguna neighborhood where the mother and daughter live. “It’s really a nice landscape at our doorstep,” the daughter said. “It’s a great place for our German Shepherd as well.”

Such a big dog usually finds little room for its much-coveted outdoor exercises in a residential neighborhood, even in a villa community like Jade Laguna in the southern part of Zhaoxiang Town, Qingpu District.

The giant dog then pulled its master into a nearby farm field, wallowing on the soil ground like an excited child, while keeping an eye on me with an apparent grin, as if to suggest I should go and play with it as well.

“Where are you from? And why are you here?” the daughter asked me, seeing that I carried a water bottle slingbag like a traveler from afar would do.

I told her that I came from the northern part of Zhaoxiang Town, about 8 kilometers away, and that I came for the same reason as hers: to roam in the newly revamped village.

And, like her, I learned about Fangxia’s latest transformation from a secluded village to an idyllic peri-urban belt from a friend who had taken some photos of its improved landscape and shared them online.

Unlike her, however, I had visited the village many times before to conduct interviews with local farmers on a wide range of topics from rural income to agricultural infrastructure. One of my earlier reports on how local ditches worked during days of typhoon had even been reprinted by an international news portal headquartered in Africa.

The old Fangxia Village as I knew before had a pristine landscape featuring dense forests and vast rice and vegetable fields, but for a long time it was largely inaccessible to urban dwellers keen on outdoor exercises or a leisurely walk there.

Even local farmers had to share narrow muddy roads with motor vehicles as there were few pedestrian paths. Also, there was no way to walk through the thick forests comprising panicled golden rain trees, dawn redwoods (metasequoia trees) and camphor trees, among others.

In a sense, the 7-square-kilometer village remained virtually a secluded place for a long time as it hadn’t translated its natural resources into something accessible for nearby urban dwellers. As a journalist, I had to clean my muddy shoes each time I emerged from a field interview in the village, and when I tried to find a streetside chair or bench to take some rest, I could find none.

A significant change came around the end of last year, when a 1.3-kilometer main road in the village was refurbished to create more space for pedestrians to walk or rest in the forests or on the farm fields. A farmers’ bazaar was also being built by the main road to sell local farm produce to urban visitors.

Some staff members of the bazaar told me that it was expected to open at the end of this month, shortly before the Chinese Lunar New Year, a typical time for people to gather, hang out and shop around.

As I chatted with the staff, a group of urban visitors came and chipped in with one question after another about what they could buy from the future farmers’ fair. Their enthusiasm about an excursion into Fangxia’s accessible rural landscape was written on their faces, and I volunteered as a temporary guide as they filed out of the bazaar premises and looked for the famed archeological site.

Such a dynamic scene of rural-urban socioeconomic exchanges — at a farmers’ fair or along a rural lane — would have been unimaginable a few years back, when the village was only part of a lackluster rural-urban fringe, unattractive to urbanites near and far.

Fangxia’s recent efforts to spruce up its forest and farm landscape finally paid off. At the end of last year, it was elected as one of Shanghai’s first batch of 47 “forest villages” — an honor for villages which create a superb ecological environment for sustainable human settlements.

In particular, according to a document released by Shanghai’s forestry authority last month, a “forest village” must have, among other things, well-preserved and accessible forests that comprise a variety of trees, including old ones. Such forests naturally lend themselves to a cleaner air in their vicinity.

The Paper, a leading news portal based in Shanghai, reported last month that part of Fangxia’s 230 hectares of forests had already been opened.

The now-accessible part of the village’s dense forests features rows of tall camphor trees that sit between town neighborhoods on one end and the rural hinterland on the other.

In other words, the formerly inaccessible urban-rural fringe has now become a rural-urban continuum defined by the World Bank as “a place of exchange and socioeconomic interaction” between rural and urban areas.

Worldwide, the emergence of rural-urban continuums (RUCs), a term coined by late American cultural anthropologist Robert Redfield (1897-1958) to mean a merging of town and country, has prompted people to rethink what it takes to build a better life for both rural and urban populations.

Rural-urban continuum

In a recent popular article about economic and social development along the rural-urban continuum, the World Bank noted: “Nowhere are the interlinkages between rural areas and urban centers more apparent than when dealing with the food system. Livelihoods of rural populations often depend on their connection to peri-urban and urban food spaces, while cities depend on surrounding peri-urban and rural areas for food and ecosystem services.”

That pretty much sums up the situation in Fangxia — an ancient Shanghai village reborn into a hub of food supply and ecosystem services at the doorstep of surrounding neighborhoods in both Qingpu and Songjiang districts.

“You’re now standing on Songjiang’s territory,” a 60-year-old man told me when we met by chance at the end of a vast rice field. “If you look east or south from here, all those residential communities you see belong to the ancient Sijing Town of Songjiang District.”

As we chatted about the benefit of a weekend country walk, I learned that he teaches finance at the Songjiang campus of a famous accounting college.

“I’m turning 60 and can retire this year,” he told me as we walked slowly through a thick forest connecting the rice field to the under-construction farmers’ fair.

“But you look very energetic and surely can work for some more years,” I assured him.

“Well, yes, I walk through the rural forest every weekend, covering a round trip of 8 kilometers each time,” he said, smiling back. “That may make me healthier.”

He gave a “wow” when he learned that I had walked about 8 kilometers — one way — from my suburban home near the Metro Line 17. I explained that I couldn’t drive a car, because I had been diagnosed with a herniated disc, though a slight one, which made it difficult for me to bend my back or walk fast.

He and his wife moved to a residential community near his college about three years ago. He told me that the forest was hardly accessible just one year before, and the village’s main road had no pedestrian space whatsoever at that time. I offered proof to what he said.

“My wife and I both like sports, but she prefers practicing yoga indoors while I like walking in nature,” he said.

“Well,” I said. “I saw two young ladies practicing yoga in the forest just now. Maybe next time you and your wife can come together.”

When we bade farewell outside the forest, it was 5pm and the sun was hanging low in the sky. We were both ready to go home.

“You’ve 4 kilometers to go, and I have 8,” I said. He waved back at me with a hearty laughter.

The next day I went to a village close by for a casual walk. It lies to the immediate north of my suburban home. Just a 10-minute walk took me to its hinterland, a part of which was being converted from once-polluting fish ponds to a vast watermelon field.

“Those fish ponds used to damage soil quality by hardening the bottom earth, so they’ve been dismantled,” said a middle-aged farmer from neighboring Anhui Province. He said he and his relatives and friends had contracted nearly 200 mu (about 13 hectares) of farmland in Fengbang Village to grow organic watermelons, alongside a vast tract of land reserved for afforestation.

As I walked further north into the village, where vast rice fields had been recently harvested and were now lying idle in a pristine state, I suddenly saw a helicopter seemingly suspended a few meters above the ground for a little while before lifting itself again and sliding up into the sky. Curious, I moved to squat in the middle of the field, hoping the helicopter would dive again. It did, several times.

Now it was clear: The pristine rural landscape had become an ideal background for commercial pilot training. I could see the aviation company’s name on the helicopter clearly, and I waved politely at the pilot and a woman trainee beside him. They waved back nicely.

Back home, I found the commercial aviation firm’s phone number and made a quick call. Before that, I had sent a picture I took of their helicopter to their WeChat account. While appreciating the quality of my picture, they said they had indeed been given a nod from local aviation authorities to fly over the beautiful village.

Both Fangxia and Fengbang show how a more beautiful and accessible rural landscape can benefit urban life and, for that matter, a city’s overall development, although the two villages do it differently.

Fangxia is surrounded by neighborhoods in nearby towns while Fengbang has fewer urban communities around it. However, urban life has filtered into both villages one way or another as Shanghai seeks to promote the common prosperity of rural and urban areas.

And it’s not just Shanghai. A central government document released earlier this month shows China is embarking on a Nation Beautiful movement that calls for concerted efforts across the country to create a symbiotic rural-urban landscape.

Compared with the City Beautiful movement that flourished in the United States between the 1890s and the 1920s with a view to make cities a better place, China’s campaign seeks to simultaneously improve rural and urban environments in the belief that town and country are inseparable parts of a continuum.


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