17 November 2017

China’s pilot ‘slow food’ village in Sichuan

Anren, Dayi County, Sichuan Province 四川省大邑县安仁镇

Last month, the South China Morning Post ran a story on Sun Qun’s initiative for ‘slow food’ villages in southwest China, specifically in Sichuan. The pilot village will be the ‘ancient town’ of Anren in Dayi County. The ‘slow food’ movement, initiated in Italy on principles that could largely be considered as ‘distributist’, has apparently made common cause in this case with the Chinese New Left and the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. That movement itself is a legacy of the original Rural Reconstruction Movement kicked off by Jimmy Yen and Liang Shuming, and of which a young Mao Zedong was a notable member. As I am fond of saying: I’m certainly no apologist for the last, but his legacy is far more complex than many of his modern-day detractors are willing to admit.

It’s also worthy of note that this slow food village initiative has its nucleus and its pilot project in the deep-‘red’ rural Chinese inland. It also wouldn’t be the first time that traditionalist, rural and working-class concerns have overlapped in China’s recent political memory, though one hopes that these villages and the kinds of preservation they want to effect will be more politically-substantive than the hanfu movement. Ironically, and somewhat sadly, those commentators who do see a political meaning within the hanfu movement, both oppose it and deliberately ignore its working-class roots. I think we can expect to see, in the near future, more such discrediting attacks aimed at the slow food village initiative, even before it manages to take off.

I note also a certain degree of similarity between the slow food villages, and a certain urbanist counterpart, the Forest City Arcology in Guangxi. Both projects involve input from Italian ‘big concept’ thinkers and movements. Both projects are deliberately locating themselves in the Chinese inland. Both projects have an explicitly conservationist raison d’être. Both projects appeal to a specific kind of collective effort aimed at changing the boundary conditions for work, leisure and consumption. Both projects seek to circumvent capitalist waste, environmental destruction and cultural corrosion. (And both projects happen to appeal, to differing degrees, to a certain ex-expat blogger with both leftist and traditionalist sympathies.)

And yet there is a distinction to be drawn, and I’m not sure but it may yet be solely an æsthetic one. I admit to being more enthusiastic about the Slow Food Villages than I am about Forest City; in part, that may be because of my affinity for the Chinese New Left and the Rural Reconstruction movements with which it has consciously associated itself. It may also be the case that I’m attracted to such villages because they build on what’s already there, rather than planting a work of modern architecture ex nihilo. It will be interesting and edifying (uh, pardon the pun) to note what becomes of the arcology project in Guangxi; it will be still more interesting to see what happens with these Sichuanese slow food villages.

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