- September 13, 2018
I spent the past fall touring China, my first return to my family’s home in six years. Every visit is like a game of catch-up to see what has changed. During these trips, I particularly enjoy flipping through the local TV channels to survey current trends in Chinese popular culture. On this visit, the proliferation of reality television shows stood out. State-sponsored stations have even hopped on the bandwagon with popular shows like Day Day Up, Happy Base Camp, and Road to Runway, taking a Big Brother approach by throwing numerous media personalities into one space and filming their interactions. Unique to the Chinese reality shows is the setting – “return to the rural.” The shows are filmed in small villages throughout rural China, featuring the local inhabitants and their customs, crafts, and day-to-day life.
This “return to the rural” theme had clearly influenced my family and friends. The trips they suggested no longer included the typical tourist hotspots; instead, they wanted to decamp to isolated villages. One memorable stay was in Nan Ping Chun, a village outside Huangshan in Anhui Province. We were hosted by a family friend who had opened a bed and breakfast in a renovated courtyard house dating from the Qing Dynasty. The village resonated with a particular beauty I had only found in films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (it was filmed there). The allure of the village was not from a superficial sense of nostalgia, but from the truly complex intersection of new and old architectures. There is no taxidermied architecture posing for tourists in Nan Ping Chun – the village is rapidly changing and bustling with a life of its own.
These changes can be attributed to a group of new residents, largely composed of filmmakers, artists, designers, and other intellectuals. This group of newcomers brought with them their architects, as the majority of homes for sale had been abandoned for decades. My host purchased a second home nearby and employed a young architect to design the project, while a friend in the neighborhood had hired architect Zhang Ke to renovate their home. These types of building projects employ local craftsmen, and the bed and breakfasts employ village elders to share vernacular culinary traditions. Nan Ping Chun today is far from a museum, instead it is an evolving community building on memories of the past.
This shift in the Chinese tourism zeitgeist did not emerge from a vacuum. It coincides with the rollout of the Chinese government’s twelfth Five-Year Plan in 2013, which focused on rural development in China. Some key highlights of the initiative are an attempt to grow township enterprises, develop platforms for farm tourism, reignite interest in cultural traditions through media, and stimulate growth of the rural service industry – hence the emergence of a cornucopia of shows featuring the rural sublime. Heavy subsidies were doled out to spur investment in rural infrastructure for water supply, electric and gas lines, highways, housing renovations, and the building of schools, cultural centers, and hospitals. This investment in rural infrastructure is part of a larger ongoing directive by the government to counter the immense strain put on cities by continual urbanization. This directive has opened the countryside to vast funds from public and private ventures, accelerating the development of physical and media infrastructure.
The result of this investment is a boom in rural tourism and the re-centering of Chinese popular media on cultural heritage and tradition, something that has been long neglected since the 1966 Cultural Revolution. It has drawn creatives and intellectuals to come not only as tourists but as new residents, injecting life into these previously dwindling towns. This rural resurgence has thus created a space for young Chinese architectural talent to sharpen their teeth on projects ranging from renovations to new builds to rural planning, and provides previously-rare opportunities to work in a context rich in history, culture, and now wealth. Talents such as Xu Tiantian, Zhang Lei, Yang Guiqing, Fan Beilei, and Kong Rui have started to gain both disciplinary and popular recognition due to their alignment with the larger narrative put forward by the media and the Politburo. As tourism and hospitality in the late 1970s flooded China with foreign ideas of International Style modernism, tourism and hospitality today instead provide Chinese architects a platform to test and export Chinese architectural ideas.