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May 27, 2021

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Village pioneers a new type of urbanization

As I strolled in an ancient village in western Shanghai yesterday, I threaded through its zigzag lanes lined with farmers’ houses painted anew in white. They exude a sense of simplicity and serenity you may well find in I.M. Pei’s architectural designs.

Certainly the world-class architect (1917-2019) who gave Suzhou Museum and the Louvre Pyramid their ultra-simplistic outlook did not design these farmers’ houses, but their plain white walls and dark curving tiles shape no less impressive a landscape and skyline reminiscent of a simple and quiet life.

It occurred to me at first that these newly renovated rural houses would be used as family inns for countryside travelers or rental homes for white-collars who want to escape the urban crowds. I suspected Zhangyan was just another “empty village” where most houses are unoccupied as local farmers look for better jobs in cities.

Certainly it makes economic sense for a village and its villagers to adapt such houses into affordable inns or homes for urbanites who cherish a rustic environment in which to work or live.

To see if there were some grounds for my suspicion, I decided to talk to someone.

“Hey, Granny!” I called to an old woman dusting the doorstep of a two-story house with a straw broom. Two dogs lay in the courtyard. I was standing at the gate of the courtyard.

Hearing my call, she slowly turned around and walked across the courtyard to meet me. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. Her face was sun-tanned.

“Hey, Granny, is this your house?” I asked.

“Yes, I live here,” she said with a friendly grin a typical Chinese farmer would give a stranger.

“It’s so clean and beautiful!” I said.

“The village has renovated my house and courtyard,” she chuckled. “I haven’t spent a nickel.”

“Are you going to rent it out?” I asked.

“No. Where will I go if I rent it out?” she said.

In the conversation that ensued, I learned she is 78 years old and her family name is Tang. She lives with two other family members. She was born here and has been tilling the land all her life. Now she still tends to some small vegetable plots, as much of the village’s arable land has been contracted to some large-scale agricultural collectives for better management.

A few steps away from Granny Tang’s house I met another old woman. Seeing that I was taking photos here and there, she stood at the side of the lane with a silent smile.

“Hey, auntie, you also live here?” I walked up to her and asked.

“Look, this is my house,” she nodded enthusiastically, pointing to a gated courtyard and a two-story house behind her. She told me she is in her late 60s, and her family name is Shen.

Her courtyard is a bit smaller than Granny Tang’s but no less cozy. On a wall of the courtyard there are some huge, horizontal windows made of curved tiles instead of cold glass.

“We built this house 30 years ago, and it has never been so well-renovated,” she said. “The village has done it for us — for free.”

As we chatted, an older woman came out of the two-story house for a casual walk, a stick in her right hand.

“She’s my mother-in-law, 94 years old,” Aunt Shen said with glee. “She would not live in town with her other children. She likes here.”

Like Granny Tang, Aunt Shen was a professional farmer before retirement. Her son works in a nearby town and comes home every day. Shen’s is a typical rural family in which three or even more generations live together.

I left Shen’s courtyard and sauntered down the lanes. At an entrance of the village, I met a 78-year-old man whose family name is also Shen. In our casual conversation, he told me his family would move into a new villa built by the village in the near future. His old house, like some other similar ones, happens to be located in a remote corner. The new villas will be more conveniently grouped for communal life, he said merrily. Unable to hide his expectations for a better life, he pulled my hands and showed me a poster with an artist’s rendition of the future riverside villas.

These old farmers I met — except the 94-year-old — were all born and bred here in Zhangyan Village, whose foundation dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in the 11th century. Historically it was a prosperous town, but in modern times it once lagged behind as rural life became less attractive.

“I left the village to work in a construction company in town when I was 15 years old,” said a 68-year-old man whose family name is Quan. “Now my village is being revived like never before. I never dreamed of that.”

He was referring to a latest round of government and corporate support to turn this ancient village into a tourist attraction and a creative industry hub while retaining its vast cropland and river system. Now he’s retired and works as a security guard for an organic agriculture garden that covers an area of more than 100 mu (6.6 hectares).

“During holidays, many groups of people have come to our garden to pick fresh organic fruit and vegetables,” he said.

About 200 meters away from the garden is a river across which a number of ancient stone bridges have been preserved. An old riverside Taoist temple is being renovated and some dilapidated buildings are being converted into cultural and tourist attractions that retain the original local architectural style.

When I first came to Zhangyan Village a few years ago, I walked no further than the narrow riverside area and mistook it for the entire village area. It was not until yesterday when I ventured beyond the river and witnessed vast, well-irrigated cropland that I began to realize that local rural life has remained largely intact, though once marginalized in earlier waves of urbanization.

Now Zhangyan has become a pioneer of a new type of urbanization — so called because it departs from earlier urbanization models that often eat into rural water resources and rural communal life. In this new-type urbanization that China spearheads, a village is allowed — encouraged indeed — to keep its organic land and water systems while adapting some of its facilities into riverfront cultural and tourist attractions. No industry, no pollution, no real estate encroachment of rural habitat or rustic environment.

“We may have been poorer, but our fields and rivers have never been polluted,” recalled Granny Tang. In her memory, her village could have been forgotten by urbanization in the past, but never suffered from fatal industrial pollution.

The story of Zhangyan speaks volumes about how “late development” is never really late. Many other villages across the country rushed to operate cement or metal factories on their home turfs in the 1980s, only to end up in heavy pollution of land and rivers. As Granny Tang said, Zhangyan is a “latecomer” in development, but it comes at a critical time when the country calls for a new type of development that puts ecological health above mere GDP figures.

Zhangyan’s is not just a story of rural revival. By preserving an organic rural environment that’s naturally conducive to the health of vast bodies of water, it points to the future of China’s sustainable development.

On May 14, President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of saving water, calling for urban and industrial planning on the basis of water resources. He made the speech during an inspection in Henan Province of a project that channels water from south to north China.

For an individual like you and me, saving water is a personal merit. For a city, saving water is a must. And a fundamental way to save a city’s water is to protect its rivers and lakes from a chaotic urban sprawl.

Xue Liyong, an expert on Shanghai’s river history, said on Sunday that many rivers had disappeared in the city proper in the early 20th century due to an increase in the urban population, but luckily Qingpu District, where Zhangyan Village is located, still has vast bodies of water. Xue was speaking on the sideline of the ongoing 13th Shanghai Biennale, whose theme is “Bodies of Water.”

That Qingpu still has so many rivers and lakes is not just an economic boon for human development. It’s a philosophical gift as well. On a glass wall facing the Huangpu River, organizers of the Biennial posted a few lines of words that began as follows: “We are all bodies of water: the clouds, the river, me and you.”

In this sense, Zhangyan’s revival as an ancient village will offer us a chance not just for material progress, but for philosophical exploration of who we are as humans and how we should grow.

About a kilometer away from Zhangyan is another village called Xuyao, also known for its preservation of rural landscapes, especially bodies of water. A few months ago I wrote about Starbucks going to open a shop in Xuyao. I went there again yesterday and found that renovation of the house and courtyard slated to host Starbucks was well underway.

As I sat on a riverfront bench in Xuyao, looking at the vast cropland and clean rivers, I suddenly remembered what Mr Quan, the 68-year-old security guard in Zhangyan Village, said to me: “Zhangyan should further link itself with nearby villages to form a special water landscape you hardly find elsewhere.”

Indeed, the whole world stands to win when water wins.


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