Polymath’s Paradise: Artist and Cultural Promoter Ou Ning Confronts China's Out-of-Control Urbanization

Ou Ning

When I ask Ou Ning how he would answer that perennial dinner party question, "What do you do?,"  he laughs. It’s not easy for one of China’s true polymaths, but he gives it a try. “I’m a cultural worker,” he offers modestly, before teasing out the twists and turns of a career that has taken him from underground poet to concert promoter to star designer to documentary film-maker to curator to biennial director to think-tank animator to literary editor and, finally, to where he finds himself presently, plotting how to revivify his country’s rural life, which has been denuded by 30 years of runaway economic reform.

Ou was born in 1969 in Suixi, a small fishing village on the western tip of Guangdong Province, to a poor family who normally would never have been able to send their son to university. But when he was 10 years old, China’s government made a decision that would transform his family, his village, their home province of Guangdong, and the country as a whole. For the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China, the door was opened to foreign investment, initially through a series of special economic zones. The first of these, a coastal hamlet called Shenzhen, would play a special role in the Ou family’s fortune.

Situated just over the border from Hong Kong, Shenzhen’s economy exploded once its new status was established, and the government was soon dispatching recruitment trucks deep into the countryside in search of labor for the city’s burgeoning factories. One day a truck rolled into Ou’s village, and his sister decided to take the chance and jump aboard. It would be her factory wages that would ultimately pay for Ou to attend university.

His sister still lives in Shenzhen, but according to Ou, she has never felt at home there. Uncomfortable even in the new apartment he bought for her, she is no urbanite, but there is nothing for her back home. Like thousands of other villages across the country, Suixi has long been hollowed out from years of development. Meanwhile, the cities are submerged under waves of workers seeking a better life. Thirty years ago, 70 percent of China’s population lived on the land; less than 50 percent do so today. Ou believes there is an urgent need to rebalance the country and the city, to find a way to reconstruct the countryside so it can draw people home again.

It’s not an idea one might expect from someone who started his career as the quintessential urbanite. Fresh out of university, Ou worked as a concert promoter, and in 1999 he grabbed public attention with "New Sound of Beijing," his study of underground music in the city. The book was a marriage of gritty reportage and freewheeling design, and a chance for the self-taught designer/writer to play with a riot of visual ideas to express the energy of the capital’s exploding music scene. The chutzpah of "New Sound of Beijing" attracted the attention of the acclaimed artist Fang Lijun, who needed a designer for the first serious book on his own work. Ou got the gig — and through it got to know the curator Hou Hanru.

At the time, Hou was working on a theme for the 2003 Venice Biennale: an exploration of urban spaces as “zones of urgency” created out of “urgent demands rather than planning.” Ou, a Guangdong native who had watched the Pearl River Delta be swallowed by industrial sprawl, knew what this story was about. He teamed up with his then girlfriend, video maker and rising art star Cao Fei, to make "San Yuan Li," an experimental documentary film about a village situated on the fast-advancing frontier of urbanization. As the city engulfs it, the traditional farmland of San Yuan Li village is eaten away until all that’s left are the farmers’ homes. Trapped within the city with no land to sustain them, the villagers find themselves renting out rooms to displaced farmers from other parts of China who are coming to the city to work. Cao and Ou captured this strange world of lost souls on video in stark black and white, revealing a teeming community existing within, but still apart from, its host.

It was around this time that Ou first came across Rem Koolhaas’s 2002 book "The Great Leap Forward." “Koolhaas,” says Ou, “could find the power and energy behind the city. He was not only interested in architecture but in politics and economics, too—his method was totally new to me.” Soon Ou was “reading more about urbanism, about urban geography and how the process of urbanization in Asia was producing conflict.” In 2009 he curated the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. In one section, he explored the contrasting histories of his declining hometown of Suixi and the rising city of Shenzhen; in doing so, he thought more about how problems in the cities were connected to the decline of the countryside, and how the husklike villages might be just as important to consider as the teeming, overcrowded cities.

Looking to rural life for inspiration and spiritual strength has deep cultural roots in China, but over the past hundred years some intellectuals have also felt a duty to serve the countryside in return, finding ways to support and reinvigorate rural culture in the face of industrialization. In this group could be counted the educator Y.C. James Yen (1890–1990) — who promoted mass literacy campaigns in China’s countryside in the 1920s and ’30s and set up the first peasants’ newspaper — and even, in some senses, Mao Zedong.

Ou believes the notion of rural reconstruction has become critical and is helping to coalesce a movement of thinkers and artists who are responding to displacements resulting from the last 30 years of development. “If we can create more job opportunities in the countryside, people who are in a bad situation in the city can come back,” Ou posits. He reflects on the situation of his sister: “She can’t find herself in the city,” he says simply. “I want to do something to help balance the countryside and urban life, to help people whether they live in the country or in the city. That’s why I want to do something for the rural reconstruction movement.”

On a cool early spring day, Ou and I catch a plane from Beijing to Anhui Province. Anhui, situated in China’s rural heartland, is now one of the country’s greatest sources of urban labor. Women flock to the cities to work as maids or factory workers, while the province’s men are the muscle on construction sites all over China. Anhui had become a byword for poverty over the last century, but today it is buoyed by remittances — and tourism.

We are flying into the airport of Huangshan (“Yellow Mountain”), a place fabled for its natural beauty, its jagged granite peaks wreathed in clouds. Monks built temples on its slopes in the 13th century; in the 16th century, the region inspired a school of landscape painting, of mountaintops, pines, and clouds, defining elements of Chinese art.

Poets, too, have eulogized Huangshan, from Li Bai in the Tang Dynasty onward. It has retained its allure: Contemporary poets gather here to party on the peaks, and some have chosen to settle nearby. One of those poets is Han Yu, an old friend of Ou’s.

Her move — and that of another friend, the writer Zuo Jing — to settle in Anhui inspired Ou to take a closer look. The area is also famous for its rural village architecture, which has all but disappeared elsewhere in China. This is the architecture of what were once thriving trade centers that grew in the Tang Dynasty and prospered for more than a thousand years. On the granite-paved streets of towns like Xidi (a World Heritage site), Hongcun, and nearby Bishan, where Han has settled, are houses and public halls with carved stone façades and elaborately ornamented wooden interiors built with techniques that have survived the vicissitudes of the past 60 years. Sensing that places like this could endure not just as tourist sites but as places to make a new start, Ou bought a home in Bishan in 2010.

On the rainy one-hour drive from the airport to his new home, Ou sketches out his vision. A town like Bishan, he tells me, shouldn’t depend on tourism or weekending urbanites. He wants the villagers to thrive by using the skills they have always possessed. He pictures local carpenters busy at home rather than on distant construction sites, and women weaving traditional fabrics in the village rather than being lost to factories in the cities.

Over the last couple of years, Ou has built up a database of all the traditional local skills — food production, fabric making, interior decoration, architecture, and carpentry — and the people who still possess them. His idea is to create an economic base for these villages by helping them make products that urban people will want to buy. That’s where his friends come in. Ou has spent the last 20 years working with artists, writers, designers, and architects; now he has a vision of city-based designers working with rural carpenters to create furniture that fuses urban style with real craftsmanship, and handwoven fabrics that will strike a chord with fashion houses looking for something new.

To get things started, he relied on his immense energy and sure touch as a curator. With a lot of help from friends like Han and Zuo, as well as a slightly bemused local government, last fall Ou threw the first Bishan Harvest Festival, which featured music, dance, a mini documentary festival, academic panels on rural reconstruction with local and Taiwanese intellectual heavyweights in attendance, and, most importantly, the chance for outside designers and artists to interact with local tradespeople and artisans.

In the months leading up to the festival, Chen Feibo, Hu Zhongquan, Shi Dayu, and Zhu Xiaojie worked to create new furniture and decorative-arts designs based on local forms and practices. Meanwhile, Ou asked leading sculptor Liang Shaoji to create a special “harvest totem” for the event. Involving Liang was key. “It is important for us to create a romantic and poetic spirit about the countryside again,” Ou told me. “We need artists for that.” He is currently working to attract other artists to the district and takes heart from the fact that one of China’s most esteemed poets, Wang Xiaoni, and her husband, the critic Xu Jingya, are planning to establish a poetry school in Bishan.

The festival was certainly successful in attracting attention and establishing the first tentative contacts between the city dwellers and villagers, but Ou readily admits his plan to create rural products with an urban twist may encounter a few kinks along the way. Case in point: the Yuting cake, a local delicacy with a 400-year history. Convinced that Yuting cakes could find a wider market, Ou set about commissioning trendily rustic packaging for them in appealing shapes modeled after plants and animals. It was only when he launched them at the festival that he realized the complicated cakes, made of sesame seeds, flour, and sugar, wouldn’t come out of their molds. “As it turns out,” Ou says, grinning, “our design may have looked good, but in fact it wasn’t successful at all!”

But he is undeterred: To him, it simply demonstrates the need for more study, more time, and an annual festival. This fall he plans to mix it up by holding a photography festival with an ambitious slate of international and local participants. One of the reasons we traveled down to Anhui was so he can present his proposal to the village authorities in Bishan.

Sitting through his presentation, it is hard to judge the reaction of the dozen or so officials who sit around the council meeting table, watching Ou’s PowerPoint display and drinking bitter tea from lidded cups. There is no indication that they are moved by the work of artists like Edward Burtynsky, whom Ou is planning to involve. Later there is a long official meal with much toasting, but still no real hint of what is in the wind. Finally, at the end of the night, the local leader tells Ou the government can allocate 1.5 million yuan, a hefty three-quarters of Ou’s target budget. I ask him if he is confident of raising the rest. “Yes,” he says calmly, “because the festival must happen.”

For the Bishan Harvest Festival, Ou produced a hand-drawn book called "How to Create Your Own Utopia." With its tree houses and multicolored shelters mirroring the jagged peaks of Huangshan, the book has a whimsical feel, but its title hints at the intentions behind the Bishan project.

I ask him why it matters so much, why it is so important to establish more harmony between the country and the city. “If everything is urbanized, it will become so bland, so much the same, that there will be no diversity. And right now there is a huge conflict between city and country. Farmers can’t find work at home, but they are despised in the city. We need to understand how important the country is and that both country and city should be in balance, both being places that are good to live in.”

Finally, for all his efforts to enlist his friends in making the countryside appear bucolic, Ou disavows any such impression. “I’m not going to the countryside to live a poetic life,” he tells me when we reconvene in Beijing. “I think there will be more challenge there than in the city. But I will take that because I think it is a good thing to do. It can be helpful, we can do something there — that’s why we have to do it.”

To see works by Ou Ning, click the slide show.

This article appears in the June issue of Modern Painters magazine.