The Rural Challenge in China
11. July 2018
2011 is considered the year when the urbanization rate in China exceeded the fifty per cent mark. Young people have been moving to cities because they cannot see a future in their rural places of their origin. As early as 2006, the National People’s Congress decided to introduce a “New Socialist Agriculture” and to build “New Socialist Villages” to improve living standards in rural areas. Since then, old villages have been demolished to expand farmland and their inhabitants have been moved to compact, multi-storey buildings. Little remains of this nation’s centuries-old cultural tradition based on agriculture and horticulture. More than just a few buildings are lost in this process.
Today, the overall situation in rural China is complex. The population in many urban areas is still growing and one wonders where the young people come from and what impact their emigration has on their regions of origin. Urbanization is in fact causing villages, towns and regions to shrink. In 2014, the government registered 253 million people as a ‘floating population’, which has no permanent right of residence in the city. Ninety per cent of these were born after 1980. They go to the city for work and the hope to live a better life there. As statistics in provinces such as Heilonjiang or Guizhou show, many communities lost significant populations between 2005 and 2015: in Daxing’anling Prefecture, Heilongjiang Province, the population decreased by more than ten per cent, and in the Guyuan District in Ningxia or Qiandongnan Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou by more than twenty per cent. This dramatic population decline signals that a comprehensive strategy is needed to give people in rural areas a future beyond folklore.
For the past 30 to 40 years, farmers have renovated their buildings in line with their own interpretations of the latest fashion. According to Hsieh Ying-chun “the number of houses built in rural areas was four to five times higher than in cities. [...] Unfortunately, the houses built after China’s [economic] opening were not safe at all.” This huge quantity of new buildings was self-built without architects, who only came into play when the government decided to build “New Socialist Villages” in order to free up the sites of the old villages for other purposes. It is often the children working in the cities who provide the money to build these new homes, hoping to live there themselves someday. As many examples worldwide prove, this dream usually does not come true. Furthermore, their investments also do not decisively contribute to the improvement of the local situation, when there is no overriding strategic vision to guide this self-building approach.
With the slogan "Building a Future Countryside" the Chinese Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale shows some positive aspects of how things currently stand with efforts to create a new rural architecture in China. Curator Li Xiangning and his team provide an overview of how architects respond to challenges through projects that tailored to specific situations. For a set of subthemes, including culture, community, production, housing, tourism and the future, Li has selected five to seven representative projects and architectural approaches. In front of the pavilion, Shanghai-based architect Philip F. Yuan has created a new pavilion using digital fabrication technology, suggesting new construction possibilities – that will certainly not reach all corners of the country within the near future.
In some cases, such methods of construction could help to restore self-confidence of the villagers, but it also raises the question of whether the visual expression offered by architects from urban centres corresponds to the self-image of rural residents, or whether such projects are ultimately just the staging for investments that sweeten the nostalgic dreams of the urban population with a contemporary twist? The projects shown in Venice cover a wide range – from the pigsty to the museum, encompassing schools and village structures – and highlight strategies that can give rural life a future. The quality of design is impressive, but always raises the question of how they are accepted by the local population and what effect they can unfold.
The exhibition ‘RURAL MOVES Songyang Story’ at the gallery ‘Aedes Architecture Forum’ in Berlin this past Spring showed the unique architecture projects of Xu Tiantian in the district of Songyang in Zhejiang province. These projects are also included in the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale, and the exhibition will later travel to Vienna, Austria and Basel, Switzerland. This growing public interest in rural development in China, is partly due to an increasing realization that the urban-rural gap in terms of economic development, cultural participation and social unrest, will be also part of the challenge facing politicians, planners and architects addressing the future of rural areas in Europe.
The overall situation in rural China is one of shrinking villages and small towns with no future prospects. Young people continue to leave their homes for economic reasons, even when they actually want to stay. For the future, a holistic strategy is needed that defines a new vision, accommodating heterogeneous goals. Economic conditions, social mobility, access to education and healthcare, and flexible policy implementation will all be necessary in order to harmonize living conditions across city and countryside. Only then can architects contribute with effective projects to the stabilization of rural regions, and encourage a contemporary identity through (their) architecture.