Wohin des Weges?

Reflections on China’s Rural Trend

ZHANG Zhen, December 2018

The zeitgeist of urban-rural development in China is shifting to the countryside. The China Pavilion’s exhibition at this year’s Biennale in Venice has the theme of building a future countryside. With the official publication of the Five-year Plan for Rural Vitalization 2018-2022 (乡村振兴战略规划 2018-2022) in September, the development of rural areas will be on the agenda on the national policy level for the next five years. ZHANG Zhen reflects on this new trend.

“Irrespective of whether it is black or white, a cat that can catch mice is a good cat” (不管黑猫白猫,捉到老鼠就是好猫). Coined by DENG Xiaoping in the 1960s as a metaphor for market-oriented economic development, this slogan summarised China’s reform policy from 1978 until today. It ushered in an era of market-driven urbanization. Forty years later, “Lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” (绿水青山就是金山银山), the slogan coined by XI Jinping, sets new parameters and turns the focus back to the countryside in a pragmatic manner, from an economic perspective. The State Council officially published the Five-year Plan for Rural Vitalization 2018-2022 (乡村振兴战略规划 2018-2022) in September 2018 (Xinhua 2018), which marks a paradigm change in China’s urban-rural development. 

Zeitgeist of the past era: rapid urban change

The new rural trend must be seen in the context of urban development for the past 40 years. On the one hand, it is well known that the rapid development of urban areas in China resulted in the radical erasure of small-scale city structures and the rise of capital-concentrated, large-scale urban facilities: from office buildings, shopping malls, and commercial complexes to residential towers.

Urban areas also expanded far beyond their previous boundaries. Regions that used to be dominated by agricultural landscapes were either filled with infrastructure and facilities such as factories or logistics centres to support the daily functioning of cities or became bedroom communities for the urban centres because they offered more affordable housing prices. In the 1990s, the urbanization trend continued the traditional houses in many villages were either renovated or left to decay. Peasants went to the cities, and farmland turned into factories. The rapid expansion of city peripheries was the result of high urban density and uncontrolled development – it was especially extreme after 2000. Altogether, these factors created a landscape of grey and homogeneous suburbia, urban sprawl – an urban-rural continuum in a negative sense. These places could be categorized as either cities or countryside; the label is merely administrative. 

Change and development: that was the zeitgeist for the last forty years, which certainly brought about China’s resurgence as a strong economy and greatly improved the rising middle-class lifestyle’s level of comfort. However, the same middle class that lives in cities or left the countryside to move into the city has witnessed the unbelievably rapid change of its daily environment, which has disappeared and changed so fast that memory cannot keep pace with the change. In the process, places in both cities and the countryside that were once familiar practically turned foreign overnight. People’s memories no longer have places onto which they can be projected. in China, the dearth of memories and decades of stressful urban life have prompted feelings of nostalgia for the countryside and the urge to leave the city.

A historical comparison

“Die Schwärmerei für die Natur kommt von der Unbewohnbarkeit der Städte.” 
(Enthusiasm for nature comes from the uninhabitability of cities.)
- Bertolt Brecht

To further facilitate understanding with a comparison: In Germany, the periods between 1870-1900 and 1950-1975 had a similar zeitgeist of urbanisation and change.

Between 1870-1900, Germany became industrialised. People in rural areas migrated to the city, and the pollution and environmental impact of factories combined with crowded, unhygienic living conditions led to a negative attitude towards the existing urban structures and a radical upgrade of urban facilities. Quickly built new housing projects were the answer to the acute social challenges, resulting in a sudden change to the urban environment. The end of the period saw nostalgia for a romanticised countryside, as well as the increased public awareness of and desire for cultural heritage and early initiatives for environmental protection (see Kiesow, pp. 15-31). An examination of how these tendencies and movements in civic society were later embedded or misused in politics and ideology is beyond the scope of discussion here, however, public awareness came first.

After the second world war, the top priority was to quickly reconstruct the devastated cities. Reflecting the spirit of technical optimism of the time, terms like “car-friendly city” (autogerechte Stadt) were widely popular and actually set the development trend for cities like Hanover, while defining the city structures or urban districts of many German cities. Old houses that were not listed as historic monuments and thus not entitled to be properly preserved (Denkmalschutz) were demolished, and traffic planning (Verkehrsplanung) on a much larger scale erased old urban structures. Real estate speculation reached new heights around 1970, opening the eyes of citizens who saw the pending danger to their own living environments. The oil crisis in 1973 and growing awareness of air and water pollution made the negative impact of uncontrolled development clearly visible to citizens. They demanded to insight into planning processes beforehand, to avoid learning of their negative impact only after the fact. The end of the period from 1950-1975 saw a revival of built heritage conservation (Denkmalpflege) in Germany and throughout Europe with the adoption of the European Heritage Charter (Europäische Denkmalschutz-Charta) in 1975. With the legalization of civic participation, citizen awareness was also on the rise – in Germany, for example, through local advisory councils (Ortsbeirat) (see Kiesow, pp. 31-43). And awareness of environmental protection was strengthened to the point that the Federal Ministry of the Environment was established in the 1980s.

What we see here is an alternating zeitgeist that either answers societal challenges and demands to develop – often at a radical pace – or slows down and reflects on the development path while looking for new directions. I use this comparison to describe development paths in general as paths of ebbs and flows, to indicate their tendency, and to try to locate the current development within a historical context, including all the implications that arise. The lessons drawn from recent history tell us that development should be implemented with caution: avoid being radical – in both the urban and rural settings. 

Of course, Germany’s development in either of the above-mentioned periods could not compare to the unbelievably radical, uncontrolled, and market-oriented development that has taken place in China during the past 40 years, and especially the last 20. Capital from private investment flooded into the cities and the act of urban planning remained on the diagrammatic, schematic, and symbolic level in most cases: graphic-formalistic on paper plus pragmatic traffic planning. The cities were redrawn upon a tabula rasa and “demolish” (Chāi 拆) was the most-used term for describing the fate of old houses and old urban structures.

After radical change, heritage protection

As for building heritage protection, it should also be pointed out that Germany has tackled the topic on the institutional and decentralized local levels since the end of the 18th century. In comparison, China did not start until the beginning of the 20th century as a result of Western influences, but was interrupted by the outbreak of war. Afterward, the country went through periods with other priorities set by ideological influences, including the Cultural Revolution. Entire historical cities were not designated as objects for preservation until the 1980s. China did not join the ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and become integrated into the international discourse on cultural heritage until 1985 (see Zhu 2011).

When it comes to cultural heritage in both China and Germany, officially listed buildings such as palaces and well-known cities in municipal, provincial, national or UNESCO classes receive academic support and funding, whereas the fate of less representative buildings or, especially, vernacular buildings lies solely in private hands. Because public awareness and appreciation of the topic is established, and resources are distributed fairly on the local level, Germany has a remarkable history of achievement when it comes to the topic. However, in China, due to the lack of public awareness and appreciation for these buildings – partly historically conditioned and partly subject to ideological influences – combined with ignorant, impatient developers who only cared about quick profits from land speculation, countless old buildings have been demolished. Admittedly, the majority of old Chinese houses were wooden structures and therefore more fragile than stone houses, so the idea of ruins is not entirely applicable. A handful of lucky survivors remain.

Land ownership is certainly another factor: in the cities, most of the old houses did not have owners; residents only had the use rights to their units. This situation reduced micro-level private initiatives’ motivation and opportunities for protecting old houses. Developers were virtually the only ones who are motivated and able to develop a district by turning the project into a luxury estate (e.g., Xintiandi in Shanghai) so that the finished project would be profitable enough to cover the cost of renovation.  

In 2016, the China Cultural Relics Protection Foundation initiated the Rescue Old House Campaign (拯救老屋行动). This policy stipulates that the costs of renovating old houses are shared by property owners in rural regions and the Protection Foundation 50-50. It also sets the commercial tone from the very start – property owners also expect a reasonable economic return for their investment. Songyang County in Zhejiang Province is the pilot region for the campaign; 142 old houses were renovated through the program. The protection campaign is object-oriented, although it will also help keep local traditional craftsmanship – which is very much at risk – alive. Following the era in which villages were abandoned when peasants left the villages for the cities and old houses were either torn down or left to decay, the current campaign is providing stimulus and a signal. After decades of deleting and rewriting onto the urban disk, built heritage preservation is finally holding on to the last few straws. We are now witnessing a sense of loss, a pause for reflection, and a moment of searching. Ironically, the locus of search is regions like Songyang, which could not keep pace with or benefit from the development craze due to their geographical isolation. These untouched places, which were forgotten for 40 years and did not get swept up in the zeitgeist, sustained their way of life and have now become places of inspiration. The old houses that populate them have become rare goods and luxury objects: the new locus of urban dwellers’ nostalgia. 

Pastoral nostalgia

Throughout Chinese history, the literati and frustrated or retired officials have traditionally dreamt of leading simple lives in an isolated, idyllic natural setting. The pastoral poetry (田园诗) genre is a literary manifestation of their yearning. When it comes to travellers, the wine house (酒家) and the inn (客栈) are typologies recorded in traditional paintings, poetry, and novels.

In contemporary China, there has been a feeling of nostalgia for several years now. In the 1990s, they called it “farmhouse joy” (Nóng Jiā Lè 农家乐), which stands for recreational agriculture: mostly restaurants for tourists run by peasants and fishermen. The concept has expanded to embrace providing accommodations and the homestay trend (Mín Sù 民宿) of recent years, which often combines ecological, local dwelling and experiencing nature. This “upgrade” of farmhouse joy reflects the spread of longing and nostalgia.

One of the very first high-end projects of this kind is the Naked Retreat, a luxury eco hotel and resort in the mountainous area of Moganshan in Zhejiang Province, 230 km away from Shanghai. A summer resort for Western missionaries and Chinese squires around 1900, Moganshan was rediscovered by the foreign community in Shanghai around ten years ago (Bergman 2012). Old houses there were renovated, and new buildings were built from bamboo and rammed earth. Since then, eco-tourism has burgeoned in the area, starting with more hotel projects by a small circle of Chinese and foreigners and eventually becoming popular for Shanghai residents as a luxury destination for weekend escapes. Since then, ever more homestay projects have been built by designers and architects from China and abroad all over China. In October 2017, the Basic Requirements and Evaluation of Tourist Homestay (旅游民宿基本要求与评价) went into effect to regulate the business. As is often the case when the government steps in, homestay has become a very widespread phenomenon. By 2017, there were over 3 million homestay providers nationwide and some of them were located in rural regions (Ma et al. 2018).

The recent development of Songyang County in Zhejiang has also provided a destination for nostalgic Chinese city dwellers. Songyang has around 70 national traditional villages. In addition to well-preserved old houses, new projects by star architects such as XU Tiantian are creating a compatible image within the rural context. These award-winning projects are increasing in popularity in the architecture scene and are becoming must-see destinations. Songyang’s development concept is undoubtedly attuned to attracting investment and tourism income through the value of traditional villages and the marketing effect of new architecture. Rich city dwellers – especially those with a design background – have responded by coming to invest in renovating old houses.

Most of the time, small culture-related concepts such as ZHANG Lei’s Chenjiapu Bookstore are too idealistic to be financially feasible and recover the costs of renovation, and therefore more profitable businesses need to be included in the mix as counterweights that support less profitable educational or cultural activities. And more economically efficient new buildings must be added to offset the costlier renovation of old houses. Tourists are consumers. Their consumption in luxury hotels and the restaurants in the surrounding area supports more refined, widely inclusive cultural offerings such as bookstores and centres like Shicang Indenture Museum by XU Tiantian. The target group is the booming urban middle class, who now have a place to spend their money: the countryside. It inspires the urban elite to invest capital and open up business. It targets urban tourists: tourists who drive to Songyang for a couple of days or weeks and enjoy living in the traditional houses with the ever-present view of mountains immersed in floating fogs. It takes tourism and luxury consumption to a new level – not only as products but also as an experience of culture and nature. The countryside provides tourists with the rural nostalgia they desire to consume.

After nostalgia, rural reality

The Songyang story and its high-end tourism will not become the norm for the vast rural areas in China. With the growing trend of rural nostalgia, the connotation of the words “rural”, “countryside”, and “old houses” is experiencing a positive turnaround. Society is changing its focus from the city to the countryside. Rural nostalgia is a real force, but old houses and tea plantation cannot represent China’s rural reality –it can for artists, architects, and creative entrepreneurs, perhaps; but not for policy makers, who need to think about how to provide healthy food to the 1.4 billion inhabitants of its rural regions. The modernisation of agricultural production, increasing agricultural efficiency, and a transition to ecological products are relevant topics.

The hope of the new national rural policy is, of course, to develop the country’s rural regions, which did not economically benefit from the development of the past 40 years. It also intends to attract people back to the countryside, thus relieving the urban burden. Based on society’s rural nostalgia, China’s new rural development can be seen as an effort to connect urban and rural development more successfully, and increase rural revenue. The Songyang story is about successful urban-rural tourism – the next task is to find out what other modes of urban-rural linkage are taking place.

On the train from Lishui to Hangzhou, the tea plantations gradually fade from view and the rural landscape becomes more diverse: a new Ferris wheel, a new highway bridge, new excavation and levelling for construction sites, and new peasants’ houses.

The Rural-Urban Framework categorized China’s villages as follows: the city-village (Stadt-Dorf), the factory-village (Fabrik-Dorf), the suburban village (Vorstadt-Dorf), the fought-over village (umkämpfte Dorf), and the rural village (rurale Dorf) (Bolchover and Lin 2017, 68-71). The rich diversity of China’s countryside reminds us of the complex, grey realities of the topic, which must accommodate the various demands of policy, capitals, pressure and consumption from the city, agricultural production, and culture and architecture.

The China Pavilion’s exhibition at this year’s Biennale in Venice, curated by Prof. LI Xiangning, has the theme of building a future countryside. Commenting on rural nostalgia, the foreword of the exhibition states: “The motivation for this exhibition is more than just xiangchou, a Chinese term that refers to nostalgia for rural lands. We return to the countryside where Chinese culture originated to recover forgotten values and overlooked possibilities; from there, we will build a future countryside”. The selection of architectural projects featured six categories: poetic dwellings, local production, cultural practices, agricultural tourism, community reconstruction, and future exploration – all touching on various aspects of the countryside.

Within this context, Chinese architects are struggling to make their ideals match reality, especially the financial realities. They are doing their best to change and are working on feasible plans for making changes happen – of course, keeping economic feasibility in mind. But it is also clear that market-oriented rural development requires support and regulation. Integrated ecological systems and environmental protection are national-scale topics. How small rural interventions will develop further, whether the buildings will become open air museums or also have lives, what ripples these first stones will further generate, what will happen to environmental awareness, and what will be the new definition of being rural or urban, whether the contrast between cities and the countryside will still exist or a new urban-rural continuum will evolve (Schmid 2017, 22-27)…a second radical period of total urbanization…these questions require answers in the next five years. 


  • Bolchover, Joshua and Lin, John, “Rural Urban Framework: Dörfliche Urbanisierung in China,” Arch+ 228 (2017): 68-71. Originally published in 2014.
  • Kiesow, Gottfried, Einführung in die Denkmalpflege. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989), 1-43.
  • Schmid, Christian, “Urbanisierung und urbane Gesellschaft - Henri Lefebvres Thesen zur Aufhebung des Stadt-Land-Gegensatzes,” Arch+ 228, (2017): 22-27.
  • Zhu, Guangya, “China’s Architectural Heritage Conservation Movement,” Frontiers of Architectural Research 1 (2012): 10-22.
Als Kuratorin der Ausstellung “Planetary Urbanism – the Transformative Power of Cities” im Deutschen Pavillon hat sie an der UN-Habitat III Konferenz in Quito, Ecuador, teilgenommen. Für ihrer Masterarbeit „Isle of Islay – Nature Observatory – Remembrance of a Forgotten Treaty between Man and Nature“ hat sie die besondere Auszeichnung zum BDA-SARP-Award erhalten und wurde für den Euregional Preis (EAP) nominiert. 2011-2013 war sie als Architektin bei von Gerkan, Marg und Partner Shanghai tätig. Als Architektin und internationale Projektkoordinatorin hat sie das Deutsch-Chinesische Haus auf der Weltausstellung 2010 in Shanghai mitrealisiert.