China’s Villages Are Dying. A New Film Asks If They Can Be Saved

Ou Ning used to hate the countryside.

He had a comfortable life in Beijing where he worked as an artist. Yet in 2013, the 45-year-old packed his bags and traded his apartment for a centuries-old house in Bishan, a small village in China’s Huizhou region. He brought with him his mother, younger brother, nephew, fiancé and her son.

Ou Ning is the subject of the documentary Down to the Countryside by filmmakers Leah Thompson and Sun Yunfan. The 12-minute film follows the artist-turned-activist as he tries to bring economic and cultural development to a village struggling to survive China’s rapid urbanization. He’s part of the emerging “back-to-the-land” movement in China.

The urban population in China has grownfaster than any other country. Today 54 percent of China’s population lives in cities, up from 42.5 percent in 2005. And villages are rapidly disappearing. In 2002, there were 3.6 million villages. In 2012, the number had dropped to 2.7 million, according to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. The government is happy about the trend: Urbanization has always been at the center of the country’s economic development agenda.

Citizens are reportedly happy too. For many, moving to cities — or having their children work and live in cities — is a sign of success. “We met some senior farmers — they’re very ashamed of the fact that they are still farming,” says Sun.

When Sun and Thompson walk you through Bishan in their film, young adults are noticeably missing. On screen, an elderly woman is all smiles as she counts off who’s moved to cities: “The children of that [villager] live in Wuhu city. This one, Beijing. The son of this one works in the military in Beijing.”

And when the children go home for theChinese New Year, they tell the filmmakers they don’t plan to return to the village for good. They complain of low salaries and a lack of opportunity to make use of their education.

Continue reading and watch the video.

Photo: Most of Bishan’s young adults have moved to big cities to find jobs, leaving elders and children behind in the quiet village. (Courtesy of Sun Yunfan)


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