Revitalizing Rural China with Art and Design

by Yasmine Ostendorf

I’m writing this from the misty mountains of Qingliangshan National Forest Park, a stunningly beautiful natural area in Zixi county, Jiangxi province, in rural China. The closest railway station (Nan Cheng) is over two hours away. It doesn’t just feel remote here, it really is. Though the soil is fertile, the people friendly, the air fresh and the water clean, the area is facing other difficulties: the last school closed last year because there were no students left, and the (aging) population is declining as the remaining young people trade rural life for city life. Family fragmentation and depopulation are the unfortunate consequences of a generation in pursuit of an urban lifestyle.

Local landscape of Qingliangshan

Rural life is not appealing to this generation of Chinese; the prevalent attitude toward the countryside is that if offers no desirable work opportunities (farming is too physically straining), it’s low-tech, it’s full of bugs and snakes, there are no good hospitals and no prestigious schools. Even if Chinese youth was interested in a more simple life in the country, no Chinese parent would endorse this plan.

My workshop during the Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge

So it was a bold move when Lucitopia Town Limited Company, in collaboration with C-Platform, Xiamen MeXdia Creativity & Technology, and Creative Cooperative decided to organize a “Rural Design Challenge.” They brought over 60 international design students and volunteers to spend a week in the mountains of Qingliangshan, doing field research and interviewing locals, in order to come up with informed proposals to re-invigorate the area.

The aim of the Rural Design Challenge is to encourage students to come up with ideas that can be implemented and benefit the local community – bringing people in, creating work opportunities, and feeding the local economy. The area was coined Lucitopia Town in order to brand it and its possible products for an international audience. I joined the group for a week as lecturer, mentor, and as a member of the jury, selecting the winning proposal(s). A task not to be thought of lightly as the founders of Lucitopia Town are ambitious and hope to actually implement some of the best design ideas.

Lucitopia could potentially serve as a model, a best practice example for other remote villages as exodus to the city is a problem occurring across China (and to some extent across the world). It is clear from the marketing language, with terms such as “Design Creation,” “Mountain Stories,” “New Rural Lifestyle,” and “Future Fantasy,” and from Lucitopia branded honey, tote bags, and other products, that they are aching to be launched into the world even though the site is hardly established.

We sleep in containers (very much resembling Shoreditch Boxpark in London) that look alien in the leafy green bushiness of the region. I guess the aspiration is to look like a hip-ish eco-village, but it looks more like a construction site. Because of recent heavy storms, the (rain and mountain) water storage tanks are clogged with sand and leaves and there is no running water.

In addition to being a design challenge, this becomes an immediate social challenge: some of the students (and even teachers) find it very hard to cope without running water for 24 hours. For many, this is their first time in Asia, or even their first time away from the city. They are confronted with cultural differences and/or are lost in translation, on top of having to deal with jet lag. Stress, chaos, and tears abound. It’s a proper baptism as it becomes apparent how detached city people are from rural life. However, the situation has the benefit of pointing students toward possible design challenges/solutions concerning the site.

The local church with surrounding farmland

Over the the next few days, we explore local villages and farms in small groups and it all becomes crystal clear why we are here. Lucitopia proves an excellent base for further exploration: the area is largely undeveloped (which is not a given in China), the small-scale organic farming practices are inspiring, and the most incredible natural resources grow abundantly around us. We come across high quality fresh green bamboo, raspberries, honeysuckle, shiitake, peanuts, tea plantations, spring water, wild herbs used in Chinese medicine, and bees raised for honey. The whole area is teeming with life and potential. The students are excited and pick up on the many possibilities immediately.

What is also interesting about the area is that the local inhabitants are comprised of two different groups. In 1959, a dam was built in Qiandao Lake, Chun’an County in the neighboring Zhejiang Province. The construction of the reservoir displaced local people who were brought to Zixi. Completely dispossessed, they had to start their lives from scratch again, starting with building their own house. Their architectural style and ways of living and farming are very different from those of the people who had been there for generations, making the landscape diverse on multiple levels.

The students are buzzing around for brainstorms, surveys, and prototyping, interrupted by the occasional identity crisis. Some ideas seem naive and Western to me, some so good that they are more likely to lead to mass tourism than conservation of the area – which is actually my biggest fear with this project. Occasionally they strike a nice balance, ranging from foraging walks and site-specific recipes, to a Renewable Energy Light Festival and culinary school with the local ladies.

On the evening before the final day, the volunteers organize a “Chinese evening.” We sing and dance, learn about paper-cutting, calligraphy, tea ceremonies, and there’s a contest picking as many peanuts as possible with chopsticks in one minute. When I go outside to cool down from hysterical peanut picking and admire the starry night, I get talking to one of the students who is still grappling with her proposal. She has plenty of ideas but still isn’t convinced there is something that would bring people to travel so remotely.

Yet look at us, I think. We are a group of over 70 young (some would say talented) people, from 18 different countries, coming from educational institutions in Singapore, Russia, China, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany. We are dancing and drinking tea with the locals of Qingliangshan, showing our dedicated interest, and using all our energy to come up with creative ideas. From where I stand, the so-called middle of nowhere looks like the centre of the universe. Perhaps the best idea has already been implemented.

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Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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