Back Down To The Countryside

Young people all over China, fed up with city life, are searching for new ways of life amid old traditions in undeveloped rural parts of the country.

In the countryside of Anhui Province, China. (Matjaž Tančič for Noema Magazine)

Jacob Dreyer is an editor and contributing writer for Noema based in Shanghai.

Photography by Matjaž Tančič for Noema Magazine.

China’s de facto ideology is indeed developmentalism. We can see a red thread running through China’s torrential path of development: a series of crises arising out of its developmentalist effort.

—Wen Tiejun

On the outskirts of Zhongshan, one of the nine cities that make up southern China’s megalopolitan Greater Bay Area, is a leafy, quiet village called Qixi. The Greater Bay Area is home to 86 million people, more than the entire United Kingdom but less than a quarter the size, which makes Qixi a rare pocket of green in an ocean of grey and neon.

In recent years, Qixi has sprouted a cluster of organic farms, an alternative school and a loosely knit community of ecologically minded youths. On a trip there recently, I sat in the backyard of a rambling house where a woman named Wu Juan lived with her family. We drank tea as her 11-year-old son bashfully watered bonsai plants and played with a pet dog, aware of our presence but too shy to step in. Just past the doorway, shelves and shelves of books gathered dust.

Wu told me that she and her husband had come here because they wanted to anchor their son’s value system in China’s rural traditions. They are not alone. In Qixi and elsewhere across China, a new internal migration is underway. As the middle class has grown rapidly over recent decades, access to top-tier urban real estate, spots in elite universities and other scarce goods have not. The result is the creation of incentives for alternative lifestyles, and the cities, full to the brim, have started to spill over into the countryside. As Wu put it, she and people like her are looking for new ways of life amid old traditions.

The countryside, in its apparent emptiness, is a good place to imagine new ways of life, and China’s government envisions the country’s future leading straight through it. The last couple years of closed borders have put globalization on hold, and the national government has refocused efforts on the undeveloped parts of the nation, where millions of people have never bought a washing machine or car or been on a plane. Those efforts emerge from the eternal conflict within the upper echelons of the Communist Party over what the heartland and the peasantry mean to the nation’s psyche and security. For many of these leaders — and for the educated, alienated young people fleeing the cities for places like Qixi — a rich, urban, coastal China that is culturally deracinated and dependent on the global economy is no longer even China at all.

“The cities, full to the brim, have started to spill over into the countryside.”

When I mentioned to friends that I was on my way to Qixi, they warned me that the new villagers’ pastoral existence must still rely on China’s nearby urban resources. Indeed, despite Qixi’s bucolic atmosphere and aspirational self-sufficiency, Zhongshan, the center of which is just a 20-minute drive away, provides the infrastructure of modernity — the schools, hospitals, larger stores and shops, a train station. Wu’s husband still works for the government there, and takes their son to school in the city every day on his way to the office.

Among the Qixi villagers, I realized that, far from being a rejection of Chinese urban modernity, this was an alternative version, one entirely dependent on the smooth flow of human and financial capital between city and country, lubricated by an extensive new highway system. While Wu idealized the pre-Song Dynasty past in many ways, she recognized that she had many options that the ancient Chinese did not. Her lifestyle was produced by the dialectical interlocking of modernity — highways, cars, a cellphone — and the ancient literature she loved, the birds and mountains that she found in old poetry as well as outside her window. 

And yet, she said wistfully, the processes of industrialization and urbanization had been more destructive to Chinese values than the Cultural Revolution ever was. China’s rapid, rampant developmentalism over the past decades had destroyed a connection between humans and nature that had previously defined what it meant to be Chinese. That connection — the past and future of Chinese identity — was now only to be found in the countryside. 

Qixi village.

China’s leaders used to boast that they had done in 20 years what took the West 200. Right on schedule, they’ve arrived at an exaggerated late capitalist malaise: inequality, low birth rates, “躺平” (“lying flat,” the movement against overwork) and “内” or “involution,” which denotes the economic equivalent of an ingrown toenail — a surfeit of resources and human capital that have no productive place to go. 

Concerned about what sort of future China might have, I began to read the works of Liang Shuming, Mao’s intellectual sparring partner, who warned against the monstrousness of an industrial China. As I traveled up and down China’s coast, his vision stayed with me as a baleful prophecy. In 1929, he warned that “China should not take the part of the Western nations because it would lead to imperialism, class war, economic inequality and grotesque overdevelopment of industrialized cities.” China’s GDP is set to become the world’s largest sometime between 2028 and 2033, depending on who you ask, but in the villages, alienated youth inspired by Liang’s defiant vision of a rural, simple life wonder if it’s been worth it.

China has a long history of intellectuals going to villages as administrators, teachers or sages retreating from the world. From the misty legends of Confucius’ rural school to poets like Du Fu and Li Bai, there has always been something appealing about stepping back from the world (which tends to mean bureaucratic supervision of economic activity) and into cultural pursuits in serene natural backdrops. 

Such retreat traditionally has a moralistic backbone, one based on the age-old discrepancy between urban elites and rural peasants. In a poem commonly attributed to the Tang poet Du Fu, “悯 农” (“Pity the Peasant”), literate elites are admonished to remember the hard work of the peasants. Parents in China still reference this poem to get their kids to eat vegetables. 

“China’s leaders used to boast that they had done in 20 years what took the West 200. Right on schedule, they’ve arrived at an exaggerated late capitalist malaise.”

The most recent iteration of this movement was the government’s “down to the countryside” effort in the 1960s and 70s, which sent millions of urban youth to remote rural villages to melt the class barriers between rich and poor with the sweat of shared toil. As the scholar Qin Hui has noted, the experience shaped a generation of intellectuals of the Maoist era. For them, Qin wrote, “ideology itself was playing the role of a drug, and from a certain perspective, people need drugs, particularly when they find themselves in hopeless or desperate situations.” 

The built environment of Chinese villages and the cities of the interior, particularly of the former “third front,” are marked with the signs of this movement to this day. Wandering around the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum in Jiangxi, for example, I noticed how the main propaganda slogans from the Maoist period have been recuperated into a sort of heritage chic for today’s youths who are heading to the country.

But in contrast to the goal of abandoning the self, which was common among the 1970s socialist martyrs, today’s young rural transplants have gone to find the self — to escape the commodification of digitally-driven cities. In discovering an organic ecosystem, they find their own physicality, their sentimentality, and they make choices much more individual and meaningful than picking between KFC and McDonald’s. 

Living the country life in Qixi.

I had come to Qixi via Guangzhou, the provincial capital and a two-and-a-half-hour flight south from Shanghai. Guangzhou feels like another louche tropical metropolis: Caracas or Jakarta, with pink and red flowers drowsily hanging over the expressway. If Shanghai is China’s answer to New York, this area is China’s version of Southern California — here dense, here rural, all connected by highways, with good weather and a middle-class prosperity often mocked as a cultural wasteland, with nothing but corporate theme parks and fancy shopping malls to visit. 

At the Institute for Public Policy, a think tank affiliated with the South China University of Technology, I met with a researcher named Lin Huihuang who told me about China’s “urban villages.” As cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen grew, Lin explained, they attracted rural migrants who constructed or adapted old buildings into micro-communities, united by allegiance to some shared hometown — something akin to the Chinatowns in American cities, except these are little pockets of culture from elsewhere within the nation, not outside it. 

But even as the population moved from villages to cities, the cities themselves sucked up rural land, sprawling endlessly. Guangdong today is nothing but city, stretching on seemingly forever through nine distinct urban hubs — like the “No-Stop City” that the Italian modernist architecture firm Archizoom imagined back in the 1960s. 

From Guangzhou I headed further south to Jiangmen. The high-speed train shot through a place that was neither city nor country but a landscape of peaks and waves: endless industrial zones, intense factory farms, massive mounds of earth and piles of shattered glass and wood, towers stretching on and on and on. They had to be empty, I thought to myself. Some of them were missing windows. Then I saw wet laundry hanging on the balconies. 

It almost resembled a war zone — what Liang called “splintered dead things.” In some ways it is a war zone: Guangdong is the battlefield of China’s war to dominate the global economy’s commanding heights. The province’s GDP is bigger than Russia’s. And with a population of 126 million, it has roughly the equivalent of half of America’s cities combined. If Russia exports oil and gas to the world, China exports what Marx called “frozen labor,” the captured work that adds value to manufactured products. China’s exports are not commodities, but the life force and time of its working-class population. And this is where they live.

I stopped by a Jiangmen research lab where my friend Li Jia is working on technologies that can bring China to carbon neutrality. Li took me up to the top floor and pointed out the tower where Liang Qichao, the famous Chinese reformer of yore, was born. As Liang famously wrote in “Impressions from Travels in Europe,” “We human beings have not secured happiness; on the contrary, science gives us catastrophes.” 

Villagers at home in Anhui Province.

People of our generation more or less all have the experience of hunger or even starvation; during the Three Years of Natural Disaster … I was in school. Suffering from food shortages, I could only drink soup at night.

—Xi Jinping

The urban-rural divide has been a political one in China for generations. If the fundamental goal of Chinese modernity is to be both modern and Chinese, Chinese politics is the struggle over which of the two receives more emphasis. 

The right or pro-development side tends to argue that only economic growth can save China, and policies aligned with capital and hence the cities can drive that. The left or populist side, with sentimental and material connections to the rural population, predominantly believes that the heartland is the life of Chinese people. Or as Lin Chun of the London School of Economics put it to me, “The Chinese land remembers the struggles of her people, and sighs” — in other words, the official histories will never remember the work of the common people, but the land itself will. The left’s position — that China and Chinese culture is simply the collective life of the people — can make leftists seem jarringly “conservative” to outsiders.

After seizing power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party immediately set upon a program of rural reform, redistributing land controlled by landlords to approximately 300 million peasant farmers, resulting in a brief uptick in prosperity. But then a wave of central consolidation and the construction of agricultural collectives led to discrepancies between supply and demand — or in layman’s terms, famine. It was China’s worst ever, and as the government became increasingly desperate to purchase grain from the international market to feed its starving population, the United States imposed an embargo, giving the Party an early and unforgettable lesson in food security. 

Decentralization followed in fits and starts, but it wasn’t until Du Runsheng, who reversed agricultural collectivism and returned to the decentralized model, that farmers were really empowered to decide for themselves once more. A civil war hero, Du worked on land reform in central China and Beijing in the 1950s, but like Deng Xiaoping, was deposed during the Cultural Revolution years, which he spent marinating over the issues of rural poverty. He was rehabilitated in 1978 and rose to become the director of the State Council’s Rural Development Research Center, eventually earning himself the unofficial title of “China’s father of rural reform.” 

Du, whose students include the World Bank’s former chief economist Justin Yifu Lin and China’s current vice president Wang Qishan, started the tradition of putting out a “number one central document” every year around the time of China’s spring festival. This document starts every year by advocating for rural reforms and farm issues, symbolically placing farmers at the top of the national agenda. The government has continued to issue these policy briefs annually — this year’s, the 19th, focused on rural well-being — but in recent years, the goal of rural reform has started to seem like the obvious direction for further Chinese growth. 

Over the past decades of “reform and opening,” globally-minded Chinese advocated building the economy by engaging with the outside world, even at the risk of losing cultural particularity, a process that has disproportionally benefited the new urban middle class and rich. This form of politics has often been practiced through entrepreneurship, outside of the government or political processes. Back in the 1980s, those leaving the earthy state sector, associated with the north, for the markets of the south, with their fluid flows of capital and population, were said to be “下海” — “jumping into the ocean.” The changes that resulted, even if they didn’t emerge from politics as such, have fundamentally altered the nature of Chinese life. 

The map of China’s GDP per capita skews heavily to the south, with Beijing the sole exception; China’s agricultural production, on the other hand, is almost precisely the opposite, with Dongbei, Henan and Shandong in the north the top producers. Far from being dead space, these sites of production are viewed as critical national security assets; the only alternative to growing food at home is importing it from potentially hostile countries like the U.S., Australia and Canada, and thus being at the mercy of sanctions. 

“Villages are to China what stem cells are to the human body: a latent source of strength that enables China to regenerate itself when it is injured.”

The CCP knows intellectually as well as emotionally that allowing foreigners to control the Chinese food supply is akin to giving up on China’s sovereignty. Food security in China is legally mandated, not only nationally but even regionally, with mayors of cities officially required to produce most of the vegetables consumed in their cities — a policy dating to Du’s heyday in the 1980s. 

As Even Rogers Pay, an agriculture analyst in Beijing, told me, China’s leaders have long known they would eventually need to modernize rural agricultural systems and land rights. “But sorting out how to advance these complex and mostly thankless reforms without horrible unintended consequences posed a challenge,” Pay said. As Xi Jinping put it shortly after taking office: “The easy reforms that everyone is happy about have been done, the delicious meat has been eaten, and what’s left is hard bones that are difficult to gnaw.” 

The government has been gnawing those bones over recent years, with poverty eradication campaigns and rural revitalization strategies, which aim to remove barriers between investors and the agriculture sector, as well as incentivize people who want to return to the countryside and start a business. 

“Top leadership realized that rising inequality between rural and urban residents posed an existential threat to China’s political stability and to support for the Party,” Pay said. “Deng Xiaoping had famously called to ‘let some people get rich first,’ but with first-tier cities at or near developed world standards of living, and rural areas lacking toilets and running water, it was only a matter of time before rural people would start wondering if they were ever going to be on the ‘get rich’ list.”

Under Xi, the left is arguing for lower GDP targets, “ecological civilization” and “common prosperity” — policies that Yuen Yuen Ang, a scholar at the University of Michigan, compares to America’s Progressive Movement. From this point of view, China isn’t closing to the West so much as pivoting its attention to the hundreds of millions of Chinese who don’t have adequate education or nutrition, and haven’t yet been integrated into the economy. China’s closure during the COVID years has allowed the country to somehow become more itself, like pickles fermenting and maturing in a jar buried in the garden.

To some extent, as Chinese parents found Montessori, Waldorf and Schumacher schools, we can say we’ve seen this before: in the West in the early 1960s, when prosperity engendered alienation from the new materialistic mass society. In distinction to the West, however, China is under the unified control of an avowedly Marxist organization, one structured as a meritocratic one-party state of philosopher kings. For them, China is a math problem: population times territory. Solve for utopia. 

In Qixi.

Around eight years ago, newcomers started arriving in Qixi. One was Lin Jie, whose husband is the chairman of a publically listed company in Zhongshan, who signed a decade-long lease from the original villagers and started building up an ecological agriculture business. 

Wu Juan and her family arrived during the pandemic, subleasing from Lin the farmstead where her family lives in now. Like many of these new migrants, Wu is a graduate of one of urban China’s elite universities — in her case, Fudan University in Shanghai. She had been a journalist for one of Zhongshan’s newspapers for years, covering lifestyle in the prosperous provincial city. But she felt restless in the city, stuck in a life that didn’t allow for variation or exploration. And then the pandemic hit. 

For the past five years, schools all over China’s middle-class belt — the southern coast from Guangdong up to Beijing — have been trying to adjust to the central government’s shift in educational priorities toward a new focus on turning China into an “ecological civilization.” Wu, a passionate birdwatcher, took advantage of that development to create a small business that takes local schoolchildren on trips into the mountains. Wu calls it “自然教育” (“nature education”) and she infuses her classes with ancient Chinese idioms like “天人合一” — “the Earth and humanity are one.”

“What I understand by nature education is not just taking children into nature to know birds and bugs, but to use nature to pass on the connotation of Chinese culture to children and nourish them,” she told me. Her students practice calligraphy on their field trips, so that they can travel back to the days of oracle bone inscriptions and notice how Chinese characters are really pictograms of natural objects. They learn to identify animals, like the red-billed blue magpie, which appear in the poetry that all Chinese students memorize in school. They chant poems from the “Book of Songs,” many of the animals from which can still be seen — and, since it’s Guangdong, eaten. During winter and summer vacations, she takes them to nature reserves all over China to tell them the stories of China’s mountains, rivers and rare animals and plants. 

“For its leaders, China is a math problem: population times territory. Solve for utopia.”

For the Wu family and others, Qixi’s nature and scenery were a necessary aspect of the way they wanted to live, but not everything. Ultimately, the vibrant community of like-minded people made the difference. People here aren’t looking for Thoreauvian isolation — they are more interested in a shared project. He Xuan, one of the new villagers, quoted the Confucian sage Mencius:  “天时地利人和” — “A combination of good timing, good place and talent.”

She went on: “They are designers, architects, educators, farm owners, entrepreneurs, a carpenter, an independent illustrator, a baker and community organizers.” To me, they seemed focused on practical goals grounded in daily life, community and the success of their small businesses; they were familiar with the history of Chinese radical thought, but they wouldn’t have been out of place in an American college town.

Over the years, as organic farms morphed into experimental schools and carpentry workshops and cafes appeared, the new villagers began to feel more confident in their new identity — and capable of including the older villagers in their plans. Most of the original villagers seem to appreciate the resources that the new villagers have brought to the table, and many even volunteer to help. “We are not here to conquer land and resources,” He said. “We are here as villagers ourselves, wanting to share and co-create a good life together.” In April this year, village residents both new and old came together to formalize a new administrative structure for the town, one based on ecologically minded agriculture, small businesses and tourism. 

Another of the new villagers, Xiao Hao, was born in a village in Henan, got an education with the radical agronomist Wen Tiejun and helped launch two local farms and a “learning garden” that hosts an experimental holistic educational program for adults. His humble, entrepreneurial attitude to village life differs qualitatively from the sages and radical intellectuals in Chinese history, the traditional wise men who’ve gone down to educate the provincials.

By doing business in the village, Hao related to the villagers in an equal way. (That may be wishful thinking on his part — the locals are likely millionaires due to the value of their inherited homes, with Zhongshan so close.) He explained that this sort of village only makes sense in China’s industrialized core. The inland (内地) of his home region Henan is different: a site of intensive agricultural production. The Cantonese, he told me, have already been through industrialization, so now some aspire to return to nature. The Henanese, on the other hand, have not fully industrialized and — with factories like the big new Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou increasingly automated — they may never. The values of economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and spiritual sustainability, Hao concluded, wouldn’t make sense in a poor region. 

From 2011 to 2016, Ou Ning (right) worked to transform Bishan village in Anhui Province into a rural artist utopia.

Driving back into the sprawl after leaving Qixi, I recalled a trip during Chinese New Year of 2014 to interview Ou Ning at his experimental village at Bishan, in Anhui Province. Ou, a curator and artist who was friendly with Rem Koolhaas and Hou Hanru, had tried to create a cultural economy capable of supporting the local village. It was a truly beautiful place: Old buildings had been restored, hosting bookstores, teashops and classrooms. In front of a wood stove surrounded by books, he explained to me the need to give a dignified way of life to rural Chinese, and to preserve architectural heritage. Fundamentally, though, Ou was too far ahead of his time. His project seemed like an individual dream, and in the end, the government dismantled it. 

Earlier that holiday season, a friend and I decided to visit the hometown of a construction foreman named Xiao Jing who had a landscape architecture business. A short drive from Bishan, Jing’s village was everything Ou was fighting against. It was largely abandoned, with huge, flashy homes built with remittances from Shanghai. And it was cold — Jing never bothered to connect it to the electrical grid, since he spent no more than a week or two a year there, and so we had to sleep with sweaters and puffy coats on. 

In China, country cooking is called “土菜” — “dirt food” — which hints at the earthy element of rural life. During my visit, everybody was constantly drunk, barely washing dirt off vegetables pulled from the ground, throwing leaves and roots into the wok before staggering off to light illegal fireworks. Cut off from traditions except for quasi-tribal family reunions and superstitions, environmentally destructive and part of a de facto economic caste system, Jing’s way of life is one that the government is trying to change by dampening urban real estate markets — the source of easy money for decades — and encouraging village-scale regeneration. I haven’t seen Jing for a while, but he still regularly posts videos on WeChat of his team renovating villas and shopping malls in Shanghai’s endless suburbs. 

From these somewhat useless activities, GDP growth is created, along with endless waste and dilapidation. The pursuit of empty growth by local government officials, driven by short-term incentives and no real connection to local places, has created a generic Chinese urbanism that is undoubtedly much wealthier than what came before, on paper at least, but at the cost of having deformed the population. In 1942, Eileen Zhang wrote that “Shanghai people are distilled from traditional Chinese people under the pressure of modern life; they are the product of a deformed mix of old and new culture.” While the unprecedented condition of material abundance for the masses in China can feel like the end of history — a history defined by shortage, hard work, folk medicine and humble cuisine — during the droning tedium of pandemic-era China, the entire country started asking: Is that all there is?

Villages are to China what stem cells are to the human body: a latent source of strength that enables China to regenerate itself when it is injured. In this sense, nearly 40% of China’s population are like America’s “preppers,” with real skills to support themselves in times of crisis. As the saying goes, Japan and Korea create technology, while China is a technology: a vast social factory whose commodity is a population unified by a core set of values, yet spread out across a continent and self-reliant. 

“China has swallowed the world economy, and is struggling to avoid being swallowed by it. Its introspective turn is led by the government, but the need is felt by all sorts of people.”

Today, as China attempts to build an economic autarky, free from sanctions and foreign interference, it is trying to catalyze another decade or two of growth from the still undeveloped rural interior, the consistent focus of national policy document number one. Chinese leaders may complain about Western hegemony — but to paraphrase the Belgian writer Raoul Vaneigem: It’s not the cops, it’s the geometry. It’s the 540 million rural peasants who are the ones increasingly the subject of economic hopes for the future as the country seeks to build a “小康社会” — a “society of moderate prosperity.”

When a venture capitalist recently commented that “the next China is China,” he was referring to this inward turn — a literal turn inward, from cities to villages. And when Alibaba announced that it was “donating” 100 billion RMB ($15.5 billion) to charity, China’s rural hinterland featured prominently. Unlocking rural China’s potential using capital outlays and technological silver bullets is the game plan for China’s next 10 years. Local governments today see their task as solving China’s math problem for equality between classes as well as regions, material abundance and cultural harmony. In 2001, the former premier Zhu Rongji claimed that for “the first time in Chinese history, the CCP succeeded in solving China’s food problem, once and for all.” The end to endemic famine in China, a signal pre-WTO economic achievement, laid the groundwork for the “society of moderate prosperity” that has followed.

In Western countries, we understand the world through John Locke’s notion of “rights,” but as John Gray has observed, Chinese politics has filtered through Western thinkers such as Marx and Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. Liang Shuming opposed the materialist orientation of imported Enlightenment thinkers with Buddhist sutras: emptiness is presence, and presence is emptiness (“色即是空,空即是色”). 

It sounds pretty abstract until you find yourself on a highway in a Chinese industrial zone, wondering what the point of it all is, and how it can make anybody happy. In 1979, Guy Alitto cited Liang’s prediction about the spiritual dead-end that development for its own sake could become when he wrote: “The Chinese city had become a model of the Western bourgeois society — an artificially created place of selfish, competitive individualists with ‘no feelings for others’ — it was the enemy.” Two generations later, China has swallowed the world economy, and is struggling to avoid being swallowed by it. Its introspective turn is led by the government, but the need is felt by all sorts of people. 

Not far from Zouping, the village in the Shandong countryside that was the site of Liang’s experimental community-based development policies, is the world’s largest peach orchard. Themed as a tourist attraction, it echoes the Chinese legend of the peach blossom spring, in which a fisherman who almost drowned in a storm wakes up in an idyllic place that he doesn’t recognize. The locals were friendly, and the food plentiful. 

But what about the wars and the foreigners, the fisherman asked? What foreigners, the villagers of the peach blossom spring replied — we’ve never heard of such a thing. When the fisherman left after a week, the villagers told him it would be pointless to try to return, but he marked the way and told others about the utopia he had stumbled across. No one was ever able to find it.