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Art rejuvenates ancient Chinese village

Qu Yan (R), a contemporary Chinese artist Photo: Ding Yi/

An evanescent village in northern China is reinvigorating its quondam resplendence with the power of art.

With a history dating back to the Ming Dynasty, Xucun is a remote and backward village lying in the Taihang mountainous area in northern China's Shanxi province and is notorious for poverty and lack of the means of communication.

But the ancient village endowed with gorgeous landscape, distinctive residential architecture and unique folk culture is now undergoing an earth-shaking change because of Qu Yan, a contemporary Chinese artist who was associated with an avant-garde art movement in the 1980s.

An artist with a social mission

"My encounter with Xucun village was a coincidence," Qu told on the sidelines of the Second Heshun Village International Art Festival that kicked off in the village on July 20.

In 2007, Fan Naiwen, a venerable squire of Xucun village and the head of Xucun International Art Commune, invited Qu, who had partly shifted his focus to photography from painting and installation art, to give a photography lecture in Heshun county and have a tour of the village in passing.

Unexpectedly, Qu developed a personal affinity with the ordinary village during the tour. When he arrived in Xucun village, Qu was amazed by the antique and natural beauty of the village, where some of the ancestral houses had nearly fallen into disrepair due to villagers moving to the new buildings. Worse still, few job opportunities in the area led to an exodus of young villagers longing for a better life in cities.

An old street in Xucun village Photo: Ding Yi/

In a bid to preserve the village's peculiar dwellings and folk culture and evoke villagers' identity, Qu conceived a plan of reviving Xucun village by means of art, which is closely associated with his lofty artistic spirit and pursuit.

"A contemporary artist should assume the responsibility of inheriting the traditional culture and have insights into social problems. Xucun village serves as a window into China's serious (social and cultural) problems," said Qu, who sees critical contemporary art as a driver of social change and development.

Wang Nanming, a famous art critic and exhibition curator in China, hails Qu's Xucun plan as a continuation of action art, which uses social scene as canvas to unfold social ills and is characterized by social criticism and social constructivism.

The key tasks of Qu's Xucun plan are to reinstate the great antiquity of the village by modernizing the poorly equipped old residences without sacrificing their original architectural styles and patterns and reconstruct the obsolete public buildings for cultural and recreational activities.

The modified houses, where Qu Yan lives and works during his regular visits to Xucun village Photo: Ding Yi/

"Villages are the spiritual home of the Chinese people and must not be demolished. The reckless urbanization and the monolithic construction of new type of villages in some places are leading to the extinction of Chinese traditional culture and distinctive civilization," said Qu, lashing out at the collusion of some local governments and real estate developers, which has led to the vanishing of countless villages that should have been well preserved given their cultural value.

Qu put his plan into action. He gave a second life to a row of houses featuring traditional style, which were used for a film shooting in the last century, by installing modern living facilities and reinforcing the building structure, convincing local villagers that the old-style houses can be functionally comparable to the newly constructed buildings, which the artist deems are ugly and undermine the originality of the local architecture.

The modified houses, where Qu lives and works during his regular visits to Xucun village, along with the rebuilt public buildings on the opposite which now function as a canteen and a bar, and an adjacent drama stage make up a small piazza, which has become the cultural and artistic center of the village.

The small piazza in Xucun village Photo: Ding Yi/


Qu's reconstruction project deeply impressed the villagers, but they shrank back from imitating him due to high rebuilding costs.

In order to enhance the villagers' income and promote the village's cultural reputation, Qu invited his artist friends to paint in Xucun village. Liu Yaming, a contemporary oil painter, said in an interview that the beautiful landscape and the unsophisticated folkway of the village gave him a brand new understanding about his future creation and even the human beings.

After exchanging views with his friends, Qu came up with a bold idea of organizing an international art festival in Xucun village in an effort to protect the uniqueness of the village in an artistic way.

The introduction of the art festival to Xucun village provides the local government with a fresh approach of revitalizing a village based on its cultural resources, geographical advantages and ecological conditions.

"The key to restoring a village is to find out its uniqueness and make it marketable.  The mode of artistically restoring Xucun village may not be replicable, but the method can be commonly used across China which boasts a vast territory and diverse folk culture," said Qu.

The bar in Xucun village Photo: Ding Yi/

In order to satisfy the requirements of holding an international event, Qu, with the support of the local government and villagers, rebuilt Xucun village's idle school and houses as a center for creativity and place for living respectively.

Apart from the improvement in infrastructure, the spiritual civilization and sanitary conditions were also lifted to a new level. The village handed out a handbook to every villager, which is written by Qu and elaborates on the polite language and civilized behavior. Qu describes it as a form of formative education. "I came here to help the village conduct a cultural construction," said Qu, adding "Only in this way we can help the villagers to find back their self-esteem and live with dignity in their sacrosanct homeland."

To date, Xucun village has successfully held two international art festivals, with the contents extending from artistic exchanges to village construction and children's education. This year's art festival attracted 21 eminent artists from 11 countries and regions including China, the US, the UK, Australia and Hong Kong. Of the foreign artists, three from Australia were invited to teach drawing to local children. The educational projects lured almost all the children of Xucun.

"I think the festival is great. The landscape is amazing, the village is beautiful and the people are very friendly. It's fantastic. The old and traditional village that is very different from Beijing will give me a great opportunity to create art work," Australian photographer Josh Robenstone told, adding that he is reluctant to leave and will come again.

Opening ceremony of the second international art festival in Xucun village Photo: Ding Yi/

Qu's efforts not only increase the job opportunities in the village, but also exert a subtle influence on the villagers, who have long been holding a stereotype view that living and working in rural areas appears to be disgraceful.

Zhang Jingyu, who was born in Xucun village and now studies English in Shanxi Datong University, told that she would come back to her hometown to start her own business after witnessing the changes in Xucun brought by Qu.

The optimistic girl, who joined an English teaching project initiated by Chang Shenglin, an associate professor at National Taiwan University, during the art festival, said that the festival broadened the villagers' horizon and changed their rigid thoughts.

Zhang Jingyu (center) is teaching local children English. Photo: Ding Yi/

"In 2011 when the first international art festival was held, few young people of our village were willing to work as volunteers, but this year I saw a lot of local children get involved in the great event," said Zhang.

Zhang also said that after the first art festival the villagers spontaneously established a traditional art troupe whose members range from little kids to 70-year-old seniors.

"The art festival not only brings us economic benefits, but also stimulates our desire to protect our traditional culture," added Zhang.

Qu's social practice in Xucun village has proved that an artists' emotional involvement in building a new village can create positive change. More importantly, the cultural interaction between art and the villagers is creating a new Xucun village that is based on its inherent historical cultural resources.

An old house in Xucun village Photo: Ding Yi/

A long way to go

Still, we have to admit the reality that changing Chinese people's deeply held notion that cities are paradise will be an arduous process, especially when the discriminatory household registration system, unfair social security system and inflexible land ownership system are instigating young people to flock to cities from rural areas.

What's more, the obsession with hierarchy, which gradually emerged in the 5,000-year-long feudal system, is deeply rooted in the Chinese society, compared with the Western society where farmers enjoy a high social status.

All these institutional and historic problems have led to a tremendous lack of business opportunities that can be offered to Chinese countrymen who want to work in or start a business in rural areas.

Old houses in Xucun village Photo: Ding Yi/

"What we want to do is to help Xucun develop its own 'software facilities', such as job opportunities and people's awareness, in a bid to avert exodus of young people to urban areas for a better life," Chang told

According to Chang, the major goal of organizing an English education project is to use Zhang, a Xucun native, as an example to inspire her peers in the village to realize that there are really some jobs to do in their homeland.

Therefore, reviving a village, no matter in what ways, is not a thing that can be done by one person. It requires social and political reform.

Children are the future of Xucun village. Photo: Ding Yi/

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