(Yicai Global) Aug. 9 -- "After 2,000 years, Yuzui village is going to be restored to its old splendor," declared Liao Zhiqi delightedly.
Liao spent 19 years away from his hometown building up a thriving fruit retail business. Now he was planning to return to join the poverty relief efforts of the Guangdong-based property development company Country Garden Holdings Co. Ltd. as a volunteer and rebuild Yuzui village.
Yuzui had fallen on hard times. Nestled in the romantic rolling mountain landscape and jade green waters ofthe Nanling Mountain range in northern Guangdong province, Yuzyu has a long and illustrious history. In ancient times it was the starting point of one of the main river transport routes to the Western capital of Chang'an. It was a base for rich merchants who built an impressive village with big stone buildings, a bustling main shopping street and major port. However, once overland transportation took over, Yuzui's economy fell into a steep decline. The village also subsequently suffered the encroachment of river flooding and landslides.
In recent years, it became an 'empty heart village (kongxincun)' where only the very old and very young lived. The young adults had all left the village to find work in more developed urban areas. From a village of over 2,000 inhabitants, by 2018 there were only around 30 people left. The situation was dire.
Known as the 'King of Wax Gourds', Liao Zhiqi had over the years successfully developed his trade from that of farmer to nationwide supplier of wax gourds. When he heard that the Country Garden Group was looking for old residents of Yuzui with good character and good social standing to join their relief efforts, he realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give back to his community. At great personal cost he decided to give up his business and return with his whole family.
Such a move reflects the Chinese government's emphasis on revitalizing the countryside. By encouraging skilled migrant workers to return to their hometowns, it is hoped that they can use their talents and experience to set up small businesses and promote the local economy.
The plan was to transform Yuzui's fortunes by building on its rich heritage and turning it into a tourist destination. Despite the many decades of decay, the Yuzui old village was remarkably well preserved with many of the original old stone houses, the old port, the old streets and the old well still surviving.
It was a matter of restoring these structures in a careful and sensitive manner to maintain the village's traditions and heritage, and yet at the same time bring the old town into the 21st century with modern amenities such as running water and electricity, and update it with fashionable facilities such as coffee shops and souvenir kiosks in order to attract tourists.
In March 2018 the Yuzui Old Town Tourism Project was launched and was underwritten by some very large enterprises and government bodies including the Country Garden Group, Hanguang prefecture government and the Yuzui Village Council.
Liao Zhiqi took part in the first phase of the development to rebuild guesthouses in the traditional style. He put together a restoration team and invited skilled artisans to instruct them on how to 'repair the old to look old'. Just the construction work alone brought in over USD150,000 to the village.
Despite the obvious benefit to the villagers, the revamping of Yuzui village became more challenging when it came to tearing down and rebuilding the old main street. The shop fronts and houses on this street belonged to 14 different families and getting their agreement and consensus in order to move forward was not easy.
"Everyone cannot be so stubborn," Liao said. "If everyone says you do your thing and I'll do my thing, nothing will be accomplished. This has to be a joint effort."
Liao Zhiqi himself was one such property owner and in order to convince the others he authorized that his house be the first to be demolished.
"Gaining the trust of the villagers is a slow process and communication is key," said Pan Guoqing, the Country Garden representative responsible for the poverty relief efforts in Yingde county, which includes Yuzui village.
Pan is another returning talent from the region. Originally from Yingde, Pan left when he was a young man to work in disaster relief projects both across China and abroad. He joined the Country Garden Group in 2017 and in April 2018 was sent back to Yingde to head the team there.
In Pan's view, rural reconstruction takes time, involves a delicate balancing act between different priorities, and requires dialogue. "If we can say that the restoration of Yuzui village is a success, then I feel that we are making a contribution to the rural landscape, and the model we create can be copied and promoted in villages across the country."
Rebuilding the old town also involved safeguarding its precious traditions, such as Yuzui's unique Grass Dragon Dance which boasts a 300-year history. Made from rice straw, paper and bamboo, the body of the dragon is brought to life by several strong young men who parade it around in an S-shape. At the end, the young men take turns to throw firecrackers at the dragon until it catches fire and burns in two.
This year, for the first time in many years, Liao Zhiqi and his friend Mai Fu'an organized a GrassDragon Dance at the Chinese New Year festivities. "As the dragon moves through the smoke from the firecrackers, it looks just like a mythical being riding the clouds," exclaimed Mai Fu'an. It was a wonderful moment for all the villagers.
It is estimated that once the restoration of Yuzui village is complete, it will provide employment for around 50 people. The promotion of tourism in Yuzui has also benefited other local industries, such as its poultry and pig farmingrenowned for their tasty meat due to the area's fresh air and spring water, and the local hospitality industry, such as restaurants and hotels.
Whether in China or across the world, therewill always be a conflictof interests when restoring a historic village like Yuzui between preserving its cultural heritage and traditions and pushing ahead with modernization in order to bring it into the 21st century. This is the challenge that Liao Zhiqi and Pan Guoding face, and which defines the revitalization of China's countryside.
Editor: Xia Ruirui, Chen Juan