Deng Xiao Ping, the 1980s post-Mao era Chinese premier was a liberal reformist who developed a vision for special economic zones. These entrepreneurial districts such as Shenzhen in South China, which transformed from a fishing village to a booming city of over 12 million inhabitants, sowed the seeds for the economic explosion that China has carefully steered over the last 30 years.
At the time and for many years during the initial boom, the rural population in China was artificially high at over 60% versus the country’s level of economic development. Government policy dictated that citizens must remain in the district where they were born, where services and jobs were allocated to them. In fact the population and local gene pools had been so stable over centuries that pharmaceutical companies would collaborate with the government to conduct research in virtually controlled conditions. The only exceptions to this were elite students, the most glittering talents in the country, who were granted a “metal bowl” upon graduation, a metaphor for a rice bowl which never breaks and a job for life. These students were allowed to remain in the cities where they had graduated, to drive China’s growth.
All this changed with China’s great urban regeneration, property development, infrastructure and manufacturing leaps forward. Suddenly high volumes of workers were required in cities and many left the countryside and their families, often rarely seeing them throughout the year, to take advantage of the money to be made and sent home. They left behind 19th century rural living conditions; no running water, no heating, dirt roads, no transport, limited medical resources, basic education facilities. This was the situation I encountered when I first visited rural China over 17 years ago. Since then in the shortest time frame probably ever achieved by any nation in the world, people’s living standards in the countryside have been revolutionised. New homes, cars, road infrastructure, broadband, running water, more sophisticated education, teaching in standard Mandarin versus local dialect among many other developments.
In much the same way as Britain during the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, Chinese cities have rapidly expanded, often in a brutal manner that has not put people at the heart. Instead the focus has often been throwing up houses and infrastructure as fast as possible. This has proved to be exhausting for many Chinese people, leaving them yearning for a slower pace and the rural homes where many of them grew up. With a renewed interest in the countryside opportunistic developers are seizing the initiative to buy up entire villages to prettify them for maximum return. Not surprisingly the result is often a one-size-fits-all approach and a little sad. However this is not always the case. A small number of Chinese people are returning to their family home and undertaking sensitive restorations, sparking a new trend, a rural retreat.
A Shanghai-based sculptor, Ma Yuncan, has restored his family home in Henan and the result is stunning. The kind of old China that foreigners dream of when they travel there, but can’t always find. When I visited his home in Henan during Chinese New Year I also saw another newer property in an adjoining village, where an architecture graduate from London’s Royal College of Art had renovated the family home. Using a minimal style, but celebrating traditional techniques and antique furniture, the home also benefits from modern luxuries such as underfloor heating. Visitors were astounded and two families commissioned the architect to restore their rural homes in nearby villages. A small boy from next door summed it up “How have you made your house so beautiful?”
Let’s hope that China’s next wave of regeneration in the countryside can take forward this spirit of bespoke, carefully considered beauty. It certainly seems that Chinese people would like to see it that way.