And Finally

Return of the native

Why some Chinese are deserting cities

Back to nature

Think of modern China, and the images are often of gleaming skyscrapers in Shanghai or the (somewhat grubbier) factories of Guangdong province.

In other words: fast-paced economic growth.

Running counter to the stereotypes is Yaxi, a small town in Jiangsu province, which has just won an award for going a lot more slowly.

“Yaxi is unquestionably beautiful, like a tableau from China’s preindustrial past,” writes TIME. And what marks Yaxi out from peers, says the magazine, is its ability to offer its residents a better quality of life. In recognition, it was designated China’s first Slow City.

The award was bestowed by Italy’s Cittaslow International, an organisation that has grown out of the ‘slow movement’. This philosophy started out with a focus on food in 1986 (and a protest outside a McDonald’s outlet in Rome) but now has offshoots in areas like travel, lifestyle, design and even parenting.

How did Yaxi qualify as a Slow City? Winners must have populations of less than 50,000, and be committed to sustainable practices in farming and industry.

Yaxi has done just that, booting its only polluter – a chemical factory – out of town 20 years ago.

While urbanisation is usually cited as one of the ‘megatrends’ that will propel the Chinese economy forward for years, there is also a counter-culture among those disillusioned with the pollution and materialism of city life.

Another article, this time in the Western China Metropolis Daily, illustrates something similar.

It tells the tale of Wang Qinsong and his wife. Wang was a high-flying graduate of Peking University (known locally as Beida) who went on to teach law, making a good living. But eleven years ago, he and his wife disappeared from city life. Wang’s Beida classmates heard nothing more from him and speculated that he’d “gone abroad, become a monk or committed suicide”.

It turned out that the Wangs had moved to the mountains that border Hebei province. They rented 166 hectares of land, grew their own sorghum, corn and cabbage, and kept goats, mules and chickens. They lived largely on a natural diet, as well as using natural alternatives to washing powders, soaps and toothpaste. One of the few things they bought from ‘the outside world’ was salt.

In this pollution-free environment they could be much surer of the food that they were eating (a major issue in China, see WiC96 or WiC110).

This was a particular area of concern when the couple had a son, who grew up homeschooled in the Chinese classics but spent his afternoons as a goatherd.

In fact, it was the boy’s growing up that began to draw his parents back towards the mainstream, the newspaper reports.

“Seeing his son’s excitement when he saw outsiders, and his great interest in one of their cameras, Wang Qingsong said he felt very guilty as a father. Should the boy go to a school, to socialise with other children? Education is the right of his son. This is the key reason why Wang has decided to return to society.”

Wang’s story emerged when he contacted his former classmates to let them know of his return (one of whom was a journalist, fortunately).

Wang now plans a return to Beijing, where he hopes to sell organic vegetables. But his great ambition is to write a book about his experiences that wins the Nobel Prize, he says.

A little ambitious, perhaps. But Wang’s track record shows he has few qualms about aiming for the unusual.

After one former classmate had arrived to visit him at his mountain home, Wang recalls how his wealthy friend was shocked at his primitive existence.

Says Wang: “Most people only see the external, what to eat, what to wear, but do not see the inner. My classmate said ‘I hate to see you suffer, if you lack money I can give it to you’. But he did not know how rich I am within my heart.”


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