Trojan Horses in the Chinese Countryside: Ou Ning and the Bishan Commune in Dialogue and Practice

Trojan Horses in the Chinese Countryside: Ou Ning and the Bishan Commune in Dialogue and Practice

Mai Corlin

[Fig. 1 – Cars entering the village of Bishan. Photo: Mai Corlin, July 2014]

In her 1984 essay “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power” feminist activist and writer Lucy Lippard famously ponders whether “the Trojan Horse was the first activist art work.”[1] By this Lippard presented us with manifold representations of power and an exploration of how these can (perhaps) work from the inside and out, from the outside and in. My inquiry here is, however, not the Trojan Horse of Ancient Greece nor the Trojan Horses of a North American tradition of activist art, but rather, how Lippard’s Trojan Horse can be read in the context of socially engaged art projects in rural China. This article is, in other words, concerned with the Bishan Commune Project; a long-term socially engaged art project initiated in the southern part of Anhui province—it is concerned with the artists and intellectuals who were involved, the villagers they met and the local authorities they negotiated with. In 2010 artist, editor, curator and filmmaker Ou Ning drafted a notebook titled The Bishan Commune: How to Start Your Own Utopia.[2] The notebook presents a utopian ideal of another way of life based on the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s idea of mutual aid as well as James Yen’s rural reconstruction practices of the 1930s.[3] The notebook thus presents a plethora of references from China and the rest of the world and as such places itself solidly within a global art world discourse of the local and the global, the place of the collective within surrounding society, as well as history as it is understood and reread in a very contemporary setting. In 2011 the Bishan Commune was established in the village of Bishan in rural Anhui Province and in 2013 Ou Ning left Beijing and moved to Bishan with his family. The main question of this article, fed by curiosity and wonder, is thus exactly the question of how the Chinese countryside (and political landscape) can provide the backdrop for an anarchist, utopian community? In other words: how do you start your own utopia in the Chinese countryside? This bigger question gives rise to a string of other questions such as: how can we see the utopian proposition of an anarchist commune in rural China vis-à-vis a Chinese countryside governed by shifting power bases, capital interests and central government policies? How did the relationship between the project and local authorities unfold? In what ways were local villagers included, and to what extent did they come to see the project as something they helped shape? And lastly, how did the Trojan Horse of the Bishan Commune manifest itself and engage in this matrix? In this sense, the article explores the Bishan Commune as a practical example of what happens when urban artists, activists and intellectuals practice in the face of both power and people in rural China.

In recent years an increasing number of urban artists have turned towards the countryside in an attempt to revive rural areas perceived to be in crisis. The rural crisis is articulated as the atomization of village life confronted with depopulation, dilapidated houses, centralization of resources and in some cases harsh environmental, social and economic consequences of the urbanization and development policies sweeping through China in general. The Bishan Project was part of a larger move towards the Chinese countryside, a move that was initiated through New Rural Reconstruction Projects during the course of the 1990s,[4] and that has intensified since the mid-2000s with the involvement of urban artists. These urban artists created their own versions of the rural reconstruction project, in which rural art festivals have been a predominant model.[5] The vantage point for the projects are, however, often small-scale units such as a commune, a farm or a youth house, and they focus on exchanges, engagement and conversations. Furthermore, Chinese artists working in rural areas are less prone to reject the art world connection, as the labelling  of a project as “art” can alleviate some of the potential conflicts that may accompany its claims to be explicitly political. “Framing a sensitive project as an artwork,” as artist and art historian Zheng Bo argues, “would lower one’s political risk, though never provide complete immunity.”[6] In the case of the Bishan Project, rural art festivals (and art world connections) served as amplifiers for the messages Ou Ning was trying to send, and as spaces for facilitating connections between various people working actively in rural areas. Due to the politically sensitive environment surrounding the election of President Xi Jinping in the fall of 2012, the Bishan Harvestival model was, however, terminated by the local authorities after the second edition. Ou Ning had to thoroughly rethink his practice in Bishan, and he chose to incorporate “economic development” as part of the Bishan Commune terminology and move to Bishan on a permanent basis.

Socially Engaged Art

Before I venture further into the undertakings of the Bishan Commune, I will try to account for what I understand by socially engaged art. I see the term socially engaged art primarily as a placeholder that describes a variety of contemporary art practices, that often (but not always) take place outside the confined space of the gallery or the museum. Contemporary socially engaged art refers to an unruly mass of art projects that make conscious claims to alter society and the social relations that it comprises, often in relation to a perceived underprivileged population group or environment. Socially engaged art thus connotes an intimate—but contested—relationship between art and society, politics and life. The projects often work actively and collectively in a local environment. In the words of art historian Grant Kester, we are “dealing with projects in which the viewer or participant answers back and in which those responses have the potential to reshape and transform the work itself over time.”[7] What Kester is proposing here is an important aspect of socially engaged art, which often works as a dynamic temporal and spatial proposition that unfolds within a transforming matrix of space and place. In the context of the Bishan Commune, this “answering back” is of particular relevance, as it involves a powerful and somewhat unpredictable state that has the means to push through and shape the project, while never defining any clear boundaries—neither for the artists working around it nor the village officials trying to work with it (in a sense “producing” the state in their attempt). Curator and art critic Carol Yinghua Lu asserts that “for the Chinese art community itself the government has proven to be a promising promoter, offering much-needed platforms and opportunities. […] What is not discussed, however, is how this relationship shapes the direction of artistic practice.”[8] Needless to say, the Bishan Project changed substantially along the way, from an idea of an anarchist utopian endeavor focused on art and cultural issues to an incorporation of economic concerns into the Bishan Project scheme. The new aim of the project was first and foremost economic, as Ou Ning explained in a text from 2012 reflecting on the first years of the Bishan Commune.[9] As I will show in this article, the state, in the context of the Bishan Commune represented by the local government of Yi County, had a significant influence on how the project developed and was quick to use the Bishan Project name in its promotion of a local tourist industry. In this sense, it can be seen as a co-creator along with other agents involved with the project.

Another scope of this research has been to combine the concept of socially engaged art with the idea of it as a subversive Trojan Horse—in the sense that Lippard evoked, when she called the Trojan Horse the first activist artwork. In Lippard’s understanding the Trojan Horse does not carry the negative connotations we might otherwise connect it with, but is more akin to an artistic strategy for changing society, however  contradictory (negative and positive) these projects might be. In this sense, as Lippard argues, activist art is a subversive power: “The power of art is subversive rather than authoritarian. […] Potentially powerful art is almost by definition oppositional—that work which worms its way out of the prescribed channels and is seen in a fresh light.”[10] In the case of the Bishan Commune the Trojan Horse is entering the village by way of disguise, dressed as an artists’ project and less as a project of radical political change. I draw attention to Lippard precisely because the dual connotations of the understanding of the Trojan Horse create a platform from which to understand the growing number of socially engaged art projects in the Chinese countryside as subversive powers that function dialectically in the tension between gesture and aggression, and between the imaginary and the actual conversations between the people involved.

By exerting its physical presence, the Trojan Horse functions as a spatial representation of power and prestige, longing and dreams, and thus foregrounds the physical and social reconfiguration of the space into which it is introduced. To call socially engaged art projects Trojan Horses might, to some, be to take the metaphor too far. Are these projects producing social change, or are they social reparatory projects extending the hands of the state, as art historian Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen argues?[11] Or do dialogical encounters with the local population provide for an aesthetics that can reduce some of the distance between the artists, the authorities and the villagers? It is difficult to see the lasting effects of many of these projects, at least measured against the visions of the artists. In the case of the Bishan Commune there are highly discernible outcomes, but whether these outcomes are what were intended by the artists and anticipated by the villagers is another matter. Furthermore, in the case of China, these projects constantly have to battle the influences of other Trojan Horses, such as party discourses, global investors, local power dynamics, traditional clan structures, Old People’s Associations and a sweeping urbanization process, often referred to in the local (and national) context as development (发展). Capitalist-style development has been embraced as a source of change by villagers and local authorities alike, however disruptive or ameliorating this specific system of social relations might be to a local, rural community.

The empirical data that is the basis of this research comes in part from continued fieldwork visits of longer or shorter duration during the course of my PhD dissertation work from 2013-2016. I will not go too deeply into my methodological concerns, though these have been plentiful along the way, but briefly mention that the fieldwork data is supported by Ou Ning’s many texts and talks about the Bishan Commune as well as the cacophony of voices that have been outspoken on their views on the Bishan Commune Project. Although the data is plentiful, this article has to limit its scope. While the Bishan Project included an abundance of activities and actors during its lifetime (2010 to early 2016), this article focuses on the project as it unfolded in Bishan Village as a space of dialogue between various modalities. Furthermore, I have included an analysis and discussion of the nation-wide Bishan Commune Dispute, which erupted during the summer of 2014 after the critical blogpost by Zhou Yun, a researcher who had visited Bishan. The Bishan Commune Dispute became an important turning point for the project. Besides being a serious critique of the commune’s relationship to local villagers, the dispute also revealed substantial conflicts within the village, and was used by the then- incumbent village committee as a vessel to push forward their own agenda of economic development and to strengthen their own power base in the village. The Bishan Commune Dispute in this sense represents an often-heard critique of socially engaged art projects as being too far from the subjects they are trying to engage with, while also revealing the state’s role in shaping the project.

The Village of Bishan

[Fig. 2 – View of Bishan Village. Photo: Mai Corlin, November 2014]

Before I venture further into the Bishan Project, I want to let you in on the world of the village of Bishan. At first sight, Bishan does not come across as a poor village; the traffic conditions are good with paved roads and easy access to the nearby county seat. Yi County, where Bishan is located, is situated in a flat, oval basin surrounded by lush mountains and full of houses and smaller and larger villages in close proximity. Yi County is a part of Huizhou; a historical region, with a distinct culture, language and architecture, and constituted by the geographical area of southern Anhui and a part of northeastern Jiangxi Province. The area is renowned for its well-preserved Hui-style villages, and the growing reliance on tourism over the past ten to twenty years has altered the economic foundation of these villages considerably. Bishan is, or was, however, not one of these tourist sites. Even though Hui-style remains the predominant architectural feature, the many newly built houses result in a lack of visual, rural authenticity so crucial to urban tourists. Nevertheless, Bishan has become attractive to investors, mainly within the hotel sector, who wish to take advantage of its proximity to famous tourist destinations and good traffic conditions. In this Hui village in the foothills of the Yellow Mountain range, artist, curator and editor Ou Ning and his colleague Zuo Jing initiated the Bishan Commune in 2011; a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas.

How to Start Your Own Utopia

[Fig. 3 – Page from Ou Ning’s notebook How to Start Your Own Utopia, Ou Ning, Xiaoma and Chengzi, 2010]

My tale of the Trojan Horses in the Chinese Countryside begins with Ou Ning’s notebook The Bishan Commune: How to Start Your Own Utopia. The notebook presents a utopian ideal of another way of life based on the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s idea of mutual aid. It presents and visualizes Ou Ning’s visions of a utopian community that aims at organizing a rural intelligentsia and changing the conditions for the people living in the rural areas of China. There will be no leaders, and decisions will be taken at common meetings using consensus democracy. It is not a finalized utopia, but an inconsistent draft referencing alternative communities all over the world, architectural utopias, anarchism, collectivity, rurality and the relationship between city and countryside. The notebook has come to mean many different things in different contexts, and has as such gotten its own life independent of the project in Bishan as it tours the art and activist environments around China and the world. However, this article is primarily concerned with the practice as it unfolded in Bishan, and will leave the notebook utopia behind for a moment, though it, as utopian imaginaries often do, will remain as a framing document that pushes the ideas of the project forward into the world and into the rural village of Bishan.

The Bishan Commune Project

[Fig. 4 – Bishan Commune map and logo, designed by Xiaoma and Chengzi, 2011]

[Bishan Commune logo]

The Bishan Project, the name by which it has primarily been known,[12] had its headquarters in Ou Ning’s house in the eastern part of Bishan Village, a large Hui-style compound he named Buffalo Institute (牛院).

The Institute served as a hub for arriving visitors, including artists, intellectuals and activists from near and far who came and stayed for varying periods of time. The Bishan Project is thus in many ways the result of the combined efforts of many different people that came and went, and as such looks very different depending on which angle you look at it from. For the first couple of years, the primary activities unfolded around the Bishan Harvestival,[13] what was meant to be a yearly large-scale art festival that invited artists and activists from all over the world and attracted large numbers of visitors of all kinds. But as the authorities shut down the second Bishan Harvestival in 2012, Ou Ning saw no other way than to discontinue the festival model. Later, when Ou Ning moved to the village together with his family in 2013, another kind of work began—work that focused on dialogue and collaboration with the villagers, reading groups, smaller exhibitions, researcher-in-residence programs, concerts, publication of magazines, preservation of local handicrafts traditions, a community supported agriculture (CSA) project and many other kinds of activities. Many of these activities took place at the Bishan Bookstore (碧山书局), opened by Ou Ning’s long-time friend Qian Xiaohua the spring of 2014,[14] or later at the School of Tillers (理农馆), a gallery, library and education space opened by Ou Ning in the spring of 2015 in the house adjacent to the Buffalo Institute.[15] Since the opening in 2014, the Bishan Bookstore has functioned as the main space for public activities of the Bishan Project, only superseded by Ou Ning’s School of Tillers. The creation of alternative, communal spaces such as the Bishan Bookstore has had residual side effects, since its opening meant that tourists now had a space to spend time in, while enjoying the traditional Huizhou architecture and the view over Bishan Village from the café on the second floor. Located in the heart of Huizhou, Bishan Village is in close proximity to famous tourist destinations such as the Yellow Mountain and the UNESCO World Heritage villages Hongcun and Xidi. Tourism, along with tea production, are the main trades of the county, although Bishan with its many newly built houses and consequently its lack of rural, architectural authenticity has not seen many of these tourists. There are in other words already a large amount of domestic and international tourists in the area, and the quest for the local village officials (and the artists) is to lure tourists away from the beaten path and into Bishan.

[Fig. 5 – Opening of the Bishan Harvestival in 2011, Hu Xiaogeng 胡晓耕]

In terms of local support, local, rural power holders were well aware of the potential economic benefits of the arrival of “creative people,” and the project was to some extent sanctioned and supported financially by local authorities. As the local township party secretary Yu Qiang remarked at a meeting: “If it weren’t for these kinds of cultural influences, Bishan would be no different than other villages. When people visit Yi County, the top choice is Bishan. Only those with refined taste and cultivated interests choose to come to Bishan.”[16] What Qu Qiang hints at is the fact that Bishan is perceived to be different because there are artists and intellectuals present, and they provide a high-end vibe that attracts tourists with larger wallets. The Bishan Project in this sense comes in handy for the local government and the quest for economic development in the name of cultural heritage preservation. In other words, the local government displayed support for the Bishan Project, albeit always on their own terms.

Distance and rapprochement

Needless to say, there was a distance between the utopia of the notebook and the undertakings in Bishan Village—as the project slowly gained footing in the village, it also had to change its perspectives. For many of the villagers it was imperative that the development of the economy was part of the Bishan Project, something the project did not initially include. With the closure of the second Bishan Harvestival in 2012 and the consequently strained relationship to the authorities, Ou Ning had to reconfigure his efforts and rethink the approaches of the project, focusing more on economic development. Had the Bishan Harvestival been allowed to continue it might have taken on a different position with the local villagers, but as things unfolded that never became an option for the Bishan Project. While the Harvestival never got the chance to manifest itself as a tool of community building, the day-to-day dialogues in the village, however, proved to be a viable way for artists to approach a rural community in the longer run.

In the spring of 2013, Ou Ning moved permanently to Bishan with his family.[17] The move indicates a significant turning point for the Bishan Project. Being present in the village on a day-to-day basis gives other possibilities of interaction and exchange, and introduces a less formalized mode of interaction than the one laid out during the first couple of years of the Bishan Project. Nevertheless, talking to each other does not mean that you necessarily agree on how things should proceed. According to Ou Ning, at a meeting he held after moving to Bishan, the villagers expressed that “they were disappointed and thought the activities we [Ou Ning and Zuo Jing] organized were not practical, something they can feel but never touch, […] Local villagers expected us to develop Bishan into a renowned tourist attraction like Xidi and Hongcun.”[18] As the local villager Teacher Hu expressed it, “I really wish our village could develop, that it could become something like Xidi and Hongcun, though not as commercialized as them.”[19] Now, most of the villagers close to the Bishan Project agree that they want something different than the nearby tourist villages Xidi and Hongcun, but many villagers still pin their hopes on some form of tourism, as a framework for development they can recognize based on the experiences of neighboring villages. The Project and Ou Ning’s formulation of it, in other words, changed from a sense that the lack of art and culture were the primary concerns to a situation where the development of the economy and preservation of the local architecture became the main driving forces. I argue that this change can be understood two-fold: as a result of pressure from the local and central authorities to abandon the more politically problematic aims of the project and focus on the more neutral aim of economic development and heritage preservation as well as the direct result of engagement with a local community of villagers very much preoccupied with the lack of economic possibilities. 

Although the Yellow Mountain Range is one of China’s major tourist destinations and attracts large crowds of national and international tourists, in further development of the local tourist industry of Yi County, the architecture of the Huizhou villages is the centerpiece. The Hui houses are characterized by an exterior of whitewashed brick walls with black roof tiles known as “horse head walls,” and a wooden interior structured around a courtyard (a sky well, 天井), where the slanted roof sections allow for the rainwater to run down and gather in a well. The houses are usually two stories or more and often neatly decorated with eloquent woodcarvings or more contemporary Mao Zedong posters. The houses are an almost inexhaustible resource, and the architecture and rural living style, to the urban tourist, represent a kind of cradle of original Chinese life. In other words, the houses, the forefather temples and the academies (书院) represent a nostalgia—a connection back to other times, back to the golden age of Huizhou, a connection that was broken during the Mao-era, that the current inhabitants of the county are slowly trying to mend. In her text “Imagined Nostalgia,” the Chinese feminist cultural critic Dai Jinhua describes how nostalgic representations are predicated on the need of the consumer to be relieved in a time of fear triggered by the anxiety towards the intrusive wave of changes flooding China since the beginning of the 1980s and the unpredictability of these changes. Nostalgia thus represents a longing that responds to the anxiety that imbues society and provides a temporary space where the present is allocated to an imagined past—but it is a space that nevertheless is predicated on the dynamics and processes of the present. Our Huizhou village thus, at the same time that it appears as a representation of the backward and rural hinterland often left behind by residents, also appears as a nostalgic space of relief, where urbanites’ anxiety towards urban reality can be comforted. It is through acquisition of these houses as well as through the creation of alternative spaces that Ou Ning and Zuo Jing have gained access to the village.

Property and land are highly controlled and restricted in rural as well as urban China. Since the beginning of 2014, Anhui Province has been piloting an official market for residential land in a select number of counties,[20] including Yi County, under whose jurisdiction Bishan is placed. This pilot residential land market makes it possible for external actors to purchase or lease houses and land within Bishan village legally, something that can potentially transform the appearance and demography of Bishan. Many of the traditional houses in Bishan had for a long time not had any dwellers, since either new houses had been built next to them or their inhabitants had moved elsewhere, yet the fetish component still remains. The exchange-value of the houses can now be realized on a whole new scale and the houses enter the realm of economic and nostalgic desire. By now most of the old Hui-style dwellings that can be traded have been traded, a process that gained speed already beginning in the fall of 2013 and perhaps even earlier, in other words, before the new policy experiment was announced publicly. It remains to be seen how these houses will be used and whether they will be included as resources in the work of Bishan Project or remain as investment objects or holiday residences. If urbanites, as Ou Ning argues, “only purchase the house for the occasional holiday […] then the rural areas will become the backyard of the urbanites and nothing more, and that will be of little help to the revival of economy and culture of the rural areas.”[21]

This previously nothing-special, sleepy village suddenly saw an influx of people and ideas, momentarily creating new conditions through the juxtaposition of new spaces brought on by new people and the overarching utopian narrative connected to the commune. The development drastically changed the spatial and economic premises of the village—in close collaboration with local authorities and national decision-making processes.

The Bishan Bookstore

[Fig. 6 – Local children playing at the Bishan Bookstore. Photo: Mai Corlin, July 2014]

Another important factor in this transformation was the opening of the Bishan Bookstore in the spring of 2014 as a project within the Bishan Commune framework, and, perhaps more importantly, as a branch of the renowned Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde owned by Ou Ning’s old friend Qian Xiaohua. Ou Ning is not involved economically in the bookstore, but uses the space for public events such as concerts, various workshops, reading groups and other activities.[22] After the opening of the Bishan Bookstore in 2014, Bishan began to experience a steadier influx of tourists as the bookstore provided an entry point into the village. The architecture of the Huizhou area, of which the bookstore is an example, came to play a significant part in the Bishan Project, both in terms of raising awareness of the value (and exchange-value) of these old structures but also as entry points into the village. Situated in an old, restored forefather temple of the Wang clan (汪氏), the Bishan Bookstore is a monumental building located near one of the main alleys in the village. On the first floor of the bookstore is the large book collection, including novels, poetry, Huizhou history and a big section with books on the Rural Reconstruction Movement and research on rural China. It is also here that you find the main commodities of the Bishan Bookstore: the notebooks, bags and postcards that constitute the core economy of the Librarie Avant-garde chain of bookstores. On the second floor is a café serving coffee and tea and offering a view over the rooftops of Bishan Village and the nearby rice paddies, mulberry fields and old silkworm breeding houses. The daily management of the bookstore is taken care of by the local village historian Teacher Wang, who is in charge of the books, and Tang Xue, Ou Ning’s wife, who is in charge of the café. Teacher Wang quickly became one of my key informants, as he was both influential within the village hierarchy and invested a considerable amount of time in discussing the matters of the Bishan Project with Ou Ning. Besides Teacher Wang and Tang Xue, several others have helped or worked shorter periods at the bookstore, and Ou Ning continuously arranged various activities there.

[Fig. 7 – Teacher Wang working at the Bishan Bookstore. Photo: Mai Corlin, November 2014]

Not everyone in Bishan quite understood why the Bishan Project was setting up a bookstore there. The local small shop owner, Hu Yongfeng, expressed before the opening of the bookstore: “In rural areas, it is hopeless to try to sell books. The books are not going to sell. How many people actually buy books here? People here like to go to places like next door [the Old People’s Association] to play Mahjong. People here love to play Mahjong.”[23] Mrs. Hu points towards one of the more obvious divides in the village: the people who play Mahjong versus the people who don’t. As it turns out, the villagers frequenting the bookstore on a regular basis are villagers who do not spend their days playing Mahjong. The bookstore provided a different kind of communal space than the one provided by the Old People’s Association. Mrs. Hu’s comments reveal a very common view of rural China as a place that is lacking in culture. However, not all voices in the village viewed the bookstore as a “hopeless” venture. As another small shop owner, Li Jin, expresses: “The bookstore will most definitely benefit Bishan, it is a good thing.”[24] More people visiting the village will inevitably bring more business to the small mom-and-pop grocery stores that adorn every alley, and it is understandable why a shop owner would find the promise of more business advantageous. On another note, Xinghua, a local from Yi County who worked at the bookstore, explains how it grew with the local villagers: “At first, the villagers came to the bookstore just to have a look. They would walk around with their hands on their backs, not touching anything or sitting down anywhere, but after two months they have slowly started coming here more often, being more relaxed, coming here to read books, access the internet or just to hang out.” The bookstore had to settle in with the villagers in order for them to begin to use the space. In other words, a variety of opinions of and experiences with the bookstore were present in the village. It is also clear that some villagers gained a much closer connection to the bookstore space than others. By being the first renovated Hui house that was readily accessible to the villagers and by quickly demonstrating that it could attract visitors, the Bishan Bookstore was the first part of the Bishan Project that proved tangible to the villagers. As Teacher Wang, the local bookstore manager, explained it: “It is not easy to make locals understand what they [Bishan Project] want to accomplish. In their eyes, the only tangible thing Ou and Zuo have done so far is the Bishan Bookstore.”[25]

During the days I spent at the bookstore, I met many different villagers. Some would bring their grandchildren to the space and chat with the people working there, others would just sit and relax on the couches, read books and discuss all sorts of different things as people usually do in their local environment. The bookstore had become a space and meeting place for a group of elderly villagers, as well as the entry point into the village for tourists from near and far. The bookstore became the space where villagers met and had exchanges with Chinese and foreign tourists or artists, and it housed concerts and reading groups put on by visiting artists.

[Fig. 8 – The Danish performance ensemble Moveable Accurate performing a piece created together with villagers of Bishan. Photo: Mai Corlin, October 2014]

[Fig. 9 – Reading group at Bishan Bookstore conducted by art critic Wang Jiyu, Sun Tao 孙涛, July 2014]

In the bookstore, the villagers were routinely asked what they thought of the Bishan Project and the development their village was going through by artists, tourists, journalists and visiting researchers, especially after the Bishan Commune Dispute caused people from all corners of China to visit Bishan. During an interview I did with Teacher Wang at the Bishan Bookstore, we were interrupted by a man from Beijing visiting Bishan because he had heard of Ou Ning and the Bishan Project. The conversation below, which I happened to record, vividly displays an urbanite’s prejudice regarding villagers in rural China and Teacher Wang’s attempts to show that villagers are more diverse than this man seems to have decided upon:

Beijinger: […] it seems that the people buying books are mainly people from the outside.

Wang: Some are from the village, but the majority are from the outside.

Beijinger:  […] obviously the locals are not really interested in these books.

Wang: There are also locals who read books.

Beijinger: To read a book and buy a book is not the same.

Wang: There are also some who buy books, for instance this morning…

Beijinger: Then what kind of books do the locals buy?

Wang: They buy the books of their profession, books they are interested in. Some are interested in farmers and the land or books on rural reconstruction. There is an elderly lady called Old Nainai who comes every day, she read the book Why Farmers Leave Their Land from beginning to end.[26]

Beijinger: Ah ok, so it is like I said, this bookstore functions more like a library. People come here and read the books, because there are many different books here.

Wang: There are also some old people or retired teachers, they all come here to look for books.

Wang tries to explain to this outsider that not all villagers are the same; some actually read and buy books. There seems to be some sort of progression, from the man thinking that the books are of no interest to the villagers to asserting that the bookstore is a library to them and a bookstore to the visiting tourists. The conversation on the other hand also displays Teacher Wang’s pride in the bookstore and the fact that he can say with certainty that people in the countryside read books too. The dialogue is an example of the many conversations that took place in the bookstore. It demonstrates that Bishan still looks very different from the inside than from the outside and that meeting and talking about these things can perhaps decrease this distance. It shows that the bookstore provides a space for exchange and dialogue as well as a place that gives access to other demographics and geographies of society as tourists visiting the bookstore sought to interact and engage with local villagers. From the bookstore, I could observe some of the ongoing power dynamics and changing value systems in the village, as the villagers negotiated their way through a transforming power nexus due to the arrival of urban artists and tourists.

From my first visit to Bishan in the fall of 2013 to my visit during the summer of 2014 after the opening of the bookstore, I sensed a clear change in opinion from the villagers I was in contact with. During my first stay, there was a sense that tourism development as represented by Xidi and Hongcun was the preferred way to go forward. Xidi and Hongcun were described as renao, which can be translated as lively, a word that has very positive connotations. It refers to an abundance of people, signifying that depopulation has been stopped in Xidi and Hongcun and that families could stay together and run small family businesses—a situation most villagers who cannot or will not leave Bishan are striving towards. The county secretary Yu Qiang similarly mentions how the arrival of the Bishan Project has made Bishan more renao.[27] During my last visit however, Xidi and Hongcun were again and again presented as “too commercialized” (商业化太浓). Bishan was to be something different from Xidi and Hongcun and this signified a change in thinking about the terms on which the tourism industry should be developed. Another conversation I overheard at the bookstore was between a photographer and Teacher Wang, on the matter of tourism development:

Photographer: … I think that Bishan is very different (区别很大) from Xidi and Hongcun now

Wang: The distance (距离很大) was already big

Photog.: No no, I mean difference (区别), not disparity (差别)

Wang:  You can’t say it like that, in my mind there is still a great distance. If Bishan stagnates, if we continue like this for ten or twenty more years, then the distance will be even greater. For now it is only the Bishan Project that shortens this distance, but the direction of the two villages is different.

Photog.: Yes, of course, this is my point. I just mean that Bishan has started getting its own characteristics, it already has something that Xidi and Hongcun doesn’t have

Wang: Yes, this is the issue now

As they try to find common ground while also talking past each other, this conversation reveals the different matters at stake in the purported development of Bishan into that something else. Teacher Wang speaks from the position of wishing for economic development for the village broadly, whereas the photographer seems to think that Bishan is already much better off than Xidi and Hongcun. The distance perhaps lies in the gaze, so to speak. Where Teacher Wang sees an economically troubled village lacking in basic welfare provision, the photographer sees a picturesque place of nostalgic longing adorned by the presence of intellectuals and artists. Though Teacher Wang towards the end recognizes the Bishan Project as a driving force for the economy, he seems also to point out that this is only the very beginning of what should be a longer process towards prosperity for the village at large.

[Fig. 10 – Bishan Villager (left) together with Taiwanese investor (right) and his secretary (middle). Photo: Mai Corlin, November 2014]

During the next couple of visits during the summer of 2014, I was presented with various development ideas that were often related to tourism and to the preservation of old customs and places and that often had an educational element. By coincidence I was present when a Taiwanese investor visited the bookstore and I spent the day with him, his assistant and several villagers running around and looking at houses he could purchase and rebuild into a school for handicrafts and art students.[28] The villagers that showed them around expressed clear opinions on the fact that it would bring more sustainable and lively development to the village, as opposed to just another hotel. In other words, the attitude had changed from the sense that any investor or any development was good, to the sense that development could be directed in a different direction—a sense that educational facilities rooted in the local handicraft traditions were more sustainable solutions than large scale investment groups that would build luxury hotel reserves and employ workers from other parts of China—but also, and not insignificantly, the sense that they had a say in it. In other words, a more nuanced understanding of the future of the village was growing among a small number of the Bishan villagers.

“Whose Countryside? Whose Community?”

The farmers should raise their heads and the intellectuals should lower their heads, so that they are face to face and the distance between them is smaller. The farmers have an inferiority complex; they feel they don’t have any money, they lead a hard life to support their families. The intellectuals, on the other hand, feel superior: “I have money, diplomas and knowledge.” Their heads are raised high on their shoulders. But in the countryside, your intelligentsia must lower their heads a bit so they can see the farmers; and the farmers should raise their heads to see the big brothers and sisters of the intelligentsia, and study how they use their knowledge in this place. Only in this way can the distance between them become smaller.[29] – Teacher Wang, July 2014

Teacher Wang said this to me during an interview, implying that both the villagers and the artists had a job to do in obtaining the best conditions for communication, and also that there were unresolved power dynamics at work. A similar dichotomy was noted by a migrant worker participating in a seminar held by the organizers of a socially engaged art project that unfolded on the outskirts of Beijing called “Between the Fifth and Sixth Ring Road:” “I’ve heard people mention equality quite a few times today. I dearly harbor the wish that the day will come when an artist talks to a migrant worker and doesn’t adopt a superior approach, and the migrant worker won’t feel inferior. I hope that all of you, and your work, can help to bring that day a little closer.”[30] This skewed and complicated relationship between artists and residents conveys some of the often discussed problematics of socially engaged art as an idealized project of equality and collaboration that unfolds in a contemporary setting.

The Bishan Project Dispute

The arrival of Ou Ning in Bishan gave rise to a wave of critique that culminated with the Bishan Project Dispute (碧山计划争议) in the summer of 2014. Much of the critique was centered on how the actors of the Bishan Project had problematic, idealized assumptions of community in their engagement with the local villagers and that Ou Ning in particular used “status symbols” that enlarged the “cultural divide” (文化的区隔) between the artists and the villagers.[31] Some of the points of critique relating to villager engagement in the project have been raised before as part of the critique of the Bishan Harvestivals, although they were never so directly critical of Ou Ning’s person and practice. The discussion primarily took place on Weibo and Douban, where the blogpost that ignited the dispute had been posted. All kinds of people from all over the country participated in the discussion and so did some local villagers. The discussion on Weibo furthermore made Chinese journalists and other curious observers flock to Bishan to see what this dispute was all about.[32] In the sections below, I will try to give an account of what the Bishan Project Dispute was all about and how it was viewed internally in the village. What constituted the critique and how does it relate to the criticism of socially engaged art projects in general? The dispute can in itself seem “culturally divided” from the village as most of it took place far away from the locality in question. However, for the local village committee, at that time headed by Zhu Xiandong, the dispute became a vessel to put forward their own critique of the Bishan Project. Remembering of course, that the village committee is constituted by villagers and also that the village committee is not the only powerhouse of the village—in many cases the Old People’s Association had the same if not more power over village matters. The main points of their critique related to a conflict that had long been simmering between Ou Ning and Zhu Xiandong and that perhaps was more related to issues of power and money in the village than to Ou Ning’s estrangement from the community or his politically deviant views. The Dispute thus had its own life and purpose in Bishan Village. This section is as much about power, distribution of wealth, rural gentrification and a growing sympathy with the villagers for Ou Ning’s cause as it is about a general critique of socially engaged art projects. Does a project fail if it does not succeed in bringing about utopia? Or put differently, how can we understand the complexities of socially engaged art projects in the light of the possible?

The Cultural Divide

The spark that set off a nationwide discussion was a blogpost by Harvard PhD student of sociology Zhou Yun titled “Whose Countryside, Whose Community? Taste, Distinction and the Bishan Project” published at the beginning of July 2014.[33] Zhou Yun visited Bishan as part of a short research trip organized by the Social Sciences faculty at Nanjing University and attended a talk by Ou Ning on that occasion. In the blogpost Zhou Yun heavily criticized the methods of Ou Ning and the Bishan Project, arguing that it was an elitist project that generated a sense of “othering” of the rural residents.[34]

I am calling the Bishan Project into question because its founder wants to create the “Bishan Commune,” and speaks of “villagers’ autonomy and self-governance;” however, the PowerPoint presentation he uses to introduce his ideas is completely in English, and full of big words such as civil society, social engineering and party politics, with constant allusions to Western works such as Walden, Skinner, and The Last Whole Earth Catalog; he also deliberately emphasizes that the notebook used to record his vision was a Moleskine. In this discussion, all of the details and Status Symbol[s] continuously produce a cultural divide, placing real villagers on the outside. In fact, it is not just villagers who are excluded, urban residents who lack cultural capital are excluded as well. Therefore, with regard to the “Commune,” whose “Commune” is it?[35]

While the use of English in Ou Ning’s powerpoint was less of a problem in relation to the particular audience, which consisted of university students from China and abroad,[36] there are still issues in relation to the “cultural divide” that are not easily dismissed in the case of the Bishan Project. Zhou Yun, with this phrase, questions Ou Ning’s idea of an autonomous commune consisting of villagers and artists, when the voice of the villagers is not included meaningfully within the structure of the project. In the framing of her critique, Zhou Yun references Pierre Bourdieu and his concepts of “cultural divide” and “status symbols.”[37] While I do not intend to completely dismiss these notions—status symbols are without a doubt an issue with the Bishan Project—I will argue that solely focusing on these aspects is an oversimplification of the reality in Bishan Village. It is, however, the case that Ou Ning and Zuo Jing brought with them a certain kind of power—the power of resources—and the fact that they actively used this power in the village is no secret.

In this light, it is also relevant to wonder if Zhou Yun’s focus on the “cultural divide” between the villagers and artists is also a problematic vantage point. This assumption takes for granted that the villagers are a homogenous unit on one side of an insurmountable cultural divide. But is this actually the case? Aren’t the villagers an equally unruly mass of people with their own opinions of Ou Ning, the Bishan Project and the development of the economy? Don’t the villagers have different cultural resources that they use in diverse manners? Inspired by the arrival of the Bishan Project, some villagers, such as the elderly Yao Lilan, took up the task of photographing village life and exhibited the photographs at a locally opened gallery, while others initiated community supported agriculture projects, as with Ou Ning’s friend, the young village official Zhang Yu. Some shook their heads in dismay and dismissed the project altogether, while others did not pay any attention. In other words, there was a diversity of attitudes towards the project within the village itself. Either way, my aim here is not to suggest that there is no cultural divide between rural and urban residents, or that status symbols and power do not affect how relationships develop, but rather to suggest that alongside these factors of constraint, other processes of dialogue take place.

[Fig. 11 – Hong Kong artist Michael Leung visiting Bishan villager. Photo: Mai Corlin, August 2016]

Streetlights versus Stars

Though Zhou Yun raised a wide range of concerns related to Ou Ning’s Bishan Project, what became the driving force of the dispute was the question of streetlights. During the talk that Zhou Yun attended, Ou Ning had mentioned that there was a conflict between the villagers and the visiting artists and urbanites. As an example of the rural-urban cultural divide, Ou Ning claimed that visiting tourists did not want streetlights since they would prevent them from seeing the stars. The villagers on the other hand, wanted streetlights since it was unsafe to walk around the village when it was dark.[38] Zhou Yun, however, twisted Ou Ning’s comments, so that in the blogpost it sounds like Ou Ning was actively promoting the no-streetlights agenda, which better supported her statements that portrayed Ou Ning as instigating a cultural divide. Another student who had attended the same talk in Bishan corrected Zhou Yun in a comment on her blogpost on Weibo and gave his account of the situation, writing that he could not understand how such a serious misunderstanding could occur.[39] While it might seem like Zhou Yun was making a larger claim against urban artists and their colonization of rural China, she continued to tie the problem to Ou Ning and the issue of streetlights. The streetlights discussion thus came to overshadow some of Zhou Yun’s other points of critique. As for the local response, the owner of the local Bishan hotel Tailai (泰来农庄) commented on Weibo and wrote: “I am a villager from Bishan. To be frank, you have really misunderstood Ou Ning and the Bishan Project. They are doing good things.”[40] Though I am not sure all villagers agreed with this statement, it does tell us something about some villagers’ feelings and possible need to protect their village from outside criticism. Furthermore, the topic of streetlights had already been addressed by Ou Ning at a prior occasion as a matter of concern. During the second Bishan Harvestival in 2012, Ou Ning commissioned an artist to install streetlights in Bishan, though only temporarily during the Harvestival and only in the eastern part of the village (碧东), which upset the villagers in the western part of the village (碧西).[41] Nevertheless, in the eyes of Zhou Yun, the lack of streetlights became the symbol of urban artists and intellectuals’ hostile takeover of rural China. But as a commenter on the Bishan Project Dispute asked: is it really the case that the villagers don’t appreciate the stars? (村民无感)[42] More than questioning streetlights in Bishan, the commenter questions the divide Zhou Yun posits between Ou Ning and the villagers.

There is more to the issue of streetlights than the fact that they represent a cultural divide between urban and rural residents. Streetlights in Yi County are status symbols in and of themselves, which demonstrate that the village community is wealthy enough to provide light when it is dark.[43] As it turned out, Bishan was one of the last villages in the neighborhood not to have streetlights and some villagers saw this as a “loss of face” (没有面子). Mentioning all the different costs and requirements related to the installment of streetlights, one commenter on the Bishan Project Dispute in a lengthy blogpost on Weixin wrote: the installment of one lamp “reflects a microcosm of how basic state power operates.”[44] By this, the commenter related the question of streetlights directly to the administration of rural China. In other words, whose responsibility are streetlights? As the next section will show, the Bishan Project Dispute also became the battlefield for a conflict Ou Ning had long had with the local village committee—a conflict related to who should pay for these kinds of services in the village.

Outside Bosses

One testament to the shifting dynamic within the village was the subtle power struggle taking place, which was displayed through the Bishan Project Dispute. The party secretary of Bishan Village at the time, Zhu Xiandong, saw his chance to take advantage of the less fortunate press coverage of the Bishan Commune and Ou Ning and stated “These outside bosses enjoy our resources. Our village has such a beautiful green landscape and old local-style dwelling houses, they should contribute something to our village.”[45] The expression “outside bosses” (外地来的老板) refers to Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and other people from the outside operating in the village. By referring to the old houses as local resources, Zhu Xiandong is pointing towards the shift in cultural value concerning these houses, but also to the capital value Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and their friends came to possess through acquisitions of property in the village. From Zhu Xiandong’s quote, it is not clear exactly what or how they should contribute in return for using these local resources, but it is established practice in many places in rural and urban China that investors pay for new concrete roads, welfare installations and the like. Ou Ning had prior to the dispute been in conflict with Zhu Xiandong, concerning payment of some of these costs. But Ou Ning was unwilling to keep contributing, and by doing so he broke with the “rules of engagement” in the countryside. He had thus gone up against local power holders, who treated him and Zuo Jing as just two more wealthy investors. By using the phrase “outside bosses” the village party secretary reinforced a distance between the villagers and these outsiders, while also repeating a critique from the first years of the Bishan Project, when many of the villagers did indeed perceive Ou Ning and Zuo Jing as “outside bosses.” By calling them outside bosses, Zhu Xiandong was equating Ou Ning and Zuo Jing with wealthy business people who are expected to contribute, thus using the Bishan Commune Dispute as a vessel for his and the village committee’s own agenda. Even if the media interpreted it otherwise, the village party secretary’s open statement in the press revealed the internal power struggles going on in Bishan Village after the arrival of the urban artists. 

As the examples above reveal, there are several layers of power and interpretation at stake in rural China. Zhou Yun’s short visit to Bishan did not disclose the entire reality of what was going on in Bishan and the extent of the relationship between artists and the local villagers and authorities. Zhou Yun did not take into account the temporality of the project nor the actual space for political action in a small Chinese village. This returns us to Kester’s proposition for a new field-based approach to addressing and assessing these projects, if we want to understand how and on what premises they unfold.[46] Ou Ning has operated with the idea of a utopian, intellectual community of diversity and equality, as well as a preconceived idea that the primary issues facing Bishan Village are its lack of community and culture.[47] What happened in the village was perhaps not so much a problem of divergent ideas of community and utopia between Ou Ning and the villagers, but that Ou Ning in his utopian thinking treated rural China as a place where he could carve out a space for a practice of co-existence. The focus was on what rural China lacked, and not on what was already there—a matrix of power struggles and a continuous battle of resources.

In an answer to Zhou Yun’s question of whose countryside it is, Ou Ning said in an interview: “Whose village really is this? It’s not my village, it’s not the villagers’ village; it’s the Party’s village.”[48] For Ou Ning, the village leadership and the Party effectively limited the possible ways the Bishan Project and Bishan Village could develop into something beneficial to all villagers in Bishan. The actual perpetrators are, I think, probably to be found somewhere entangled in the mishmash of local power struggles, party discourses, capital interests, utopian visions and higher-level government policies governing rural life. Whether or not the Bishan Project was ever going to be able to impede the larger movements of capital in its quest for new underdeveloped land to absorb surplus capital, is, of course, another question. So far, it seems that the Bishan Project had little or no leeway to be anything other than the beachhead for the development of the village into a successful high-class tourist destination. Instead of impeding the movement away from the rural areas, as was one of the original goals, it seems that the Bishan Project facilitated an urban move towards Bishan.

[Fig. 12 – A photograph taken by Bishan villager Yao Lilan. Photo: Mai Corlin, August 2016]

The Trojan Turn

I would now like to return to Lucy Lippard’s idea of activist art as a Trojan Horse and its unfolding in Bishan Village. The two-fold (or perhaps more correctly manifold) experience of the Bishan Project confirms the dialectical double sidedness of the Trojan Horse. In many ways the village committee itself invited in the Trojan Horse of the Bishan Project, or was at least persuaded to do so by the resourcefulness of Ou Ning and Zuo Jing. The village committee allowed an old forefather temple to be used as a bookstore free of charge and they allowed for houses to be sold to Ou Ning and Zuo Jing prior to the policy change. For some time the bookstore was the main communal space readily available to villagers and tourists alike and through the bookstore space visitors were directed further into the village. The bookstore became a symbol of a successfully renovated Hui house that had significant use-value and as such also represented the increased exchange-value of the Hui-style houses in general. Through these spaces Ou Ning introduced new thinking on the preservation and value attributed to the Hui houses in an attempt to connect Bishan to a past not connected with the Mao-era.

Despite an often complicated relationship to both authorities and villagers, with Ou Ning’s move to Bishan and the opening of the Bishan Bookstore, he managed to connect with a group of local villagers and together they discussed the various alternative ways in which Bishan could develop for the benefit of the local population. A small portion of the villagers eagerly supported the Bishan Project and had begun to see it as a benefit to them. The Bishan Project was in this sense the subversive Trojan Horse described by Lippard, since Ou Ning managed to get some groups of villagers over on his side—mostly in terms of supporting alternative forms of economic development, and to a lesser degree in terms of building an anarchist utopia.

However, as the housing prices rose, the Trojan Horse also brought with it a transformation of the economic foundation of the Hui houses, turning them into desired objects that could be purchased for investment purposes. In other words, the Trojan Horse turned on the Bishan Project and became the Trojan Horse of capitalist-style development, and the artists became pioneers of an elaborate and complex rural gentrification project. In a sense, they became frontrunners of the urbanization of rural China as they brought in urban resources and capital that altered the face and pace of Bishan. The Trojan Horse is in this sense indeed a subversive power, though it is subverting the artist project itself and not the community it was trying to transform. The Trojan Horse of the Bishan Project has turned into something Ou Ning and Zuo Jing could no longer control unilaterally.

In February 2016 the authorities closed the Bishan Project, supposedly on verdict from the central government.[49] Already in the months leading up to the closure, local authorities had been visiting Ou Ning and his gallery regularly. They had confiscated the translation and facsimile of Ou Ning’s notebook and confiscated goods sold by local farmers at the gallery. Before the closure the local authorities held a meeting with local villagers aimed at defusing any potential anger. At the meeting the local authorities claimed that the Bishan Project was “politically incorrect” (政治不正确的) and that the “leadership of the party should be strengthened” (加强党的领导) in the village. However, what actually brought about the closure is difficult to say. I argue that the increasingly strained relationship with the local authorities, which began with the closure of the second Bishan Harvestival in 2012 and worsened during the Bishan Project Dispute during the summer of 2014, was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Bishan Project. The current leadership in Yi County perhaps found that the power of Ou Ning and Zuo Jing within the village had become too influential, and that growing support from groups of villagers could be read as a threat if the local government decided to cut support for the Bishan Project and go for more profitable projects instead. Furthermore, in the eyes of the local authorities, the project failed to redistribute tourist revenues back to the village and county leaderships and therefore lost local government support. On another level, Ou Ning definitely crossed the line by introducing anarchism and consensus democracy into an evidently non-democratic system.

As for Bishan, the artists did not succeed in transforming the village into the anarchist utopia described in Ou Ning’s notebook. Instead, they paved the way for an emerging tourist industry to change Bishan altogether. Ou Ning and Zuo Jing introduced an urban aesthetics and as such the Bishan Commune prepared the village for an urban, capitalist reality, both in terms of introducing another kind of aesthetics that favored the Hui houses over the new houses, and in terms of paving the way for other modes of development. The Bishan Project did manage to create substantial relations with groups of the local villagers and thus created a platform where discussion of the development and spatial reconfiguration of Bishan could take place. Whether or how these discussions will continue in the future without the presence of the Bishan Project is a matter for further research.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to the villagers of Bishan and to Zuo Jing and Ou Ning and his family for opening their homes to me. Thanks also to the S.C. Van Foundation for financial support for fieldwork visits to Bishan.

Mai Corlin has a PhD degree in China Studies from Aarhus University, Denmark, where she wrote her PhD project entitled Trojan Horses in the Chinese Countryside – The Bishan Commune and the Practice of Socially Engaged Art in Rural China. She is working on a book project on socially engaged practices in contemporary China based on her PhD dissertation. Currently, she is teaching Chinese literature and visual culture at China Studies, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen.


[1] Lucy R. Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, edited by Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), p. 341.

[2] Ou Ning, Bishan Commune: How to Start Your Own Utopia (碧山共同体:如何创建自己的乌托邦), translated from the Chinese by Mai Corlin and Austin Woerner (Copenhagen and Aarhus: OVO press and Antipyrine, 2015). A low resolution version of the Chinese original can be found on Ou Ning’s blog:

[3] James Yen (1890-1990) was a Chinese rural reconstruction activist, who initiated the Mass Education Movement (MEM) and the now famous rural reconstruction project in Ding County, Hebei Province in China in the 1930s.

[4] See Wen Tiejun, “Centenary Reflections on the ‘Three Dimensional Problem’ of Rural China”.
Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, (2001); and Wang and Lu, “Introduction: China and New Left Critique,” in China and New Left Visions: Political and Cultural Interventions, edited by Ban Wang and Jiu Lu (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012).

[5] Most of the projects mentioned in this essay make use of some sort of festival model, though in some cases the smaller one-day symposia are the preferred method, e.g. Mao Chenyu’s Paddy Films Farm, Chaile Travel or the anarchist youth house Our Home. Xucun International Art Commune, the Baimiao Project and Jin Le’s Shijiezi Art Museum have all held larger scale art festivals.

[6] Zheng Bo, The Pursuit of Publicness: A Study of Four Chinese Contemporary Art Projects, PhD Dissertation, University of Rochester, 2012, p. 80.

[7] Grant Kester, “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism,” E-flux Journal, vol. 50, no. 12 (2013).

[8] Carol Yinghua Lu, “From the Anxiety of Participation to the Process of De-Internationalization,” E-flux Journal, no. 70, 02 (2016).

[9] Ou Ning, “Obstacles to Rural Reconstruction,” LEAP Magazine 17, (2012), p. 104-105.

[10] Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” p. 345.

[11] See Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, “A Note on Socially Engaged Art Criticism,” in FIELD: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, issue 6, Winter 2017.

[12] The full name is the Bishan Commune Project (碧山共同体计划). The project is however, by Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and many others, typically referred to as the Bishan Project thus leaving out the commune component. There are several reasons for this: one is that it is shorter and more convenient, and the other is that it eludes the somewhat problematic term of commune/community (共同体) and primarily refers to the process of action that the word project entails.

[13] Harvestival is a contraction between the words harvest and festival.

[14] Qian Xiaohua is also the owner of the renowned Nanjing-based bookstore chain Librairie Avant-Garde (先锋书店).

[15] While there are two initiators of the Bishan Project, Ou Ning and Zuo Jing, in this article I primarily address Ou Ning’s role in the project. This is related to the fact that it was Ou Ning who formulated the utopian thinking, and as such Ou Ning who has retained the utopian imaginary. Furthermore, Ou Ning was the only one of the two who moved to the village and was as such the one who developed a day-to-day relationship with his fellow villagers.

[16] Sun Yunfan and Leah Thompson, Down to the Countryside: The Emerging Back-to-the-land Movement in Bishan Village, documentary film on Bishan Commune (2013).

[17] Ou Ning’s mother, younger brother and nephew moved with him to Bishan when the project began. Later on, his wife and her son also moved there. In late 2015 Ou Ning’s son was born in Bishan.

[18] Quoted in Qian Mengni, “The Floundering Bishan Project,” China Pictorial, September 2, 2014.

[19] Interview with Teacher Hu conducted July, 2014.

[20] “Anhui tests land reform in wake of plenum vow on rural property rights,” South China Morning Post, November 13, 2013.

[21] Ou Ning, Forespørgsler i jord og kunst (Inquiries in Earth and Art), questions and answers between Ou Ning and the Sønderholm Collective, translated from the Chinese by Mai Corlin, edited by Mai Corlin, Rasmus Graff and Mathias Kokholm (Sønderholm: Antipyrine and OVO Press, 2014), p. 10.

[22] Examples would be the reading session arranged by visitor to Buffalo Institute, thinker and art critic Wang Jiyu or the concert of the Danish artists group Bevægeligt Akkurat (Moveable Accurate), the latter had the bookstore packed to the brim with people, primarily local villagers and visiting art school students from Shanghai.

[23] Quoted from Sun and Thompson, Down to the Countryside.

[24] Interview with Li Jin conducted October 2014 while the bookstore building was being restored for use, and had not yet opened its doors to the public.

[25] Sun and Thompson, Down to the Countryside.

[26] The book Nainai reads contains interviews with farmers from all over China who moved to the city. Zhu Qizhen and Zhao Chenming. 农民为什么离开土地 (Why Farmers Leave Their Land) (Beijing: People’s Daily Press, 2011).

[27] Sun and Thompson, Down to the Countryside, 5.26 min.

[28] The investor was an acquaintance of some of Zuo Jing’s friends, who were also visiting the village at that time.

[29] Interview with Teacher Wang, July 2014.

[30] Tang, “Painting a Picture of Life on the Edge,” China Daily, May 13, 2015. The project gathers a number of artists from all over China to do surveys (调查) in the areas between the fifth and the sixth ring roads of Beijing, an area that is largely populated by formerly poor peasants and currently poor migrant workers.

[31] Zhou, “谁的乡村,谁的共同体?品味,区隔与碧山计划” (“Whose Countryside, Whose Community? Taste, Distinction and Bishan Project”). Zhou Yun’s Douban Blog. August 8, 2014. This blogpost has been altered several times by the author and thus does not now contain the same critical quotes as earlier.

[32] I happened to be in Bishan just before and during the outbreak of the Bishan Commune Dispute.

[33] The blogpost was subsequently altered several times, meaning that there are several versions in circulation.

[34] Zhou Yun, “谁的乡村,谁的共同体?” (“Whose Countryside? Whose Community?”), and Ou Ning’s answer “回应@ 一音顷夏对碧山计划的质疑” (“Answer to Zhou Yin’s Questioning of Bishan Project”).

[35] Zhou Yun, “谁的乡村,谁的共同体?” (“Whose Countryside? Whose Community?”). The quote was translated to English by Adele Kurek in Kurek, “The Bishan Project,” p. 57-58. The italicized words were written in English in the Chinese original.

[36] Ou Ning explained the use of English with the fact that he had not made a new PowerPoint for this particular talk, and the powerpoint was thus a reuse from another occasion.

[37] Zhou, “谁的乡村,谁的共同体?” (“Whose Countryside? Whose Community?”).

[38] Ou Ning quoted in Zhou, “谁的乡村,谁的共同体?” (“Whose Countryside? Whose Community?”). Ou Ning said: “碧山村没有路灯,村民十分想要——但是从外面来碧山的游客却认为,没有路灯,可以看星星” (There are no streetlights in Bishan, the villagers would really like that, but tourists coming from the outside think that if there are no street lights, then you can see the stars).

[39] The weibo user is called Li Sipan (李思磐). July 4, 2014, 00.44, Li Sipan wrote that Ou Ning’s point in mentioning the streetlights had been to underline the importance of streetlights. Li Sipan also writes that Ou Ning apologized for not having the funds to install streetlights in the village. “作为在场参访者的一员,我确定欧宁说到看星星时,恰 恰是强调了村民需求的紧迫性和重要性,他说的是:文人可能觉得没有路灯正好可以看星星,但村民们没有路 灯十分不便,并且很没有面子。欧很抱歉自己只有能力在有文化节庆时解决了短期照明,而没有资金解决路灯 问题。不知道为何会出现这么严重误会,” Weibo, July 4 2014, 00.44.

[40] Hotel Tailai (泰来农庄), comment to discussion on Weibo, July 5, 2014, 18.26.

[41] Throughout the duration of the Bishan Project there was a conflict between the eastern and western parts of the village. Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and the Bookstore were all located in the eastern part and the villagers of the western part viewed their part of the village as under prioritized in relation to the project.

[42] Song, “有路灯的碧山一定好吗?” (“Is a Bishan with Streetlights with Certainty a Good Thing?”), 旧闻评论 Jiuwen Pinglun’s Weixin, July 9, 2014.

[43] Informal conversation with villagers. The commenter Li Sipan on Weibo also mentions that the villagers think that it is “a loss of face” (很没有面子) to not have streetlights. Li Sipan (李思磐), Weibo, July 4, 2014, 00.44.

[44] Song, “有路灯的碧山一定好吗?” (“Is a Bishan with Streetlights with Certainty a Good Thing?”).

[45] Zhu Xiandong quoted in Xing Xiaowen (邢晓雯). “争议碧山乌托邦’- 艺术家主导乡建,陷入脱离群众 ” (“The ‘Bishan Utopia’ Controversy: Artist Led Rural Reconstruction Sinks Into Dispute on ‘Separation from the Masses’) Southern Metropolis. July 16, 2014. Zhu Xiandong was afterwards criticized heavily by the local Party division for having talked to the press. This criticism resulted in a ban on officials above the level of University Village Official talking to journalists without prior permission.

[46] See Grant Kester, “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism,” E-flux Journal, vol. 50, no. 12 (2013).

[47] See Mai Corlin, Trojan Horses in the Chinese Countryside: The Bishan Commune and the Practice of Socially Engaged Art in Rural China, PhD Dissertation, Aarhus University, 2016.

[48] Ou quoted in Kurek, The Bishan Project: Cultural Production and Place Reconstruction in Rural China, MA thesis, University of Toronto, 2015, p. 60. By coincidence Adele and I did fieldwork in Bishan at the same time during the summer of 2014, and thus had ample time to discuss our findings with each other.

[49] All information on the closure of the Bishan Project comes from an email interview with Ou Ning conducted May 2016.