Bishan Project: Restarting the Rural Reconstruction Movement

[ 2013-04-06 00:35:49 | 作者Author: OUNING ]
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Ou Ning in 2012 Bishan Harvestival. Photograph by Zhu Rui, November 3, 2012.

Bishan Project:
Restarting the Rural Reconstruction Movement


Ou Ning

During World War I, the leader of China's mass education and rural reconstruction movements Y. C. James Yen (1893 – 1900) was a student at Yale University majoring in political science and economics. In 1917, the Beiyang government (a series of military regimes that ruled from Beijing from 1912 to 1928) joined the Entente Powers of World War I, declaring war on Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and nearly 200,000 Chinese laborers entered the battlefields of Europe. After graduating from Yale in 1918, Yen volunteered his services in France to members of the Chinese Labor Corps, mostly writing letters for illiterate workers wanting to communicate with their families back home. It was here on the battlefields of Europe that Yen first had the idea of teaching laborers how to read and write, and also where he established the first ever Chinese-language labor publication zhonghua laogong zhoubao (China Workers' Weekly). Moved by Yen's teaching and assistance, one member of the labor corps sent Yen the wages he received for three years of service in Europe, which amounted to 365 French Francs. From this experience, Yen realized the potential for learning among the common people, and was inspired to return to China and start the mass education and rural reconstruction movements that ultimately gave shape to his lifelong dedication to developing the strength and knowledge of the people.

After enduring the slaughter of two world wars and the hardships posed by the Cold War, the countries of Europe sought to make real a European Union. Notions of mass education and rural reconstruction forged in the conflagration of Europe's battlefields swept mainland China during its Republican Era, but were not enough to dislodge entrenched political and social realities, and even today, more than a century later, China's leaders continue to seek improvements along these lines. During the Republican Era, the chaos and power struggles of warlordism gave rise to frequent changes in political power, as well as the proliferation of countless ideologies and social movements. Quests for industrialization and urbanization repeatedly washed over the country, but agrarianism was too deeply rooted in society, and the vast population of uneducated, closely-knit residents was unable to adapt to these changes touted as modernization. And even today, despite the rhetoric of a rising China, chronic backwardness plagues the nation.

At first China's leaders introduced communist political solutions from Europe, and more recently neoliberal economic ones from the United States, but both have resulted in endless problems. These modes of political administration and economic development have merely established a stage for party struggles or benefited society's upper strata, but never enabled the poor and working classes to guide history. Nonetheless, developing the strength and knowledge of the people is still an important talking point in today's China. After the turn of the new millennium, pressure on rural areas, agricultural industries and farmers to industrialize and urbanize has steadily increased, prompting some intellectuals to rethink the direction of China's development. Returning to the mass education and rural reconstruction movements of the Republican Era for ideas, they have launched new reconstruction campaigns in various parts of the country that make use of the political, economic and cultural resources of rural areas, and in doing so, have rejected globalization and excessive urbanization in favor of local issues.

The Bishan Project is one such project resulting from the history outlined above. In 2011, Zuo Jing and I chose Bishan Village in Anhui Province's Yixian County as the site for Bishan Commune, which is our experiment in rural reconstruction and living. In the first year we invited artists, architects, designers, musician, film directors, writers and student volunteers from around China to visit the Bishan area and survey local society. Based on this foundation, we started planning for the first Bishan Harvestival in cooperation with the villagers. Festival activities centered on the presentation of village history, protection and revitalization of housing, design of traditional crafts, staging of traditional regional opera and music performances, production and screening of documentaries about the villages, and conducting forums where rural reconstruction workers who advocate different schools of thought and practice in various areas can share their experiences. For our second festival held in 2012, the Yixian County government entrusted us with the planning of the seventh Yixian International Photo Festival, which included participants from Asia, Europe and North America and focused on themes of environmental protection, community-supported agriculture, rural economic cooperatives and community colleges.

Another practitioner of rural reconstruction Wen Tiejun uses the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development as his knowledge base. His approach differs from Bishan's emphasis on art and culture as entry points into village life, in that he directly applies political and economic strategies to develop community organizing, operate community colleges, further agricultural technology training, help farmers establish economic cooperatives and promote Community Supported Agriculture. Fundraising for the Bishan project relies solely on large-scale art events, such as my decision to incorporate my work as curator for the International Design Exhibition at the Chengdu Biennale into the Bishan Project in order to share the budget. Furthermore, our networks and working experiences lie mostly in the art world, and because Bishan is located in the Huizhou region, celebrated for its rich cultural heritage and humanities, we have chosen to use artistic production as our primary starting point for reconstruction practice.

Art production in the Bishan Project is rooted in rural culture, and has arisen from reflection on local art institutions and practices. Art in China today is an extremely lively and flourishing field of endeavor, yet has been increasingly stifled by the public authorities and commercialism. Institutional mechanisms such as biennales, galleries, auctions and art expositions, which are outgrowths of European and North American museum systems, while vast in their global reach, have already been reduced to urban and national brands for the purpose of marketing, or even carnivalesque forums for commercial trading and financial investment. Art production has been relegated to the assembly-line to meet the needs of supply and demand, while the power of creativity and social critique are further diluted on a daily basis. Art production and circulation are concentrated in urban areas associated with economic development and high population densities, leading to production values that by no means favor border regions or rural areas and ultimately the injustice of regional imbalance. Cities possess a surfeit of cultural resources and opportunities while cultural famine ravages border regions and rural areas, which is a pattern duplicated on a macro scale by the globalized political economy.

Before and after starting the Bishan Project, we researched rural experiments by artists and intellectuals in different parts of Asia, including Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert's Land Project in Chiang Mai, Thailand; the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale held in the mountain villages of Niigata Prefecture, Japan; and Indian author Arundhati Roy's opposition to the Narmada dam project and support for Maoist farmers. Focusing on collisions between globalization and local politics, economies, culture or traditional lifestyles, these practices explore alternative art systems and culture-based strategies to promote social movements and the revitalization of overlooked agricultural regions of Asia where rice is grown for food. We have sought inspiration from like-minded artists and intellectuals such as these when designing our Bishan programming.

The Bishan Project is not just art programming, however. We started out from wanting to address those imbalances between cities and the countryside that have manifested grim realities such as the deterioration of agricultural industries, rural villages, and farm laborer empowerment, and are the direct result of excessive urbanization. The project relies on the accumulated experience of the rural reconstruction movement led by Chinese intellectuals since the Republican Era, as well as the cultural practices of various rural regions in Asia. Adopting the intellectual resources of China's traditional agricultural industry and rural philosophies, as well as leftist or even anarchist ideas, Bishan aims to combat the encroachments of globalization and neoliberalism, and by using art and culture as our first point of entry, we ultimately hope to influence politics and economics with our work in rural areas. Our interests lie in exploring the economics of rural life, establishing relationships between the city and countryside based on mutual sustenance, promoting labor practices based on mutual aid and exchange, establishing a social structure based on horizontal power, adopting consensus-based decision making, applying direct action, reviving the tradition of autonomy in China's rural areas, and transforming Utopian ideals into realpolitik.

Most people in China imagine Europe and the United States as successful representatives of a certain kind of modernity, which has led to countless waves of wild-eyed advocates over the last 100 years. But unfortunately westernization has left China in the awkward position of being neither here nor there. An obvious example would be the lure of individualism, which has undermined China's traditional patriarchal society and threatened the once stable relationship between the city and countryside that was based on mutual sustenance. Before so-called modernization, China's countryside provided the cities with children who would grow into the next generation of elites, and form associations in the cities with others from the same hometowns. Longing for their hometowns, these city dwellers would often send money back to the countryside, and thus supported rural areas with the construction of ancestral temples and schools, or aid for the poor and orphans. Today, however, along with the popularity of individualism feelings for rural hometowns has faded, and has been replaced with the concept of discarding the old, leading to grave consequences. Those from the countryside who move to cities for work or school are proud to have gotten away and do not send money back home, and the urban-rural relationship has become antagonistic.

Reasons for these problems also lie in deeper levels of social institutions. Historically, contemporary land use and the household registry systems in China have always seen the relationship between the city and country as binary-based, but misunderstandings between the two cultures are also a significant factor. As the pioneering researcher and professor of sociology and anthropology Fei Xiaotong (1910 – 2005) has said, traditional Chinese society in both the countryside and city was unified based on the notion of one's native soil. Fei goes on to claim, with respect to familial relationships, social organization followed a “differential mode of association,” and with respect to politics, started at the top with politically centralized power and moved down to power at the county level. From the county level down, social organization and stability relied on the autonomy of landowners in small villages. Since the May Fourth Movement (1919), this traditional social structure has been continually criticized and transformed leading to chronic disorder. Since the end of the Cold War, China has actively embraced globalization, and guided by GDP and the urbanization movement, has reallocated human resources even more intensely than under the Cultural Revolution. The majority of rural land resources have been reallocated to urban commercial development, which has resulted in continual reduction of acreage under tillage. Agricultural businesses move closer to bankruptcy on a daily basis and the population is increasingly reliant on imports for food and energy, which has in turn reduced the country's ability to resist global disasters.

Traditional rural society in China has always had the ability to resist outside forces based on its economic self-sufficiency and political autonomy. Re-evaluation here is not intended as a reactionary call for a return to the past, as all countries today are compelled to form some relationship with globalization. The “small states with few residents” that Laozi claimed were ideally suited to good governance cannot possibly exist in today's world, much less in a country as vast as China with its overflowing population. Revisiting rural society means preserving those features which still hold advantages under new historical conditions, and to pursue with open minds new paths that emphasize the unique offerings of China that are different from those pursued by other Asian countries or by Europe and the United States thus far. The Bishan Project, as an experiment conducted in a rural area of China, has purposely chosen this kind of path, and hopes to retain a broad vision and open mind, yet a practice focused on local regions.

March 18, 2013, Beijing. Commissioned by the "Europe(to the power of) n" project. Chinese version was published in ARTCO Magazine, April issue, 2013, Taiwan.
[最后修改由 OUNING, 于 2014-10-29 00:01:12]
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