How to experience rural life in modern China
After decades of rampant development, it was feared that the rural Chinese way of life was lost for good. Thankfully Songyang County has revived it.
Songyang County is known as the ‘Last Hidden Land in Jiangnan’.
It sits nestled in a pretty river valley, 420 kilometres southwest of Shanghai. There are close to 400 villages dotted amongst the craggy cliffs. Emerald green terraces hug the sides of the beautiful Songyin river valley.
Songyang County looks like it has been lifted from an ancient Chinese water painting.
But like many rural areas in the country, Songyang had been left decimated by mass migration to the China’s mega-cities.
Thanks to the work of Beijing architect, Xu Tiantian, that has all changed.
Tiantian uses a method she calls ‘architectural acupuncture’ to revive and revitalise not just the villages but age-old industries as well.
Tiantian eschewed ‘iconic’ projects in favour of small, low cost local ‘interventions’.
The projects have limited budgets and reflect each villages’ heritage, calling upon local skills and local materials.
Old skills that have been lost are relearned. Old ways are embraced, ironically dragging faltering industries into the 21stCentury along the way.
A new book, The Songyang Story, showcases twenty of Tiantian’s most successful projects.
The book discusses how they affected Songyang County’s social fabric, housing, culture, industry, agriculture, landscape conservation, and tourism.
There’s a revitalised Brown Sugar Factory in Xing that doubles as a community centre when the ovens are switched off for 9 months of the year.
A teahouse in the Damushan Tea Valley. A camellia oil workshop in Hengzhang. A bamboo theatre in Hengkengcun.
The stone Hakka museum in Shicang used stonemasonry methods so old they had to be learned again.
The buildings are a return to China’s architectural roots.
Design is informed by feng shui and natural elements such as clay and wood encourage positive flow through the built space.
The projects have provided a panacea to urban professionals, sick of the cramped, stressful conditions of city life in China.
Wang Xiaodong returned his village of Huangyu to open a B&B.
‘Walking around here, I realized that this is the atmosphere and way of life I wanted,’ he said. ‘Looking at the building you feel relaxed, happy and comfortable.’
Follow the trail of Xu Tiantian’s incredible projects in Songyang County and you will too.
Main image: The new tofu factory beside a small river in Caizhai (© Wang Ziling)