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An artist's mission to transform a village

Qu Yan Photo:

A contemporary Chinese artist has challenged the conventional notion of an artist being a maniac utopian using artwork to delineate an airy-fairy world by initiating a social campaign to bring the power of art to rejuvenate a run-down Chinese village.

About six years ago, Qu Yan, a Beijing-based contemporary artist who was associated with a Chinese avant-garde art movement in the 1980s and then worked in a Czech art college in the 1990s, happened to visit Xucun, a scenic but poverty-stricken village lying in the Taihang mountains in north China's Shanxi province, during his photography tour of the region.

As soon as he arrived in Xucun, Qu was astonished by the antique beauty of the village with its distinctive residential architecture.

However, Qu was disappointed to see that many residents of Xucun had no sense of cherishing the culturally valuable dwellings handed down from their ancestors, let alone preserving them.

"Many people have been moving out of their old houses to the tile-covered new buildings, which has led to the disrepair of some ancestral houses featuring traditional architectural style," said Qu, who believes the so-called new buildings with a monotonous style are unaesthetic and undermine the antiquity and originality of the village.

Backed by Fan Naiwen, a powerful local man who once worked as a political advisor, Qu came up with the idea of using the means of art to reinstate the quondam resplendence of the village.

Thoughtful reconstruction

"Villages are the spiritual home of the Chinese people and the old dwellings must not be demolished," said Qu, adding that China's reckless urbanization and monolithic construction of new type of villages have led to the emergence of plenty of ghost towns and disappearance of countless villages that should have been well protected given their cultural value and distinctive civilization.

The first step to enforce his revitalization plan was to reconstruct a row of houses featuring traditional style, which were used for a film shooting in the last century.

Old-style houses modified by Qu Yan Photo: Ding Yi/

While reinforcing the building structure without sacrificing the external architectural style, Qu installed modern living facilities, such as water supply system, flush toilet and bathtub, in the houses, which he divided into several zones for living, working, cooking and recreation.

Qu's modification masterpiece proved to local villagers that the old-style houses can be functionally comparable to the rigid brick-cement buildings scattered across China's rural areas which the artist considers to be antithetical to the diversity and uniqueness of the Chinese villages.

Lofty ambitions

But Qu does not consider his mission to be a simple reconstruction project: he is aspiring to help Xucun villagers find back their self-esteem by linking with an international art festival and world famous artists.

"I came here to conduct a cultural construction. Only in this way can we help the villagers live with dignity in their sacrosanct homeland," said Qu, who slammed China's social system and obsession with hierarchy which have pushed the Chinese villagers down to the bottom of the society.

Wang Nanming, a prestigious art critic and exhibition curator in China, labels Qu's lofty ideal as Qu Yan's Xucun Plan, lauding it 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.

Qu's idea of renovating Xucun in an artistic way is partly derived from his experience of living and working in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.

Qu Yan in the Czech Republic Photo:

Dissatisfied with the prevailing censorship that prohibited artistic expression from touching upon sharp social and political issues, Qu headed to the Czech Republic in 1992, when the newly born democratic country had just completed a peaceful evolution from socialism to capitalism after the non-violent Velvet Revolution.

The stupendous social changes and the ideas of some artists and intellectuals in Eastern Europe enabled Qu to realize that an artist, especially a contemporary artist, must first turn himself into an ideologically profound and independent observer who has the responsibility to repudiate realistic social and political phenomena.

"A contemporary artist should assume the responsibility to inherit the traditional culture and should gain insights into social problems. Xucun serves as a window into China's serious social and cultural problems," said Qu, criticizing the government for oversimplifying the urbanization of villages which has caused the loss of job opportunities and rural culture.

Sticking to the belief of evoking Xucun villagers' identity, Qu has successfully organized two international art festivals in the village since 2011, with the themes extending from artistic exchanges to village construction and children's education.

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

During this year's art festival, all the international artists and attendees unanimously praised the traditional architecture and ingenuous folkway of Xucun, reminding the villagers of the great significance of the existence of their homeland.

"The old and traditional village that is very different from Beijing will give me a great opportunity to create art work," Australian photographer Josh Robenston said at this year's art festival.

Qu's efforts have exerted a subtle influence on the villagers, who have long held the stereotype view that living and working in rural areas is disgraceful.

Early success

The introduction of the art festival to Xucun gives local people an opportunity to interact with the art world and broaden their horizon. It also provides the local government with a fresh approach for revitalizing a village based on its own cultural resources, geographical advantages and ecological conditions.

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

"The art festival not only brings us economic benefits, but also stimulates our desire to protect our traditional culture," said Zhang, adding that after the first art festival in 2011 the villagers spontaneously established a traditional art troupe whose members range from little kids to 70-year-old seniors.

Zhang Jingyu (C) is teaching Xucun’s children English during the second international art festival. Photo: Ding Yi/

The art festival, which has helped Xucun gain regional renown as an art-themed village, also attracted university professors and far-sighted people to gather in the village to discuss the future construction of the village.

"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 in search of a better life," Chang Shenglin, an associate professor at National Taiwan University, said on the sidelines of the second village international art festival held in July.

At the festival, Chang's students teamed up with Zhang to open an English class in Xucun, the latest initiative to show that there are really some jobs to do in a village.

Apart from building Xucun as a world-famous art village, Qu and his followers are now planning to acquire a plot of land in the village to plant local agricultural products in an effort to increase the village's revenues and job opportunities.

Qu's social initiatives in Xucun have proved that an artist's 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 that is based on its inherent historical and cultural identity.

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