Escaping the Cities

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the Chinese government sent millions of city dwellers “down to the countryside,” many of them students and intellectuals. The purpose was ostensibly to have them learn about hard work and revolutionary fervor from the peasants. It was also a way to get them out of the cities so they wouldn’t (continue to) cause trouble. When the policies began to change in the 1980’s, many of these “sent down youth” were rehabilitated and allowed to return to the cities.

In the 1990’s, as China’s economy was taking off, it was the peasants themselves who began moving to the cities. They were needed as the labor force to build the urban metropolises that we see today. This urbanization has seen a caused demographic shift. In 1984, the year I went to China, 80% of the population lived in the countryside, and 20% lived in the cities. By 2011 the ratio was 50/50.

To be sure, China’s cities offer jobs and opportunities that don’t exist in the countryside. But as the cities grow (Beijing is now 20+ million), many urbanites are beginning to lose interest in the busy-ness of life, not to mention the traffic and pollution. Their response is to get away from it all and voluntarily go “down to the countryside.”

China File recently posted a short film, titled “Down to the Countryside,” about an urban family that made this choice: Here’s the description:

The world has heard much of late about the scale and scope of China’s mass migration from the poor rural countryside to its booming cities. Some think the number of these migrant workers will soon reach some 400 million souls. They have created massive new urban megaplexes like Chongqing, which now has a population of close to 30 million.

But such precipitous, rapid, and massive urbanization inevitably causes reactions. And in this beautifully shot short film by Leah Thompson and Sun Yunfan, we are introduced to one urban “back-to-the-lander,” Ou Ning, who for all the understandable reasons has moved his family from Beijing to the countryside in the storied Huizhou region of Anhui Province. The film is a lovely evocation of how urban malaise has led one city intellectual to forsake the increasingly polluted, expensive, hectic, and crowded capital in search of a quieter, cleaner, and more sylvan setting for his family.

Whether he will prove a harbinger of things to come in China is as yet uncertain. But what does seem beyond question is that as China’s enormous and environmentally hazardous cities grow ever larger and more polluted, Ou Ning’s pioneering escape will become a tempting model for many others to follow. —Orville Schell

Here is the film. (note: if you receive this post by email, click here to view the film.)

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