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The Crux of Urban-Rural Interaction: "Transmit Information, Resolve to Cultivate Humanity"

By Li Zhao (Programme Manager, Liang Shuming Rural Reconstruction Centre)

Editor's note: Li Zhao works for Liang Shuming Rural Recontruction Centre which was originally China Reform Magazine's University Student Rural Support and Investigation Project. The Project is run by the Rural Construction Centre of Renmin University of China, which began to organise rural support activities in 2001. Liang Shuming Rural Recontruction Centre was established in 2004 under the Centre for Rural Reconstruction of Renmin University. Its main activities include rural-support programmes involving university students, and building bases for pilot rural initiatives, promoting pilot rural cooperatives as well as healthy and mutually-supportive agricultural initiatives. Over the last decade, through its programmes such as"University Students' Rural-support Survey and Research" and "University Students' New Rural Reconstruction Action", hundreds of thousands of university students have become rural volunteers. Apart from learning basic theories, students go to the countryside to take part in pilot integrated development projects encompassing cooperatives, collective culture, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), urban-rural interaction, and others. The centre also advocates the formation of young rural returnees' networks and has been trying to build a community called the New Youth Green Commune advocating a community life based on "new happiness" that emphasises mutual help and simple living.

At around 10 o’clock in the evening of 15th November, 2012, I departed for a journey to "touch the ground and take root". Filled with the kind of anxiety that Hong Kong film makers create in their cop and gangster movies, I imagined myself to be the loner who was leaving behind his buddies for a trek to a mountain I had wanted to see.

To tell the truth, it was only when I got the permit that I finally made up my mind to go to Hong Kong. Since I did not have any specific expectation, I might not have appeared to be very enthusiastic. I was indeed a bit hesitant inside. I had always thought it was better to do solid work, such as trying out and acting on ideas, than running here and there for meetings and exchange.

Thin hopes for rural areas

I have always been a pessimist with regard to rural reconstruction. I have continued to take part in rural reconstruction simply because I believe that one should do whatever one thinks is right and not think of the question of the chances of success. Everyone knows that the rural areas are declining and it is all because of capitalist development or the transformation of the whole society into a capitalist state. The countryside is swept along in this process and there have been dramatic changes. Using economic means, capitalism has cut open the veins that have sustained rural society for 5,000 years and has removed the vital organs of rural civilisation. As resources, wealth and the land of the rural areas vanish bit by bit, the material basis for the sustenance of rural society has been eroded and the living roots of a rural civilisation are being destroyed. Farmers have been feeding all of us, yet their trust in the land is being shattered. They will soon lose all their pride and self-confidence. In spite of their love for their towns and villages, faced with the dilemma arising from the need to make a living, farmers' imagination about their lives is inevitably stunted.

I was fortunate to meet Liu Zhanhong [1] again. Because of him I see hope. From him I witness the long unseen pride and self-confidence that belongs to farmers as well as their open-mindedness and other qualities. I believe firmly that our rural communities need more Zhanhongs. I had always wanted to find out how Zhanhong was able to maintain these qualities. He reminds me of other farmers I met during my two years at Green Ground Union and my five years in rural reconstruction—farmers such as Zhao Aimin from Shunping, and Shi Zhaoxu, Ge Yanhong and Yu Baoyin from Liaocheng. Their changes in recent years seem to me to have something in common. They have gradually built a relationship of "mutual recognition" with consumers, their so-called "natural enemy". They and the consumers have trust in each other and they recognise each others' contributions and needs.

Key to overcoming the predicament

How did the farmers and consumers overcome their naturally antagonistic relationship? First, the farmers have been kind to the land and have courageously tried to practise a healthy form of production. Second, they have been "doing business" directly with the consumers and have been able to see things from the latter's standpoint. In this way they are able to build initial linkage with the consumers. Third, they have tried their best to provide consumers with basic information about their products. They are frank, honest and never cheat. Fourth, they make friends with consumers and often meet them for exchange. Fifth, they are aware of the situation faced by the consumers and sincerely care for them. Sixth, they let the consumers know of the personality of each farmer and how each farmer conducts affairs so that they are willing to continue to collaborate with the farmers.

Healthy food is the material basis for exchanges between producers and consumers. The crux of this process is healthy products, information transmission, fair trade, understanding, care and concern. These four key areas are therefore the direction towards which we must strive if we want to achieve the objective of urban-rural interaction.

"Transmit information, resolve to cultivate humanity" will be the motto of our rural work in the future. We hope to help farmers live their ethos of "respecting nature and caring for people". We hope there will be more Liu Zhanhongs—more farmers who love the land and love life. Regarding urban dwellers, the direction of our future work is definitely to increase our influence on consumers and to bring them closer to rural areas so that they may take part in production and labour. We hope they will gain more understanding of the land and of farmers and show respect for their labour, and become concerned with the producers rather than just with the price, the quality and the look of the products. Sharing the outcome of labour—fair trade of healthy food— is definitely the link between these two aspects of rural production.

Without understanding the above, urban-rural interaction will always be illusory, like a castle in the air!

Allow thoughts to settle and expand one's imagination

By the time I came home, northern China was already very cold. When I recollected on the journey of "touching the ground and taking root", I wondered if the above was all I had gained. I had hovered between wanting and not wanting to make this trip of exchange and visits. When we visited the Green Shop, the Community-oriented Mutual Economy and the Hong Kong House of Stories in the city centre of Hong Kong, we heard stories of the changes that have occurred in old urban communities. Then we visited Kadoorie Farm. Later when I listened to the sharing of Guangdong Green Farming Social Work Development Centre, when they said, "zhongxin, zhongxin*, it is the fetter to our mind", I was reminded of my own state of mind four to five years ago. Thoughts and emotions surged in me. I was excited at the experience of participants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, which had expanded my imagination about our own work…

No matter under what circumstances we were drawn to the issue of land, every organisation and every person that joins in the movement exudes a fragrance of the earth, which is filled with life! "If we insist that we won't be able to reap the harvest, we will definitely miss what is going to be splendid!" As one sighs and says this, inside us we can always feel the seeds sown on the surface of the earth, growing roots and sprouting, and a vast stretch of life will gradually bloom in splendour.

Translator’s note:
* In Chinese, the term zhongxin, which means "centre", is composed of two characters, "middle" and "heart" or "in" and "mind".

Photo sharing:
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Mr Chang Cheng-Yang of the Chi Mei Community College and Mr Tseng Rui-Sheng of the Jiasian Township Association from Taiwan talk about their experience of urban-rural interaction in the island's CSA practices.
Ms Chang Tianle (the one holding a microphone) from Beijing speaks about the experience of CSA fairs held in the capital city.
We try to express the concept of urban-rural interaction by using pigments and cloths of different colours in a for T-shirt design.
Participants in the CSA Forum meet Hong Kong farmers and get to know the history of Hong Kong’s agriculture, triggering lots of excitement and imagination about the author’s own work.

  1. Liu Zhanhong is the president of Panzhihua Hexin Cooperative of Sichuan. Both Liu and Li zhao were participants of "Touching the Ground and Taking Root—A Seminar on CSA Experience".