Zhang Xingli, a 60-year-old Chinese villager, sat on a stone in front of his house and started posing, as painters around him quickly sketched him and his traditional house.
Zhang never thought he could work as a model to earn money at his age in his once poverty-stricken mountain village.
Despite the winter off-season for tourism, Sanhe Village in Songxian County, central China’s Henan Province still welcomes tourists who come to draw landscapes of the village, which is close to nature and features clusters of traditional Chinese houses.
While receiving guests, local villagers are also preparing for the upcoming travel season, building an exhibition hall that presents the development of the village.
Tucked away in the depth of the Funiu Mountains, the village is once poverty-stricken. Its rolling mountains and deep gorges are hardly accessible from outside. Its lands are infertile, and there are no minerals underneath to be developed. In 2014, one third of the 415 households were living in poverty.
“Living near bare mountainsides, villagers were scared of drought and flood. After a heavy rain, all crops would be destroyed,” said Wu Songsheng, Party secretary of the village.
Changes occurred to the impoverished village in 2016 when Feng Yake, 33, returned to the village from Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. A college-trained artist, he had run a painters’ training school for years in Zhengzhou.
In those years, Feng had taken his students to many places to draw landscapes, which made him realize the value of the rustic village.
“Mountains, grove by the river, cottages … These sceneries are exactly what schools and art studios need for students’ practice,” said Feng.
In 2015, intrigued by the sceneries at home, he raised 1.5 million yuan (about 229,256 U.S. dollars) and went back to his hometown.
Feng convinced his parents to demolish the old house and build the first agritainment resort in the village to receive students to draw the landscape.
In mere six months after the opening of the resort in 2016, Feng and his family earned 200,000 yuan. The village received a total of 2,000 tourists in the same year.
Feng’s success inspired other villagers. At the end of 2016, Wu organized 11 meetings in two months to encourage villagers to build and run homestays.
In a short time, the village was redesigned and rebuilt. Old houses and the bean curd workshop were repaired. The walls were painted white, in contrast with the grey tiles of roofs. A pavillon was built. The village signed contracts with more than 70 art studios to receive artists and students.
In 2018, the village was lifted out of poverty.
In the past two years, 25 agritainment resorts have been built in the village, receiving more than 30,000 tourists with an annual income of over 4 million yuan.
The influx of tourists has brought increasing job opportunities to villagers in Sanhe. Now, many young people have gone back to start businesses.
Gao Biao, 31, has been an organizer of group field training and summer camps in the city. Drawn by changes in his hometown, he moved his business to the village.
In the summer of 2019 alone, Gao’s summer camps and group field training projects hosted over 10,000 people.
“Catching fish in the river or playing with mud, these activities have become children’s favorite in the summer camps,” Gao said.