Our Programme Foci
Ecological Agriculture
Where We Work: National and Urban

Returning to a Simple Life on the Fertile Land beneath Song Mountain, Farming and Studying beside River Ying

By Wang Ning (Young rural returnee farmer from Henan practising organic farming)

What the young people need most is “action” not “words”.—Lu Xun

Self-awareness brings me home

I was admitted to Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in Shaanxi Province in 2000. I majored in soil conservation and prevention of desertification. In those years, the government was calling for large-scale development of the Northwest and appealed to young people to go west. Filled with passion I registered for an examination to study in universities in the western part of the country. When I was in the university, I produced a set of posters on garbage management to advocate conservation of resources and garbage sorting. It ended up arousing trouble in the campus. Photos of garbage I had taken were confiscated. My posts on the internet were also deleted. During those days I honestly wanted to quit university. I thought if I really wanted to work on deserts, the best thing was to act promptly. Most of the people who work quietly in areas affected by desertification have not studied in this profession anyway. When I graduated from the university in 2005, I applied to study the science of grass cultivation in Xinjiang Agricultural University. Xinjiang is located at the northwestern extreme of the country. I was determined to contribute to the development of the border area. However, what happened later changed everything…

Because of the bad ventilation of the university laboratory, I fell sick and had to go for a health check up. The doctor was surprised to find that I suffered from acute fatty liver. My weight was normal. I did not drink and did not eat meat. I did not have a history of fatty liver disease either. The doctor was certain that my disease was closely related to chemical pollution in the laboratory. He suggested that I quit doing experiments and take medicine to protect my liver. When I started treatment, I had to take medicine costing nearly 800 yuan a month. By March 2008, the disease had basically come under control. By then I had already spent over 10,000 yuan. My body was badly hurt and I hated doing so-called scientific research. In addition, my weak health made it difficult for me to take up other kinds of work. When I graduated I came to Beijing to work for an organic farm and learnt to practise ecological agriculture. I wanted to recover my health by having a healthy diet. The doctor also suggested that food was the best medicine because chemical medicines are harmful for the liver as well. However, food safety is becoming a problem. To nurse a body with unhealthy food is like drinking poison to quench a thirst. Fortunately I met many passionate young people who believe in organic agriculture and practise it. I saw hope for our people and our country in them.

My three criteria for a good outlook on life

Beneath Fenghuang Mountain in Haidian District of Beijing, there is an organic farm—Little Donkey Farm. This was where we, a group of young people, studied and learnt from the land. I kept saying I had learnt more in one year in the farm than in my eight-year study in the university. I felt that there were many more down-to-earth lessons we must learn and there was so much new knowledge and so many new ideas I wanted to delve into. Looking at the green vegetables I grew, the golden maize we harvest and the welcome Xiaobai, Huniu and Hudan (dogs we picked from the street) gave us as they rushed happily towards us, I felt a kind of pleasure I had missed. At that moment, I had only one wish—to leave behind all the vulgar and bad things and to farm and study. My wish was to become a farmer with my heart turned towards the earth and my back towards the sky. I wanted to lead a simple life, to get up with the sun to work on my own land and to rest when the sun set.

The feeling is simply different when you eat vegetables and grains you have cultivated yourself! In the first few months after I arrived in the farm, there were so many vegetables that we simply couldn’t finish. I listened to the doctor and ate a lot of vegetables while eating only a bit of rice and noodles. I lost a dozen kilos as a result and gradually recovered from fatty liver. Thanks to all my colleagues, I have now basically recuperated.

Among students graduating from a law school, some may work for the people and advocate social justice after they graduate. Others work for capitalists and take advantage of the loopholes in the legal system. Among students graduating from an agricultural school, some work for ecological conservation and healthy agriculture while others develop pesticides and herbicides… This is a complex society and I have gone through a lot. I hope I am on the right path, a path that is good for myself, for others and for the environment (my three criteria for a good outlook on life)…

In-depth study leading to the decision to go home

In early January 2009, a workshop on “Documenting and Writing about Local Experience in Sustainable Agriculture” was held in the city of Liuzhou in Guangxi Autonomous Region. I had the fortune to take part in the workshop and meet colleagues working on ecological agriculture in Guizhou, Guangxi and Sichuan. I gained a lot of encouragement from them. In February I went to Hong Kong and visited Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden; the Collective Purchase Market at Wan Tau Tong Estate in Tai Po; Life in Harmony—a CSA project which started with organic tofu; and small farms integrating educational activities. I knew then what road I should take for the rest of my life! There are so many colleagues practising and struggling on the path of ecological agriculture. I should continue on this path. 

If I need a piece of land, it should be land in my own home town. If I want to participate in rural reconstruction, I should start with the village where my elder relatives live. I don’t have the delusion that I can bring a programme to my home town very soon. I don’t anticipate changing the look of my home town simply by appealing to villagers. I think no matter what I do, it will take more than a decade for it to have any impact. Strictly speaking, I haven’t lived in my home town for a number of years. Everything has become unfamiliar. Now I want to put all my time and energy into my home town, which gave birth to me and raised me.

Opening the farmer-scholar library

Now I lead an ordinary but warm and pleasant life of farming and studying in my home town. Even though my family, friends and relatives are unable to understand what I am doing, whenever I have the opportunity I always try to introduce to them things outside this small and closed world. No matter what, we must start from ourselves and from those next to us. We must also start with educating the next generation.

In 2010, I was invited to take part in a national conference for young rural returnees held in Fuyang in Anhui Province. I met young returnees from all over the country. Most of them had lived in big cities. Some used to have rather good jobs and a respectable income. However, faced with the decline of rural areas and the exacerbation of environmental pollution, they have chosen to return to countryside to do ecological farming and engage in activities for environmental protection. They want to start from the grassroots to promote the idea of sustainable development. They are my role models. In the meeting, I told them about my wish to open a farmer-scholar library in my home town and expressed my hope that young rural returnees from around the country will engage more actively in exchange among ourselves. Through the contacts I gained in the meeting, I got support from many parties and opened a library to publicise ideas of sustainable development. Friends from Beijing, Guangdong, Hong Kong and Sichuan learnt about my endeavour via the internet and sent me books. In the end, I got about 3,000 excellent books and periodicals. The library officially opened to the villagers on 31 August, 2010. Children are very enthusiastic and come to read in the library all the time. Some children bring their own stools so that everyone can sit and read.

Perhaps many of us have forgotten the educators advocating public education during the period of the Republic of China—Yan Yangchu, Liang Shuming, Lu Zuofu, Huang Yanpei, Tao Xingzhi. Perhaps we have never even heard of their work or their spirit of sacrifice by dedicating themselves to the cause of public education. I live on Rizhen Street and my neighbours never bother about finding out why it is called Rizhen Street or learning about the stories of this street. This is why I always tell my friends there are streets in my home town but there is neither community nor community spirit. Everyone is concerned only with material consumption and there is no intellectual or spiritual exchange. Dengfeng is only a few hours away from Chengzhou and Beijing by car, but Dengfeng and the latter two cities are generations apart. There are televisions, newspapers and internet in my home town too, so why are people’s minds still so closed?

Conscientiousness”—a word that should not be forgotten

The library is small but it bears the weight of many beautiful ideas and goals. It has a special shelf for books on three rural issues (concerning agriculture, rural areas and farmers in China) and rural reconstruction. The idea came from my learning experience during my eight years at Agricultural University and from my experience working for the Little Donkey Farm. When I was making preparations to open the library, friends studying rural development in Beijing gave us over 20 books on rural reconstruction, such as Biography of Yan Yangchu, Yan Yangchu and Plebeian Education in Ding County, The Last Confucian School, From Yan Yangchu to Wen Tiejun, An Exploration on Theories of Rural Reconstruction, etc. In November I bought a set of books on those three rural issues, edited and published by the China Rural Governance Research Center of Huazhong University of Science and Technology. They included Rural Areas and Rural Issues, The Logic of Land Rights, Rural Sociology, Keywords of Rural Society, Models of Rural Governance: A Few Case Studies, Study on Migrant Workers Returning to the Rural Areas, etc. They are placed on a special shelf together with the books I bought on the three rural issues. I hope that colleagues at Dengfeng and friends interested in the three rural issues would borrow and read these books so that we may make progress together.

History is the best teacher

When I was collecting materials in my home town, I coincidentally came across the Songyang Book Club established 79 years ago during the period of the Republic of China. In June 1933, Li Zhongmin, who became the dean of students at Zhenkun Women’s Primary School in Dengfeng after he graduated from Luoyang Teacher-training School, appealed to the teachers and students of the school to support the war against the Japanese invasion. Later he set up the Songyang Book Club and was joined by teachers such as Du Heqing and Zhang Wanyu and Primary 6 students such as Shen Yuying and Wang Chunfang. Others from outside the school also joined. At its peak, the book club had over 50 members. The book club gathered a big group of young people in the name of reading, and many activities were organised. Not only did the young people enjoy a more colourful cultural life, the quiet campus also became more vivacious. A small library was set up and members donated money of their own accord to subscribe to newspapers and periodicals, books and magazines. The book club advised members what to read after which they had to write reading notes or articles. Outstanding articles were posted on notice boards to encourage exchange among students. The book club also organised an amateur education brigade which performed out in the open during holidays. They would draw people to them with loud and clear singing. When people gathered, they would give talks and do dramas.

When I read this, I seemed to see a group of passionate young people who were similarly equipped with ardour and a purpose in life. I imagined stirring scenes and remembered the lyrics of a song: “Searching for comrades in the vast ocean and universe, I have been through the vicissitudes of life; Hand in hand with like-minded friends, pursuing a common goal, our spirit invigorated; shoulder to shoulder we build the Great Wall…”

Another page of history has been turned, and we have started on a new journey. Even though the content and the form of what we do are different from our forerunners, we are of the same lineage in our goals and spirit. What we are doing is for the good of our home town. We are striving so that our brothers and sisters, our elders and village folks may live a more dignified life and inhabit this land with a poetic mind.

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Wang Ning, a young rural returnee, happily harvesting with his wife in the field of his native home in Henan.
Wang Ning looking at the carrots in the field to see if they are ready to be delivered to consumers.