A few lectures ago in class I mentioned the UNESCO World Heritage villages of Hongcun and Xidi in the context of raising questions about the ways heritage preservation in rural China can be an oppressive force that can alienate villagers from their own cultural landscapes. I was thinking about this again today while reading the Sunday New York Times Travel section, which featured an article on Xidi and a few other villages in the Huizhou region of southern Anhui, including Hongcun. The article is predictable enough, appearing as it does in the travel section and featuring descriptions of Xidi’s “centuries-old charm,” “rural idyll,” and so on. There’s no point in criticizing a travel article for glossing over social contradictions and complicated histories in favor of misplaced nostalgia and romanticism.
But the article’s focus on some of the “entrepreneurs from other parts of China” who have been “snapping up rundown properties to refurbish and turn into shops and inns” in Xidi got me thinking more about alienation.
Li Guoyu, an artist from Shanghai, was drawn to this graceful architecture when she started looking for a property to turn into an inn in the early 2000s. The one she settled on wasn’t nearly as grand as others in Xidi — it was a teacher’s home during the Ming dynasty and was being used as a pigsty when she found it. But Mrs. Li saw potential in the 400-year-old property. “Many people dream of finding a paradise, but they never really find such a place,” she said. “But I did.” In 2006, she opened the Pig’s Heaven Inn — named in honor of the building’s one-time function.
It is perhaps indicative that Hongcun itself gets barely a mention in the article, and this may be because of the poor job the Beijing-based Jingyi Company did in managing Hongcun’s tourism development. Compared to Hongcun, Xidi has been much more successful in promoting tourism in the interests of the villagers themselves, for example by reinvesting most of the profits back into the village. According to Zhai Minglei’s 2002 expose in Nanfang Zhoumou, Xidi’s village-run tourism company reinvested into the village more than four times the amount that Jingyi did for Hongcun.
Yet, for all its success, Xidi’s tourism development still has its alienating qualities – and these are only hinted at in the article. While it is very nice that Shanghai artists like Li Guoyu are buying old houses and fixing them up – finding their “dream of paradise” in the village – Xidi’s heritage-tourism development raises hidden questions about just whose houses and landscapes these are. Can a cultural landscape be owned by the community that has created it? While this may sound like an existential question, in rural China the ambiguities of land tenure make it a significant issue for villages, like Xidi and Hongcun, that have become displays of themselves. In a 2007 article in Tourism Management comparing the different experiences of Hongcun and Xidi, Ying Tianyu and Zhou Yongguang argued that there is need for legal clarification of the property rights of villagers to charge their own fees for visits to their own houses: “Although such an exclusive right concept substantively exists, no legal support for it can be found in China’s current laws.” And this lack of clarity also makes it easier for “entrepreneurs from other parts of China” to “snap up” properties.
Ying and Zhou make the point that in rural China generally, villages have become increasingly self governing, and that village committees have been devoted to protecting communities “against the encroachments of the local governments and to protect their legal rights and properties.” This, after all, was one of the key points being advocated in the New Socialist Countryside campaign. Why, then, is it so difficult for this to occur in village tourism sites? Tourism, in fact, makes it more difficult for villagers to exercise the basic rights that more and more villages are claiming. And perhaps this is because villages like Xidi and Hongcun are heritage landscapes deemed too valuable to leave in village hands. So, while villagers themselves grapple with ambiguous ownership rights, entrepreneurs rush in, ready to capitalize on paradise.