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Farming is Ugly: Reform, Friction and Bishan Commune
January 23, 2021 - 15:42
From 2014, Anhui Province will pilot a reform of the residential land market in China, thus integrating rural Anhui in the national housing market. On the opposite note, artist and activist Ou Ning has proposed the Bishan time money currency, intending to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan Village.
Bishan Village, Yi County, Anhui Province
At first sight, Bishan village doesn’t come across as a poor village; the traffic conditions are good, the small county seat is only 15 min away on electric scooter, the preferred vehicle of most villagers, and the county seat can boast of a new hospital, a new school, rows of new townhouses and apartment blocks, construction sites and smaller factories. There are similarly plenty of newly build houses in Bishan. Nevertheless, the wealth represented by these new houses, does not come from the local economy, but is almost entirely based on young people going to the city to work, sending money home, building houses they do not themselves reside in. Old people and small children constitute the actual population as most young people have left to work in the more developed urban areas. Furthermore, many families, who have migrated to the city, have had no legal way of selling the land they no longer reside on, leaving the village dotted with empty houses.
Yi County is renowned for its well-preserved Hui-style villages, and the growing reliance on tourism through the past ten years has altered the economic foundation of these villages considerably. Bishan is, however, not one of these tourist sites. Even though Hui-style remains the predominant architectural feature, the many newly build houses cause a lack of visual, rural authenticity so crucial to urban tourists. Nevertheless, Bishan has become attractive to investors, mainly within the hotel sector, who wish to take advantage of its proximity to famous tourist destinations and good traffic conditions.
In this Huizhou village on the foot of the Yellow Mountain range, artist, curator and editor Ou Ning and his colleague Zuo Jing initiated Bishan Commune in 2011; a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas, countering the official line of further urbanization.
A house for Bishan Commune
An old compound in traditional Hui-style in the centre of Bishan constitute the headquarters of Bishan Commune. Ou Ning bought the house in 2010 and called it Buffalo Institute. In the spring of 2013, he moved permanently to Bishan with his family (mother, younger brother, nephew, girlfriend and her son). The move indicates a significant turning point for Bishan Commune, entering a phase of action and interaction.
A constant flow of visitors, foreign and Chinese, urbanities and local villagers, pass through the house and stay for longer or shorter periods, either to work and discuss with Ou Ning, to do smaller projects like investigations of the local folk music or handicrafts, fieldwork studies of the countryside or, as many do, experience the traditional Hui-style houses in a new condition.
The house occupied by Buffalo Institute used to be the dormitory of the sent down youth during the Cultural Revolution. A story that now somehow repeats itself, albeit under very different circumstances. Buffalo Institute is a gathering space of free, independent learning and sharing and where elaborate discussions on the unfolding of Bishan Commune and the future of Bishan village continuously take place, which is also the result of Ou Ning and his family’s warm curiosity and generosity.
Informal land market
Ou Ning was not legally allowed to buy the house in 2010, so the proof of ownership still carries the name of the previous owner. In the countryside there are roughly three categories of land: farmland (collectively owned by the villagers), state owned land and residential land (the land your house is built on). Farmland can be expropriated and converted into state owned land and then sold or leased to developers and the like, but residential land can so far not be traded within the law. However, circumvention of state regulations unofficially sanctioned by local officials has created an informal residential land market in Bishan and Yi County making it possible for Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and others to purchase houses in Bishan. Due to the unofficial character of this residential land market and the consequential lack of real estate agents, it still requires good connections with the villagers to purchase a house, since you need introduction to the farmers who are willing to or can be persuaded to sell. Moreover, not many people dare to undertake the costs of buying a house without the necessary legal protection in case of expropriation or the like, further limiting the scope of this informal residential land market.
To address these issues, Anhui Province is from the beginning of next year piloting an official market for residential land in a selected number of counties (scmp.com), including Yi county under whose jurisdiction Bishan is placed. This pilot residential land market makes it possible for external actors to purchase or lease houses and land within Bishan village legally, something which can potentially transform the appearance and demography of Bishan once again.
Farming is ugly
Ou Ning explains that it is often urban people of wealth who are able to buy the old houses and undertake the high costs of restoring them. Mrs. Liang, who has recently purchased a house in Bishan, expresses that she wants to convert the land in connection to her house into a flower garden, since “it is not pretty to look at cultivated farmland”. This statement suggests a problematic attitude towards the rural cultural landscape.
If the further opening up of the housing land market implies an invasion of unscrupulous capital with no consideration for and appreciation of the existing rural cultural landscapes and practices, then Bishan might be on the path of a dangerous development, turning the village into an urban playground, designed to fulfill the ever-expanding needs of urban residents and tourists. When not properly integrating the rural residents in the decision making process, this kind of development tends to neglect the needs of the rural population by not creating any real job opportunities for often uneducated farmers and causing a fluctuation in housing prices and general living costs.
This is also an aspect where the presence of Bishan Commune in Bishan can be a significant factor. Bishan Commune and their like-minded continuously make an effort to influence newcomers to the area as well as local villagers and officials of the importance of preserving rural culture as a visible feature of Bishan and direct the development in a more sustainable direction. If they succeed, then Bishan might be able to change for the better, providing job opportunities that will allow young people the possibility to choose to stay in Bishan. The need of Bishan to develop economically is a stated priority of many of the local residents, who generally support expropriation of farming land, since it allows capital to enter. Ongoing discussions with the villagers on this subject, make the economical aspect a concern Bishan Commune have had to take into consideration. Even though they might not always agree with Bishan Commune on the terms of development, local villagers and officials show great support for the initiative.
Alternative economic circuit
As a means to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan, Ou Ning recently proposed the Bishan time money currency, where smaller tasks such as housekeeping at the local guesthouse Pig’s Inn or helping in the fields of Young Village Officials Garden, can be exchanged for a meal at the local hotel Tailai, books at the soon-to-open branch of the Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, or second hand artifacts donated to the shop Ou Ning will open at Buffalo Institute and so forth. All the Bishan time money members listed above agree to this system of exchange. Even though the system valorize labour in a manner maybe not entirely consistent with Kropotkin’s concept of “mutual aid” advocated by Ou Ning and maybe won’t bring any direct job opportunities, it still provides an important alternative to the existing model and manages to incorporate the villagers’ concerns for some sort of economic possibilities. Furthermore, Bishan Commune can be an important marker of identification and will give Bishan a special standing in relation to the neighboring villages, providing that “something different”, which will be important when attracting the right kind of “caring” capital to the village.
The Bishan time money has yet to be put into effect, but Ou Ning expects it to be set in motion sometime around next spring. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the Bishan time money, is how the villagers will embrace this new system, if they will make it their own, thus creating the possibility of this alternative currency to exceed the core members and entering the village society as a whole. When asked whether Ou Ning has discussed making an independent monetary system in Bishan with the local officials, he answers: This I do first, and then I ask.
The coming years will show, how the presence of Bishan Commune in the village and the introduction of Bishan Time money combined with a reformed residential land market will affect Bishan and which direction the development will take. But to answer the question Tom Cliff asked in his introductory article on Bishan Commune: Is intention sufficient? I think it is safe to answer, that with this kind of project intention can never be sufficient. But intention is an important trigger for agency, and in Bishan Commune’s case it is an agency that is constantly reinvented and renegotiated in collaboration with local actors, thus aiming at creating new spaces of possibilities in Bishan and beyond.
Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD fellow at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, China Studies. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Artists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.