BEIJING, Jan. 10, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — A total of 22 teachers and students from prominent foreign universities made their mark on China’s rural revitalization during a recent project in East China’s Zhejiang Province, a move to document and empower the modern development of a Chinese village from an international perspective.
The project "Topia Plan" was initiated by Hua Jiahe, a postgraduate student studying at Harvard University committed to helping the world gain a deeper understanding of Chinese rural communities and contributing to their revitalization through joint efforts by students of top international schools.
Through their immersive experiences in Chinese rural life, students majoring in different subjects such as design, architecture, art, economics and sociology share the stories of China, seek solutions to local development from their own perspectives, and promote cultural exchanges between Chinese and foreign youngsters.
During the 10-day sojourn and research in Gejia village, Dajiahe township, Ninghai county in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, starting from December 22, 2023, students from prestigious Chinese, US, British and German universities visited local villagers, conducted surveys, created art installations, thrashed out business proposals and shared their rural life with their peers abroad, showcasing a "different" Chinese village to global youth.
Richard Peiser, a professor with the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, sent a video message in December 2023 to acknowledge the students’ efforts.
"You have been documenting and sharing the unique aspects of Chinese rural life in Gejia village. You built a bridge of cultural exchanges between China and the US," Peiser said.
When connecting with their schoolmates via video calls, the Chinese students also changed some foreigners’ perceptions about rural life in China, giving them a glimpse of how a rural community explored a unique model to shake off poverty.
"I’m surprised. I used to think that villages in China were all mud houses. I’m curious about how Chinese villages entice young talents back with entrepreneurship opportunities," said Tyler, a student with the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.
Seeing the village’s cultural industry, another Harvard student Kyle Meyer gave the project a thumbs-up.
"It was so interesting. The genuine joy stems from the richness of our inner world. In terms of leveraging the cultural heritage of the village, there is so much more we can do," said Meyer.
Hua told the Global Times on Sunday that the "Topia Plan" is an experiment to explore how the younger generation could contribute to the Chinese rural revitalization in collaboration with local residents.
"It’s not a field trip and we are not teachers giving lessons to the villagers. It’s an experiment of mutual learning that helps us get into a state of happiness and simplicity. I want to give what I’ve learned to those in need. It’s a sense of social responsibility," said Hua, who majors in architecture and design.
"As a young designer, I have been thinking about what attitudes we should adopt for rural revitalization and I’ve got the answer now. We want to be a co-builder for rural development and draw more young people to the cause," she said.
Gejia village, located in a remote mountainous area in Ningbo with a population of about 1,600, was a small, underdeveloped village largely short of any industry.
In an effort to pull the village out of poverty, the local government launched a campaign called "rural revitalization through art" in 2019, aimed at boosting the local economy by developing art-related industries. An artist team led by Cong Zhiqiang, a professor at the School of Arts, Renmin University of China, was invited to take the helm of the campaign.
Thanks to these joint efforts, the collective yearly income of Gejia increased from around 120,000 yuan ($16,892) in 2019 to 500,000 yuan in 2021, Ge Wanyong, Party secretary of Gejia village, told the Global Times.
Inspired by the campaign, villagers started handicraft production and retail sales of cultural and creative artworks while developing local cuisine and art workshops. Taking advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities, a total of 48 brands were born in the village including white chrysanthemum milk tea and sweet green rice ball cakes. The art-related industry brought the annual number of tourists to about 100,000 in 2021.
Chen Wei, Party secretary of Dajiahe township, told the Global Times that the art campaign has empowered local villagers and sparked their creativity and enthusiasm.
"The villagers turned from bystanders to participants. Encouraged by the campaign, Gejia villagers added an artistic flair to their traditional craftsmanship. Waste materials like bamboo and stones were reused and made into artworks," Chen noted.
Despite the total tax revenue of the town reaching a record high of 130 million yuan in 2023, the road of rural revitalization is still full of bumps.
"The overall development of the town is hamstrung by an aging population and a shortage of young labor. It’s also difficult to scale up the private handicraft industry," Chen said.
"I heard of the story of Gejia from media reports and the ‘Topia Plan’ is a continuous effort to facilitate the development of the village as it is still hampered by an aging population and low personal income. With the development of infrastructure, the village has the potential of growing to become a tourist spot," said Hua.
Ding Hancong, a student majoring in Landscape Architecture at Cornell University, told the Global Times on Monday that he was happy to see the changes when returning to Gejia after a trip in 2019 with Cong.
"The village was like a barren field with a dirt path threading through the village back then. Residents would not open their doors to visitors and didn’t know anything about art. When we returned to the village five years later, art has been infused in every corner of the village thanks to the renovation project," Ding said.
"But there is still room for improvement. The scale of the individual handicraft industry in the village is relatively small. When producing artworks, there is a lack of understanding in terms of publicity and promotion. So it’s difficult to carve out a niche in the market. Yet, their passion for art has touched me and brought me back," Ding noted.
Heart of Gejia
The participants of the "Topia Plan" were divided into different groups, including architecture, art, economics, music and dance. Based on their research and surveys, the students turned their ideas into tangible works.
"We hope we can design something practical and draw young people back to the village to find a sense of belonging. We want to create an artwork that can retain young talents. An art installation should be a symbol of the spirit of Gejia village and usable by every resident. It’s a part of their life," Ding said.
"Gejia is abundant in bamboo, an important element of Chinese culture. So we decided to create an installation to light up the sky with bamboo, steel frame and lights, which stands for the perseverance of the local people."
By cutting, painting and connecting bamboo pieces, the abstract family tree network of Gejia village was presented in the shape of an osmanthus tree, an iconic plant for the village. With the bamboo structure breaking through the steel frame, the large interactive art piece reflects the pioneering spirit of the villagers and serves a leisure space for tourists and residents. When lit up at night, it’s like the beating heart of Gejia village, Ding said.
In collaboration with local artists, the students turned a number of white, cold and abstract boxes into a detachable communal table that tells the story of Gejia.
Ge Xianrong, the 70-year-old director of the village’s art museum, was invited to paint her favorite home tile artwork onto the communal table.
"The pink boxes, like us, are both outsiders and something that inherently belongs to the village. Watching children drawing on the installation or villagers using it as a table or rack, I realized that good designs require everyone to be a designer. Rural development needs to have collaborative decisions with villagers," said project initiator Hua. "This experiment left villagers not only an installation, but also my vision that more designers studying overseas could return to China’s countryside. Rural development is not just about checking in a tourist spot, but about construction and designing in cooperation with the villagers."
Among the proposals to draw young talents back to the village, a "digital nomad retreat center" stood out. The retreat center, which consists of a dining hall, café and home stay area, was designed as a "nursing" home for stressed-out youth working in urban areas.
The retreat center was jointly constructed and is managed by young people and local residents. Taking advantage of the natural beauty and artistic vibe of the village, the retreat center, along with a youth theater, aims to become a landmark leisure facility for the nomadic workers in Gejia, according to Hua.
Osmanthus cake and qingtuan, or sweet green rice balls, are two iconic local snacks in Gejia village. In a bid to promote the two traditional desserts, the students mapped out a tailor-made business plan.
"We have created the brand story of ‘100 years of ancestral recipe, three generations of inheritance’ specifically for qingtuan. By using the cultural symbols in the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature and the 24 Solar Terms, qingtuan can become a high-end product in the market," Hua noted.
The cultural and creative products from the Palace Museum in Beijing became popular gifts because of innovations based on the museum’s rich cultural legacy. Similarly, through cultural empowerment, local cuisines in Gejia can also take up a better share in the market, said Hua.
Shan Yicong, who is pursuing a Master of Architecture Degree at Princeton University, told the Global Times that they tried to explore a new operational model of co-building Gejia village with local residents and young workers.
"We are trying to do find solutions to commercialize the countryside and find a right track of sustainable development for the village. We will continue to think about what architects can do for Chinese rural development," said Shan.
Party secretary Chen said that the students have offered practical proposals for rural development from an international perspective and vision, which effectively contributed to the rural revitalization.
The students put forward many suggestions for architecture design, brand design and marketing strategy for our cultural products. As a result, the project builds a bridge to connect friends from China and abroad, Chen noted.
Whether it is via livestreaming or social media platforms, they showcased the most authentic rural life to the world and allowed international friends to gain a better understanding of China’s rural areas, farmers and folk culture.
The arrival of young people has breathed new life into the villages and will attract more young people to return to further contribute to rural revitalization, said Chen.
Chen said that the villagers from Gejia will visit Harvard University in spring to share their stories with global youth.