Rural China Adapts to Modern Realities

(This article was originally published in the Morningside Post)

By David Borenstein

SICHUAN PROVINCE-The Gao family lives in Anlong Village in Sichuan Province. Their home is filled with potted plants, orchards, drying produce, and the experiments they conduct to make their home greener and more sustainable. They have developed a manmade wetland water filtration system, make their own compost, and use rice husks instead of soap to clean dishes. They support themselves by selling organic vegetables directly to consumers in cities. Unlike peasants elsewhere in China, they have eliminated the need to migrate to cities and work in coastal factories. Their lifestyle is part of Anlong Village’s collective effort to create a new way of living in the Chinese countryside.

China’s unequivocal embrace of urbanization in the mid-1980s has not only caused disproportionate investment and reform in urban areas and economic disparity between the city and the countryside, but has also perpetuated a negative image of the village or peasant as backward and unmodern, and of the countryside as needing urbanization. Pervasive national discourse creates extreme prejudice against the rural population. The cosmopolitan, trendy urbanite is often considered of high “suzhi” or quality, while the old-fashioned farmer is almost always considered low “suzhi.” The pervasiveness of this stereotype was apparent in a traditional rural township in Sichuan province, where peasants said they were too embarrassed to be interviewed because of their low “suzhi.”

Policymakers, academics, and officials have promoted temporary rural migration to the cities to bring capital into the countryside and to “civilize” villagers. The theory, as explained by the party secretary of the township in Sichuan province, is that the farmers can learn from urbanites and then return to the countryside and improve their community’s “suzhi.”

Unbalanced development and a decline in farming revenues have created a countryside where peasants usually have no choice but to migrate. Reinforcing this trend is a national culture that equates the urban with the civilized. As a result, most rural Chinese believe that migration is a necessary way of life—both for the economic opportunities it offers and the chance to improve their “suzhi.”

This scenario has created a vicious negative cycle. In many villages most people of working age have left to work in cities, turning communities into ghost towns with virtually only young children and the elderly remaining. Villagers unable to migrate sometimes join crime networks because of the sparse  local economic opportunities. In many villages, sanitation and waste are growing increasingly serious because many of those who remain plan to leave as soon as possible and neglect their community. As villages slowly deteriorate, it only reinforces the perception that rural life is inferior and, again, furthers the neglect. However, peasants like the Gaos have developed a method of economic production and conception of progress that are powerful challenges to China’s status quo.

The Gaos operate an organic farm in Anlong Village. Working in a co-op with seven other families, they run an enterprise they have come to call “Jiankang Shucai Peisong,” or Healthful Vegetable Delivery. It involves selling produce directly to consumers while incorporating only sustainable and organic farming techniques. Once a week the Gaos’ eldest son, Gao Yicheng, delivers produce from the co-op to multiple drop off-points in Chengdu, 30 kilometers away.

The co-op uses the term “cheng xiang hu zhu” or urban-rural mutual aid to describe its operation. The Gaos explain this concept as a method of economic production that benefits both rural and urban areas. The model has proved successful. The Gaos are able to support themselves through their operation, circumnavigating the social and economic disincentives of family farming.

A highly iconoclastic culture and discourse have developed in the co-op. Several of the Gaos explained that progress should not be measured in urbanization or increasing incomes. According to Gao Yicheng, “progress should be defined by the villages themselves.” Central to the Gaos’ vision of progress is a respect for their community. They have educated themselves on sustainable agricultural practices by seeking assistance from environmental NGOs and self-study. For example, instead of using a conventional toilet, they have installed an “ecological urine-diverting dry toilet.” According to So-Han Fan, a Chengdu-based NGO professional who has worked with the Anlong co-op, the toilet promotes healthy aerobic composting by separating urine and feces so that they can be converted separately into different forms of fertilizer. The Gaos also created artificial wetlands around their farm. The wetlands purify wastewater from the house, which is then released into nearby rivers or stored in fishponds.

Gao Qingrong, 32, the eldest daughter of the Gaos, was once a migrant laborer in southern China, just one of more than 230 million others. But when she came home in 2007 for the Chinese Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, and saw how difficult it was for her family to tend the farm alone, she decided to stay.

She returned to Anlong just in time to attend a sustainable farming workshop conducted by a Chengdu-based environmental NGO. Something about the workshop inspired her deeply. Since then, Qingrong has devoted herself to developing sustainable, community-oriented farming practices. In 2010, her efforts caught the eyes of PeaceWomen Across the Globe, a Swiss organization that assists women involved in activities that promote peace. The organization named Qingrong one of its 1,000 PeaceWomen fellows and provided funding for her to attend workshops on sustainable farming practices.

Qingrong believes that prevailing attitudes toward the countryside hurts villages. “Our media and culture dupe us into believing we don’t want to farm, which creates bad farms and bad farmers” she said. “But we can think for ourselves and set our own path. I don’t need to migrate.”

And Qingrong remains positive about the future. “There are plenty of possibilities for sustainable farming to continue expanding in China,” she said. “People will come to learn about the environmental and health dangers of conventional farming. Once people know about them, they’ll make a change.”

The model the Gaos operate is not a solution to all of China’s rural problems. However, it is a first step in fighting the national prejudice toward the countryside and has turned an enclave in Anlong Village into not only a more desirable but also a more sustainable place to live.



David Borenstein has conducted extensive ethnographic research on Chinese rural development. From 2009 to 2010, David conducted fieldwork in the Sichuan countryside as a Fulbright fellow researching peasant resistance to rural development policies.

[Photo courtesy of autan]


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