Rural vitalization reboots traditional culture

BY REN YINGHONG and SHEN LING | 07-22-2021
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Children play in Datian Xitai, Zhongshan County, Hezhou City. Built in 1878, the theater stage was included as a key provincial level cultural heritage. Photo: CFP

As China has eradicated absolute poverty for the CPC’s centennial, the priority of efforts concerning agriculture, rural areas, and rural people has now shifted to promoting rural vitalization in all aspects. Without cultural vitalization, rural vitalization is an empty dream. Therefore, cultural heritage in China must be reinvigorated to advance rural civilization and generate greater growth momentum. 

Contemporary value of cultural heritage 
Traditional Chinese culture forms the social and cultural foundation of rural vitalization and a pro-morality rural atmosphere. In the process of urbanization, some villages have been rebuilt and merged, some villages have been renovated, and some rural residents have moved to urban areas. As a result, rural communities have begun to collapse or decline. Due to the disintegration of social connection mechanisms or the absence of intermediate agency, problems such as individual isolation, interpersonal alienation, disorderly interaction, and social misconduct have emerged. 
As the root of Chinese civilization, traditional village culture is imbued with values that have helped maintain the order of villages for several thousand years, such as benevolence, a people-centered approach, the pursuit of honesty and harmony, frugality and self-discipline, and the alignment of knowledge and actions. Those values are embedded in every aspect of villages including the spatial layout, daily life, genealogy and family traditions, festivals and rituals, and village rules and regulations. An emphasis on family affection, respect for the elderly, care for the young, social responsibility, and other key principles of traditional village culture are the antidote to alienation in society under the context of rapid social transformation, the key to consolidating social unity, the soft power which upholds social order and cultivates rural civility, good family virtues, and a simple life. 
Farmers’ cultural expectations 
The key to fostering rural civility lies in farmers. As the living standards of farmers improve, they have higher requirements for cultural venues, facilities, and activities, and have higher expectations for rural governance, interpersonal interactions, and social security. Against such a backdrop, the precise understanding of farmers’ cultural aspirations becomes essential. The traditional practice of giving farmers what we want them to have should be replaced by giving them what they truly want, based on in-depth study. 
To understand farmers’ cultural demands, we must respect their wishes, endeavor to meet their demand for a better life, and allow them to enjoy the cultural value and pleasure even in the simplest life scenario. Only by strengthening structural reform on the supply side of culture, and offering effective supply based on accurately identified needs, can we create empathy, enhance recognition, and make up for cultural shortcomings. It is necessary to awaken the farmers’ sense of autonomy and make them realize that bringing life to the countryside is an essential way to create a better life and build a better place to live, so as to enhance their sense of identity, belonging, and responsibility for rural vitalization. In this way, farmers can change from passive acceptors to active creators, forming a solid foundation for rural cultural vitalization. 
Historical villages 
To ensure a healthy and orderly rural vitalization, we must grasp the distinctions between different places, and pay attention to regional characteristics. A special emphasis should be placed on traditional villages, ethnic minority villages, and traditional architecture. When advancing rural vitalization, the one-size-fits-all approach, uniform model, and bureaucratic practices should be avoided. A traditional village is a community of acquaintances maintained by kinship, local and professional ties, a unit of Chinese rural society, and a place where many farmers still live together as a clan in the context of urbanization. 
In 2012, the Guidance on Strengthening the Protection and Development of Traditional Villages, issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Finance, defined traditional villages as villages that possess cultural heritage in both tangible and intangible forms and have high historical, cultural, scientific, artistic, social, and economic values. 
Traditional villages are characterized by long history, time-honored cultural inheritance, well-preserved village patterns and culture, historical and traditional buildings, intangible cultural heritage, high protection value, and necessary conditions for the vitalization and development of traditional villages. A traditional village’s culture is reflected in different types of village buildings, such as buildings with white walls and black tiles in Auhui Province, courtyard houses with Qin-style bricks and Han-style tiles in Shanxi Province, or traditional cave houses on the mountain slopes of Shaanxi Province. The houses, ancestral halls, theatres, gardens, temples, ancient pagodas, and monuments in traditional villages are the surviving marks, the carriers, and the living space for traditional culture. Rural history and culture can be preserved and inherited by rescuing the heritage of rural history and culture, preserving the environment surrounding cultural heritage, maintaining simple folk customs, duplicating traditional life scenarios, and inheriting good family traditions. These approaches enable traditional culture to survive, to gain better development, and to form the foundation of rural vitalization. 
The preservation of traditional village culture must be tailored to local conditions. Traditional villages are spread out across China with countless types that fall under three main categories: first, well-preserved ancient villages with ancient architecture; second, historic villages whose location selection and landscape contain traditional Chinese elements; third, traditional villages which exhibit intangible cultural heritage. When preserving a traditional village, we must identify its type and protect it based on its population, location, natural and cultural resources, spatial layout, the current condition of ancient architecture, economic structure, development model, cultural tradition, historical accumulation, customs, and future development positioning. 
Promoting traditional village culture 
The Chinese civilization, which embodies the spirit of our nation, needs to be passed down from generation to generation, but it also needs to advance with the times. Traditional culture is deeply rooted in agriculture, while village culture forms the foundation of traditional Chinese culture. However, rural communities have been impacted by modernization, industrialization, and the application of information technologies. Farmers now have to adapt to transformed identities, values, morality standards, social norms, and social networks. As the number of villages dwindles, rural communities cease to carry village culture, leaving people feeling uprooted and clinging to the scraps of traditional village culture for their cultural identity. This has to be changed. Local governments and civil societies must shoulder their due responsibilities. 
Vitalization and development are the best ways to preserve traditional village culture, and this calls for the rehabilitation, inheritance, and protection of agriculture, and the restoration of traditional village cultures within modern civilization. Vitalization refers to awakening and stimulating. Efforts should be made to protect traditional village culture, pass it down from generation to generation, imbue it with a new spirit of the times, integrate traditional cultural elements with our modern world, diversify cultural expression forms, enhance cultural confidence, and strengthen its role in bringing people together. 
Vitalization and development enable traditional culture to remain a part of villagers’ daily lives, to be inherited, to remain well-protected without being isolated, to enjoy thriving development, to generate social, economic, and ecological benefits, and to turn into new forms of culture with greater vitality. Based on the historical and cultural endowment of each village, a great variety of cultural activities can be held, such as recitation of Chinese classics, worshipping ancestors, spring outings for the Qingming Festival, and outreach activities that help promote respect and care for the elderly. Traditional culture can be developed creatively, such as turning ancient streets and lanes into rural museums, hosting exhibitions of Tang-style and Han-style costumes, and developing creative businesses centered on health care, folk entertainment, recreational farms, rural lodging, and creative agriculture. Cultural activities should be tailored to different regions and different groups of people in order to promote the inheritance of culture in an effective yet imperceptible way. 
Vitalization and development is not simply a return or restoration, but a creative transformation of traditional culture in accordance with new demands of the new era. In doing so, rural areas need to become more attractive to more resources and talent . 
Ren Yinghong and Shen Ling are from the School of Marxism Studies at Southern Medical University. 
Edited by WENG RONG