Wu Lixin needed watermelons. As the leading official for a handful of nutmeg-farming villages in mountainous central Zhejiang, Wu knew it was local courtesy to offer refreshments to any visitors that pass his way. But for the first time in recent memory, Wu had to get extra fruit shipped from another county: There were too many people to feed.
On July 15, more than 500 visitors, from cities as far as Beijing and Sanya, traipsed up the winding paths to Wu’s mountaintop hamlets—hundreds of meters above sea level, accessible only by steep, single-lane dirt roads—in response to a remarkable local campaign. Spearheaded by the tourism bureau of Sandu town, the “Become a Mountain-Dweller” pilot initiative offers an irresistible deal to urban residents fed up with China’s overheated property market and cacophonous cities: Eight vacant “dwellings” (including two abandoned schools and a tract of unused land) in Sandu’s backcountry, rent-free, to urban investors or entrepreneurs willing to find the best use of them.
In all, over 700 people came to view these alpine properties, though ultimately, only 14 applications were good enough to make the government’s shortlist. Many, it transpired, were simply there for the scenery, or try the local produce, and enjoy the novelty of “discovering” a destination off the beaten path. But to those who are now stakeholders in Sandu’s success, that’s a good enough start.
Wang Aijuan, one of the finalists, says her interest in mountain living was foreshadowed by a number of events after graduating from the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou five years ago. “I have been working on the creative side of ‘beautiful countryside’ projects,” she says, referring to the 2013 Communist Party campaign to preserve China’s historic villages and develop local industries, “but I have two classmates, my childhood friends, who moved back to the countryside to start a wedding business, and I’ve been envious—it’s a beautiful environment, and I feel like there is real beauty to what they do.”
The three friends together applied to lease a 100-year-old wooden home in Daku, one of several villages assigned to the Sandu project, as a studio—a sanctuary from stress, where they can hole up, relax, and create. What caught local officials’ eye in their application, however, were the crisp PowerPoint slides that outlined worldlier aspirations: The trio want to run the property as a part-time art school, boutique guesthouse, organic kitchen, and e-commerce workshop, where local farmers can learn how to market their produce online.
Daku, a mountain hamlet accessible only by dirt road, wants to become a tourist destination
In the early 2000s, American social scientist Richard Florida famously observed that professionals he called the “creative class” were driving the revitalization of urban neighborhoods in the United States. In China, where it’s rural communities that are currently threatened with abandonment and blight, Florida’s predictions are no less true: From Dali in Yunnan province to the river hamlets in southern Anhui, featured in the Pulitzer Center’s 2014 documentary Down to the Countryside, the arrival of bohemian artists and musicians in China’s backcountry has typically heralded a boom in middle-class “smog refugees,” tourists, and trendy businesses catering to both, since the 1990s. In the documentary, Beijing art curator Ou Ning, an activist involved with the historical preservation and cultural development of an Anhui village, said the movement was “turning on its head” the notion that “a successful life could only happen in the city.”
Ou estimated there were more than 200 projects on the mainland focused on reallocating urban resources—people, businesses, professional expertise, as well as funding—to lead the economic and cultural development of the countryside. These are not new ideas: The projects echo both the Republic of China’s Rural Reconstruction Movement, when intellectuals headed to the villages to educate farmers and strengthen the nation, as well as Chairman Mao’s call for youths to be “sent-down” to the “remote and frontier realms of the motherland” during the Cultural Revolution, so they and the peasant classes could supposedly learn the values of revolution from each other.
But many of today’s young idealists aren’t heading to the hills to further nationalism or class struggle—just the opposite, in fact. Whether it’s for a religious retreat, a call to ascetism, or simply an urge to relocate somewhere quiet with good scenery, China’s new hermits are making conscious choices to give up the conventions of modern existence—family, career, the property ladder—with an emphasis on individual freedom and personal growth. “Our ideal is to create a lifestyle with simple material wants,” Wang explains. “It’s because this place is remote from the bustle of the city that the locals have been able to live a life of self-sufficiency, satisfied with just three good meals a day; our spirits can be free of mundane cares.”
For the residents of Sandu’s mountain villages, there’s no reason why this newfound enthusiasm for the rural life cannot be converted into a mutually beneficial business arrangement, though officials emphasize this is in no way a cash grab. “The free housing is a sign of good faith: It says that we’re not focused on making money, but simply using our advantages to attract outside resources, which could lead the economic development of the entire region,” says Yu Aixiang, party secretary of Wu’s neighboring Qianyuan village. The 20-mu campus (1 mu equals about 666 square meters) of a primary school (plus a 100-mu forest attached), abandoned since 2011 due to low enrollment, is one of the properties Qianyuan has on offer.
It’s also a strategy to alleviate the social malaise that, for all of Ou or Wang’s rhapsodizing, is part of an epidemic hollowing out China’s villages. “At night there’d be kids who’d break the [school’s] windows and vandalize it; in summer, when there’s no farming, our people have nothing to do but play cards or fight each other over land distribution. Hosting tourists lets us do something productive,” Yu explains.
Fishing is still a part of rural livelihoods in this part of Zhejiang, though in some villages, they are merely props for the delight of tourists
Still, commercialization seems inevitable. Yu has been contacted about turning the site into a tea-processing plant, retirement home, or even lofts to be subleased to artists and filmmakers. Due to the size of “mountain dwellings” like Qianyuan Primary School, as well as a 50-mu vacant lot in another village, the properties are not just attracting individual applicants seeking a secluded spot to run a guesthouse, contemplate Zen Buddhism, and make model airplanes (although there are many of those).
Corporate investors are also swooping in, including film studios, “agri-tourism” businesses, and businessmen like Ye Wen, CEO of the Hangzhou Textile Machinery Corporation, who was among the finalists. Ye wants Qianyuan Primary School to serve as a satellite campus for Jingwei Park, a creative industry hub in Hangzhou in the style of Beijing’s 798, converted from former factories in Ye’s corporation.
“We’ve been specifically looking for a place that’s in a natural setting, that’s removed from the bustle of the city, where we can both have designers-in-residence coming to create and weary travelers who just want to relax,” Ye explains by phone. “That’s the irony of our times, isn’t it? Everybody from the villages want to leave, but in the city, once people reach a certain economic standard, all they want to do is get away.
“So we’ll capture that market,” he says.
The last stages of the contest took place in late August and September, when finalists are invited for a series of presentations and interviews with local government officials and the properties’ original owners; Yu predicts, however, that those who don’t make the cut may be offered other vacant homes in the area, as demand has far outstripped expectations and there is plenty of abandoned property to go around.
Just across the river from Sandu, a high-speed rail connection is also scheduled for next year, which investors like Ye are counting on to bring a tourist influx to these remote regions still lacking public transit. On the other hand, Wang is offering the opposite experience: “mini mountain hermit” tour packages from her hilltop abode. According to her business plan, it will be geared toward middle-class tourists who “have the economic resources as well as willingness to invest in the self…to define their own style of living in the semi-solitude of the mountains.”
To attract this potential clientele, renovations will go beyond the basic home improvements for her studio. She has to look for another investor to back her in this next phase. “The harder the place is to get to,” Wang explains, “the more people will cherish the experience.”
Update: As of December 2017, tenants have signed contracts on four of eight properties. Qianyuan village’s primary school will become a “nature school.” Wang and her business partners have landed the house in Daku village, and their guesthouse is scheduled to open on New Year’s Day.
“Down to the countryside” is a story from our issue, “Modern Hermit”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.