Creativity Is A Force For Social Change In The Rural Areas

Sun Yingying introduces souvenirs made with the participation of local residents in Songzhuang Village, Songyang County, Lishui City, Zhejiang Province

In April 2018, Songyang County in Lishui City, Zhejiang Province, launched the “Hundred Artists Settlement in Songyang Villages Plan,” which invites artists from all over the country, to help with the protection and inheritance of local culture. It is aimed at boosting the development of traditional villages through art. 

“Artists bring art to the village. Some use art to beautify the place and raise their popularity; some help villagers to create artworks as a method of poverty alleviation; some promote rural handicrafts and local specialties through cultural creativity, stimulating new vitality in the countryside,” said Li Wei, director of the Publicity Department of Songyang County Committee of the Communist Party of China. Art is intricately linked to the countryside and has become an effective tool in the renovation of old houses and villages. 

The power of art  

When Yang Yang, director of the Beijing Jiuceng Art Museum, first set foot in Shanlong Village, Songyang, in 2018, she was determined to establish an art museum there. 

Before coming to Shanlong, Yang had visited many villages. Still, she was amazed by the aura and simplicity of Shanlong. The centuries-old covered bridge, ancient camphor trees and the mud houses with yellow walls and black tiles scattered in the mountains, surrounded by green peaks, waterfalls and flowing springs, made her want to stay.  

In March 2019, Yang took over three unused houses from the Shanlong Village Collective and invited Lu Xiang, a designer from Beijing, and Hu Miao, a master of traditional construction skills of the wooden arch bridge, which is a national-level intangible cultural heritage. After more than four years of construction and renovation, an art museum called Jiuceng Yunshui, which literally translates as “nine layers of clouds and water,” was completed.  

With its artistic style, Shanlong has been a magnet for tourists from all over the country. It has also attracted several universities, such as Tongji University and Huaqiao University, to sign cooperation agreements with it. Zhou Shuijin, a resident of Shanlong, said the village used to be dark at night, but the arrival of the artists lit up the whole community. 

According to official data, 78 artists and 33 studios have been registered in various villages in Songyang, covering fields such as fine arts, traditional handicrafts, literature, architecture and cultural creativity. They have formed art clusters such as Doumi’ao in Yecun Township, and Houshe in Zhuyuan Township. 

Cultural crowdfunding 

Nandai Village in Yecun is on the southern side of the Nandai Mountain. Although it has rich resources, due to problems such as inconvenient transportation and remote location, it was little known and its development was slow. 

In 2019, many hand-painting artists started creating the “Hand-painted Nandai” series of works, led by Professor Xia Keliang of the China Academy of Art. Nandai, now known as the “Painter’s Village,” has become a base for artistic sketching, photography and literary creation. 

In Songyang, the role of art is not only to increase its popularity but also to bring more revenues to mountain villages by turning rural idle properties into assets. 

In 2022, based on the original studio, Nandai signed a contract with a local media and culture enterprise to create a “Nandaiwenshan” sketching base, integrating local homestays, sketching, art training, leisure activities and sightseeing.  

The Nandai Hand-Painted Art Shared Wealth Workshop was established to generate income for the village collective through the cooperative business model of “base pay plus dividends.”  

Since 2018, 26 artists have settled in the village, and the number of people who come to Nandai to sketch has reached 22,000. This has not only increased the villagers’ income by more than 400,000 yuan ($55,587) but also revitalised the 16 unused farm buildings.  

In just one year, the village collective generated an operating income of 170,000 yuan ($23,625). Que Yangzhan, leader of the sketching base, hopes the project can boost the popularity of and retain talent for Songyang, and promote sustainable economic development through art.

View of a shop selling handicraft works in Chenjiapu Village, Songyang County, Lishui City, Zhejiang Province. Photo: ChinAfrica

Symbiosis and sharing 

When art first came to the villages of Songyang, the villagers asked, “What is art?” Gradually they joined various art activities and were exposed to new ideas in the process. Songzhuang Village in Sandu Township is one such example. 

With a history of more than 500 years, Songzhuang is located about 20 km from the county seat. When you enter the village, you will notice a local painting exhibition room called “Graffiti at the Village Entrance.” This art studio, converted from an old house, displays 25 works of watercolour, oil painting and calligraphy, all created by senior residents in the village and young employees of its guesthouses. 

In 2017, Sun Yingying, the founder of Taoye Guesthouse, came to Songzhuang from Shanghai and established her business. She noticed that the village has less than 80 permanent residents, most of whom are elderly. Seeing that local seniors were passing away almost every year, Sun wanted to do something new for the local community. In their spare time, the Taoye employees invited senior villagers to paint together. They used a form of art called fruit and vegetable rubbing, which involves dipping their hands, green peppers, potatoes, cabbage and tea leaves in paint and then leaving their prints on paper and canvas to create paintings. 

Based on the Taoye Guesthouse, Songzhuang has since 2020 launched art exhibitions such as the “Global Artist Residency,” allowing villagers to participate in artistic creation. More than a dozen artists in the fields of illustration, photography and sculpture have moved into the village, creating a cultural atmosphere for villagers. 

In May 2022, works of the village gallery began to appear on the packaging of local products such as perfume, peach gum and tea. 

“For every item sold, we let the villagers share in the profit,” said Sun. 

The goal of introducing art into rural areas is to raise villagers’ cultural awareness and awaken a dormant village, said Liu Qi, a teacher at the Kunming University of Science and Technology.

African Times published this article in partnership with ChinAfrica Magazine



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