The New Movement of Moving down to the Countryside

Yesterday, I took my adopted French parents to visit my cottage by the Ming Tombs, Changping county and then a friend’s cottage by the Great Wall in Huairou. we were driven by an old friend of mine Old Bian, who is also looking for a country house to buy or rent.

I thought about an article I wrote back in 2001 for London based Daily Telegraph. see below.

After all these years, my girls have turned out to be tall slender teenagers, the husband became ex and old Zhang Tong who found the cottage for us passed away two years ago. And more of my Chinese have got themselves a cottage in the country or in the process of doing so, partly driven out by the noise and pollution. I suppose the trend will slowly continue.

Toujours Peking’

by Zhang Lijia

October 2001

The bourgeoisie of the PRC used to loathe the countryside. Millions of urban intellectuals as well as Mao’s Red Guards were forced to labour with and learn from the peasantry.

Thirty years on, millions of peasants flood the cities to find work, while the urban elite looks at country living in a new light. “I’d go crazy if I stayed in Beijing all the time,” says a friend who was banished to rural exile during the Cultural Revolution. Now the CEO of a start-up company, he is also the new owner of an old farmhouse hidden in a mountain valley. “Life is so polluted and fast paced in the city. I come here to relax and recover.”

Framed by hills and history, the outskirts of Beijing attract Chinese desperate to escape the urban grind. Holiday camps and rustic homestays spring up to cash in on trends born of growing affluence and Western-style lifestyle magazines. At the top of the heap is the ‘Commune by the Great Wall’, an avant-garde villa complex, selling at 300,000 pounds per unit.

But like increasing numbers of Beijingers, my British husband and I found that little place in the country need cost only a fraction of the price. Cramped inside a city center apartment, mobbed by construction clamour on all sides, we set our eyes on the Ming Tombs, the imperial cemetry of 13 Chinese rulers. Under one hour’s drive from downtown, this patchwork of field, forest and orchard has long been a favourite picnic spot.

Over the years, we had befriended Zhang Tong, 75-year-old caretaker of the ruined Siling tomb, the final resting-place of the last Ming emperor. Old Zhang, former head of the production team, gladly began house hunting for us. Described by him as “beautifully furnished, most suitable for you city folks”, his first choice was a hideous two-storey, white-tiled building with blue glass. These shiny blue erections have become the symbol of prosperity across rural China.

Several false alarms later, Old Zhang showed us the empty house of a neighbour who had moved on to better, bluer things. I quickly fell for its slate roof and wooden window frames, with forests and mountains beyond. In this typical north China house, white paper not glass covers most windows. There is a courtyard and large orchard, bursting with apple, apricot and chestnuts trees.

At the negotiation table, the owner Mr Yin demanded 50,000 yuan (3,850 pounds), 30,000 for the house and 20,000 for the orchard. We offered 20,000. After a few rounds of hard talks, Old Zhang, serving as middleman, brokered a 2,500 pounds deal.

The only question was how to transfer ownership in a land where all land belongs to the state, and legal issues are painted grey. The village chief refused to witness the deal, insisting that farmers are forbidden from selling houses to non-farmers – the apartheid-like divide is strictly upheld in official records. However, in China there is always a way. The chief also suggested the house could be rented.

Yin drafted a contract for ‘long term rental’ which I rephrased it as ‘permanent rental’. The simple contract, one battered sheet of paper long, was soon peppered with scribbles and corrections. “It doesn’t look very formal,” sighed Old Zhang after we signed. “We’ve got to have a fingerprint.” He dispatched his wife to borrow some red ink. “Yes, that’s more like it!” Old Zhang said with satisfaction, blowing the paper dry.

The main building was in reasonable condition, and required a lick of paint, but the west wing was barely fit for cows. After demolition, it would rise again as a small kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. Old Zhang engaged his son as our contractor, and always referred to him as ‘the builder’, whose team of relatives would be paid by the day. Little wonder the renovation work dragged so long!

‘The builder’ estimated costs at “roughly 10,000 yuan”, and gave a timetable of one to two months. Ultimately, we paid triple that amount and waited four months before the place was habitable. With commitments keeping us in Beijing during the week, unwelcome surprises often lay in wait. Some walls disappeared – “you didn’t say you wanted it” was Young Zhang’s reasoning for knocking the bedroom and sitting room into one – and other walls arose, cutting off the orchard. A moon gate was the compromise, providing us with access, and soothing village fears we had invaded ‘collective’ land.

Yet the cottage proved our best ‘purchase’ ever, not only as a bargain (for the same amount, we could buy perhaps 6 square meters of the flat we rent in the city), but for the pleasure it provides. A paddling pool enthralls the children, and energetic visitors enjoy trekking to nearby tombs or peaks. The fresh air, blue sky, and songbirds are a rare treat for Beijing residents. Villagers begin to ask if our friends might be interested in their old homes. What have we started?!


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