Rural planners revitalize fate of villages in east China

NANJING, Nov. 4 (Xinhua) — Boonies, destitution and idyllic beauty… Shushan Village in east China’s Jiangsu Province used to remind people of virtually everything except for fashion.

However, with the help of a team of designers, the remote mountain hideaway has emerged as a tourist magnet boasting two coffee shops, 13 homestays and even a five-star international hotel chain.

Peng Rui, a lecturer specializing in planning and design from Suzhou University of Science and Technology, has spent most of his free time in Shushan Village since 2012 when the village committee invited his university for some planning-related work.

Congested roads, clogged rivers and messy orchards were common sights in the village before the renovation project was launched.

“When I first set foot there, I realized Shushan possesses plenty of natural resources; it’s like a pearl covered in dust,” said 40-year-old Peng. He then made up his mind to stay and help the village bloom by promoting local tourism.

The village with more than 400 households has its specialties of tea, pears and red bayberries. Relying on the 71 hectares of pear trees and a pear blossom festival, it could attract 100,000 tourists annually in the past. But under Peng and his team’s guidance, the number has now exceeded 1 million.

“It was not easy to win the trust of villagers,” Peng said, adding that they basically focused on beautifying the environment in the initial four years. “At first, the locals didn’t believe in the blueprints, and we had to show them in reality what is beautiful.”

Therefore, the renovation work began from the village cadres’ own houses by improving ground safety, decorating public gables and building infrastructures like gas pipelines and hot springs.

“Villagers were then invited for visits, and most of them were impressed and wanted to give it a try,” Peng said, adding that the local government covered 80 percent of the renovation cost.

However, in 2016, Peng realized that it is not enough to merely depend on the indigenous people to revitalize the village. So, he later started a center that attracted more than 60 startups from rural and cultural creative industries.

Peng and his team have organized multiple activities through the platform, including various conferences as well as tourism and music festivals.

“The activities not only helped Shushan’s popularity grow but also broadened the horizon of the villagers,” said Wu Xuechun, Party chief of the village.

“Where there is a scenery, there is a new economy,” Peng said. They have also built a recording studio and invited musicians and bands to hold shows, and opened two public libraries at the foot of the mountains, enhancing the cultural experience for locals and newcomers.

“The village planners did me a great favor by offering interior design plans,” said Yu Hui, one of the homestay owners in Shushan. “The terrace on the top floor, for instance, is a wonderful design that allows you to relax and view the vast pear fields.”

Villagers in Shushan achieved annual sales of more than 55 million yuan (about 8.2 million U.S. dollars) from agricultural products and a per capita income of 45,000 yuan last year, thanks to the refurbishment works by Peng and his team.

More and more designers from cities have been flocking into Chinese villages since the country adopted the rural revitalization strategy.

In 2018, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development published a document encouraging designers in the fields of architecture, landscape and art to support rural development.

In the city of Suzhou, which administers Shushan Village, the resident designer program has now been put into practice in 42 villages, empowering locals to flourish with their own characteristics.

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