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Art in rural placemaking
Heritage, tourism and the revitalisation of Longtan village

This chapter investigates the potential of art in rural placemaking through a close study of ‘Everyone is an Artist’, an ongoing art education-led rural revitalisation project in Longtan village, a poor rural village in a remote mountainous region of Fujian province, China. Launched by art educator Lin Zhenglu in 2017 with the support of local government, the project aims to enhance the living environment and the overall life quality of local residents. The chapter discusses the physical, spatial and cultural transformation of Longtan since it kicked off the project by engaging residents in painting, reviving vernacular architecture, and participating in various cultural and leisure activities. Methodologically, it combines art historical research, media research, fieldwork, semi-structured interviews, participatory observations, digital ethnography, and a study of a variety of documents and reports as well as insights from critical heritage studies in order to acquire a comprehensive understanding of the physical and cultural interventions that are being implemented in the village to advance a desirable individual and collective rural living. Its working hypothesis is that a meaningful placemaking effort cannot be separated from the remaking of people (residents of a given neighbourhood, village or town) and their private and public living environment; and artistic activities can lend their force for personal development and thus aid in the remaking of people for empowering them to assume an active role in the remaking of their hometown. It also sheds light on how experts can exert significant influence in heritage-inspired placemaking projects in China.

Introduction

In spring 2019, Longtan village, a poverty-ridden and quiet rural village hidden in the mountainous Pingnan county of Fujian province in China, suddenly became a popular tourist site. Photos of idyllic views of this village, its charming traditional houses and the unspoiled natural environment have been widely circulated via print and social media (Figure 10.1). More importantly, the story of its miraculous revitalisation in two years has been widely reported. Fujian Daily, the leading media outlet in the province, featured an article that reads (Wu, 2019):

Two years ago, traditional houses in this village were in disarray due to the lack of maintenance for a long time and some were reduced to wreckage; a village with a registered population of more than 1,400 only had less than 200 permanent residents left. Now, traditional houses have been restored, the resident population has increased to about 600; the village is equipped with all kinds of leisure and cultural facilities.

By leisure and cultural facilities, it refers to the many public spaces newly established in the village, such as the public art education centre, art museum, wine museum, opera museum, theatre club, rain veranda and central square, that not only provide places for informal daily interactions, community events and cultural and artistic activities in which local residents partake, but also serve as sites where visitors learn about the new developments of the village and exchange with locals. Adding to these is the reopening of the village primary school, which was closed several years ago. The increase of resident population came as a result of the return of native villagers from cities and the arrival of many ‘new villagers’ – urban-based cultural professionals who migrated to the village. Both the old and new villagers have been engaging in the restoration of traditional houses since 2017, along with the unfolding of ‘Everyone is an Artist’, an art-based rural revitalisation project led by Lin Zhenglu, a cultural entrepreneur turned art educator. Their collective efforts have brought a total makeover of the built environment of Longtan village in two years.

This chapter discusses the physical, spatial and cultural transformation of Longtan village since it kicked off the revitalisation project to improve the quality of life for its residents. Methodologically, it combines art historical research, media research, fieldwork, semi-structured interviews, participatory observations, digital ethnography and a study of a variety of documents and reports as well as insights from critical heritage studies in order to acquire a comprehensive understanding of the physical and cultural interventions that are being implemented in the village to advance a desirable individual and collective rural living. Its working hypothesis is that a meaningful placemaking effort cannot be separated from the remaking of people (residents of a given neighbourhood, village or town) and their private and public living environment; and artistic activities can lend their force for personal development and thus aid in the remaking of people for empowering them to assume an active role in the remaking of their hometown. It also sheds light on how experts can exert significant influence in heritage-inspired placemaking projects in China.

Heritage tourism and the revitalisation project

Cultural heritage tourism, as part of China’s burgeoning tourism industry, has taken the country by storm since the 2010s, accompanying an unprecedented ‘heritage boom’ orchestrated by the state in its effort to survey, classify and protect heritage sites, especially those located in remote rural regions. The boom has also made China a major case for critical heritage studies researchers (Svensson & Maags, 2018; Fraser, 2020). From various perspectives and disciplines, scholars have investigated this sudden boom and its ramifications, challenges and contradictions in relation to China’s overall socio-economic changes, political and administrative system and its active participation in the heritage discourse championed by UNESCO (Oakes, 2016, 2013; Maags & Svensson, 2018; Maags & Holbig, 2016; Fraser, 2020). According to Smith (2007), heritage can be about any tangible or intangible things because it is ‘ultimately a cultural practice’ involving the construction of values and meanings. Simply put, it is about what it ‘does’ (Smith, 2007). Taking up Harvey’s (2001) idea that heritage should be seen as a ‘verb’ rather than as a ‘noun’, Svensson and Maags (2018) consider heritage to be about the process of ‘making’, serving ‘as a site of negotiations and contestations over identities, memories, and placemaking among different actors and stakeholders’. Informed by these insights, I focus on how the concept and practice of heritage has enabled different stakeholders (local government, art professionals and villagers) to pursue their agenda in Longtan village. After all, Longtan’s revitalisation project is intertwined with the region’s official heritage-making endeavour, which seeks to promote economic development through increasing tourism potential.

In 2006, Siping opera from Longtan village, a folk opera originating from this region, was included in China’s first list of national-level intangible cultural heritage, and in 2007 its rice wine (huangjiu) entered the provincial-level list of intangible cultural heritage. In 2014, Longtan entered the provincial-level list of ‘traditional villages’ as a result of China’s national effort to survey, evaluate and protect traditional villages, considered either as cultural heritage themselves or the sites of heritage. The effort reflects the rapid expansion of the concept of heritage and it now can include vernacular buildings in the countryside, ancestral halls and even whole villages (Svensson & Maags, 2018). These heritage recognitions themselves, however, before being activated to ‘do’ things, did not guarantee any significant benefits for the village’s overall development. As a remote and poor village, Longtan continued to decline, like numerous other rural villages did amid China’s urban-focused social development, and most of its young population left the village for better job opportunities in urban areas. As a matter of fact, the whole county suffered depopulation that contributed to hollowed villages, rundown traditional houses, the closure of numerous primary schools (Jin & Wang, 2013) and the collapse of rural economy and public society, among other problems.

These heritage recognitions did prepare for Longtan’s cultural and creative industries-led revitalisation programme in 2017 when the Chinese government increased its financial and policy support for preserving and reviving designated ‘traditional villages’ (MOHURD, 2012; Wu, 2019; Zhong & Shi, 2020). Specifically, the revitalisation programme was launched by Pingnan county government to tackle Longtan’s recent designation as ‘a provincial-level key village for poverty alleviation and development’ (Wang et al., 2020; Zhang, 2019). Consequently, funding for heritage protection, revitalisation and poverty relief, as well as policy support, converged, which not only allowed significant improvement of the public infrastructure in the village but also provided incentives to support native villagers and urban-based professionals to start heritage-related businesses. Thus, the revitalisation project can be seen as a process to activate heritage sites from ‘being’ to ‘doing’ so as to make them visitable, exhibitable, experienceable and purchasable to generate tourism-oriented revenue for poverty alleviation.

Lin Zhenglu’s past experience appeared to be fitting for the task. A native of the coastal Putian region in Fujian province, Lin presents himself as a person of exploratory and entrepreneurial spirit. He started a business in the early 1990s trading reproductions of famous oil paintings during which he developed a personal and intuitive philosophy concerning the potential of painting for personal development (Lin, 2016; Shan, 2019). Around 2008, he dedicated himself to painting and offering free painting lessons to anyone who was interested, thus the beginning of his ‘Everyone is an Artist’ project, first in a cultural industry theme park in Hai’an county, Jiangsu province, and then in Shanghai’s famous art district M50. In 2015, Lin moved to Pingnan county and set up a painting studio in Jixia village, a poor village in the county, and his ‘Everyone is an Artist’ project has since focused on engaging rural populations. Everyone, regardless of their age and ability, can come to take his class, which provides all necessary art supplies. Lin’s teaching method can be described as simple and freehand. Students are encouraged to paint whatever things move them, without following any set of standards, since Lin believes that everyone is unique and their way of expression valuable. People of no painting background quickly learnt how to paint and express themselves on canvas. Some of his farmer students improved their financial circumstances by selling paintings via WeChat and other e-commerce channels. It was reported that during the peak time almost every household in the village had one or more family members involved in painting (Guo & Wang, 2018). It was observed that the project evidently changed the daily life of residents in Jixia village and uplifted its public mentality (Guo & Wang, 2018).

Encouraged by the result and also wanting to include the project in the cultural and creative industries development scheme, the county government established ‘Shuangxi Antai Art City’, a cultural cluster in the nearby Shuangxi town, and offered Lin a large space serving as an art education centre where he continued his project. In a news report, Lin stated that the main target of the project was the marginalised rural population, especially disadvantaged groups such as women and elderly people and individuals with disabilities and not able to make a living on their own (Guo & Wang, 2018). Learning painting, Lin argued, would engage them in creative and reflective processes and help them acquire cultural confidence (Lin, 2016; Shan, 2019). Since its opening, local residents and people elsewhere have come in great numbers to learn how to paint and the ‘Everyone is an Artist’ project gained enormous publicity. ‘Shuangxi Antai Art City’ actually became a new tourist attraction and received an endless flow of visitors, which naturally boosted local tourism revenue (Lin, 2016; Weng, 2019). The popularity of We-media and e-commerce among Chinese citizens greatly facilitated the publicity of the project and the selling of paintings from his students. Stories about a few local students (Shen Minghui, Xue Meilan and Yang Fawang are among the most often cited), who originally had to rely on social welfare and have established their own studios and achieved considerable financial success through selling paintings only one month or so after taking Lin’s painting lessons, are told widely (Liu, 2018; Zheng, 2018; Guo & Wang, 2018; Li, 2020; Zhong & Shi, 2020). So is Lin’s unconventional and open-ended teaching method that opens the door of painting to everybody.

With all these new positive outcomes, Lin was appointed by the government as the chief curator to direct the county’s revitalisation-oriented cultural and creative industries development and ‘Everyone is an Artist’ has expanded from an art education programme into a multidimensional rural revitalisation project, although the stimulation of personal development through painting remains the core idea. It was in this context that he was charged with Longtan village’s revitalisation mission in early 2017 that sought to tackle Longtan’s poverty through activating its rich heritage for cultural and creative industries. Longtan also received administrative support from the provincial government as part of the national effort for poverty alleviation. For example, Wu Mingfeng was dispatched from Fuzhou, the provincial capital, to serve as the first secretary to supervise the poverty alleviation effort, and he worked with Lin closely till the end of 2017. He was then replaced by Xia Xingyong, another experienced administrator from Fuzhou, and he worked with Lin for three years. The rapid transformation of Longtan from a poor village into a famous ‘tradition village’ cannot be separated from their support and their mobilisation of public approval among native villagers to Lin’s vision of rural revitalisation (Su, 2018; Wang et al., 2020). Xia, in particular, initiated a rental programme in which the village government, after acquiring the agreement from respective property owners, officially leases out dilapidated traditional houses at a very low price for fifteen years (Su, 2018). This proved to be very successful for both raising private funds to renovate traditional houses and attracting artists and other cultural professionals to move into the village. In one year, many urban-based professionals migrated to the village and became new villagers and collectively they renovated about twenty-six traditional houses with their private fund (Su, 2018).

It is clear that the heritage-inspired revitalisation project in Longtan largely follows the typical top-down approach, which is adopted widely in China’s heritagisation process and rural development schemes (L. Yang, 2011; Svensson & Maags, 2018; Fraser, 2020). It is a government-initiated endeavour and predominantly relies on the expertise of outside cultural and administrative professionals. However, while in many cases heritage sites both in and outside of China tend to be packaged for tourism at the exclusion of local communities (L. Yang, 2011; Shepherd, 2006; Dicks, 2000, 2004; Bellocq, 2006; Yan, 2015; Laukkanen, 2018; Oakes, 2016), in Longtan the participation of local residents is perceived to be crucial for the overall success of the project. This is why the project is still named ‘Everyone is an Artist’, revealing that its core idea is not simply the transformation of the built environment but the desire to empower rural residents, a point to be further discussed later. The next section will focus on the physical, spatial and cultural transformation of Longtan from a rundown village into a thriving community that not only regained its distinctiveness as a ‘traditional village’ but also acquired a strong sense of place identity as a locale where residents can pursue a more productive life in an improved living environment.

Longtan under transformation

As a designated ‘traditional village’, Longtan was actually in the middle of losing its original architectural distinctiveness that enabled the heritage designation. Traditionally, residential houses in the region were built in two or three storeys with yellow rammed earth as walls on raised stone foundations, unpainted wood for eaves, balconies, pillars, interior walls and floors, window and door frames, and finally black tiles for the roof. When new, the warm yellowish wooden structure relates with the yellow earthen walls well; over time, it changes into different shades of brown and black that coordinate well with the black tile roof. The locally sourced materials and simple colour scheme reflect an aesthetic that seeks harmony with the typical natural landscape of the region – yellowish hilly and mountainous terrain covered by trees and forests.

However, in the past two decades, villagers have begun building multiple-storeyed houses out of bricks and concrete, considered fashionable and modern and a sign of prosperity, while traditional houses were relegated as outdated and inconvenient that only people who could not afford a new brick house had to live in. The out-migration of most of the younger population worsened the situation. Many traditional houses were left in disrepair, if not replaced by the more ‘fashionable’ new houses. This of course did not happen only in Longtan. It was a trend rampaging across China in the age of urbanisation in which rural living was stigmatised while urban lifestyle was followed blindly in the vast countryside (Cao, 2004; He, 2007). Numerous traditional houses of distinctive vernacular styles disappeared in the demolition and construction wave of building modern homes, further exacerbated by the 2006 national policy to ‘build a new socialist countryside’. Aiming to improve the life quality of the farming population, this top-down rural construction movement had relocated huge numbers of farmers from their villages to new towns populated with standardised residential complexes typically found in cities, while causing the wholescale destruction of the rural population’s original habitats and their social life, as well as the disappearance of distinctive historic and cultural legacies of different villages (Ye, 2009; H. Yang, 2011; Ahlers & Schubert, 2009).

Longtan village, probably due to its remote location, was among those that survived that national wave of wholescale demolition and construction. Nonetheless, traditional houses were in a dire situation and the overall built environment was far from aesthetically satisfying. Therefore, the revitalisation project started with an architectural intervention programme aiming to revive the vernacular architectural style while introducing new public spaces to foster public culture and social life of the village. The programme, entirely designed by Lin Zhenglu (Wang et al., 2020), includes establishing new public structures, refurbishing existing buildings and improving public infrastructure, all brought in alignment with the traditional architectural aesthetic as he perceives it. It is important to note that the architectural remodelling seldom involves wholescale demolition, which has been a constant process in most government-led rural placemaking projects. In Wu Mingfeng’s account, they tried to keep demolition of traditional houses at a minimum in order to ‘preserve historical memories’ (Wang et al., 2020). The remodelling incorporated whatever structure and natural setting that was originally there if they fit the aesthetic scheme. It followed a simple principle: using local materials and vernacular techniques to accentuate the distinctive aesthetics of traditional houses. In addition, whenever possible, local people would be employed to carry out the construction work.

The first and most important public structure added to the built landscape of the village is Longtan Public Art Education Center, which emerged from an originally weed-covered courtyard that the village government purchased from a local family whose house stands right behind (Figure 10.2). The centre was entirely built with wood from Chinese fir, the tree that grows plentifully in this mountainous region, with tiles, bricks, cement and stones used as supplemental materials for areas such as restroom and entrance. The doorway preserved the original rammed-earth-and-brick structure but has been expanded to create a larger entrance space for seating and small gatherings. Entering the doorway, one finds a two-storey wooden and colonnade structure surrounding an open courtyard in the middle, demarcated by wooden railings that serve both as a spatial separation and ready-made bench. Within the railings is the circular and connected workspace where Lin teaches and where students paint, while their finished works can be hung on the walls.

Another important public structure established in 2017 is the rain veranda, which provides a covered, safe and comfortable communal lounge on the riverbank along which the Public Art Education Center and other residential houses line up. Again, locally grown wood was used for eaves, colonnades and benched railings, while the floor was paved with flagstone. The extended eaves keep the ground dry from rain and provide shade from sun, while the benches are seating areas where people drop by to rest, chat or simply admire the scenery. Since its instalment, the rain veranda has become a popular public site for various cultural activities and communal gatherings, such as traditional rituals, seasonal and holiday celebrations and night light shows (Figure 10.3). Local residents apparently welcome the rain veranda very much and even during ordinary days there would always be some of them sitting on the bench by themselves or in small groups.

In 2018, four more important public spaces were completed: the art museum, opera museum, wine museum and central square. The first three were all restored from dilapidated houses following the same approach adopted in the Public Art Education Center. Longtan Art Museum (Figure 10.4) officially opened in 2019 with an inaugural exhibition entitled ‘The Encounter of a Thousand Years’, referring to both the unprecedented placemaking endeavour in this ancient village and the opportunity for outside art professionals to engage in its revitalisation. Curated by Huang Jing, a curator, artist and writer who was based in Shanghai and recently migrated to Longtan, the exhibition showcased several hundred artworks including oil paintings, photographs and videos from old and new villagers of Longtan, as well as students who took Lin’s painting class in ‘Shuangxi Antai Art City’.

The opera museum was established to honour Siping opera as a national intangible cultural heritage. This was the first museum for Siping opera and with it, Longtan village claims its position as the custodian of the opera and invests in its continuous development in contemporary times. The wine museum was established to promote Longtan rice wine, the provincial-level intangible cultural heritage. While the opera museum is managed by the village government as a cultural facility, the wine museum, financed by a non-local wine company, not only displays objects and images associated with local wine culture, but also sells locally produced wine and related items. Both function as new public spaces to promote the overall image of Longtan as a place of culture, art, commerce, tradition and history and as such to enhance the visibility of its heritage.

The creation of a central square, adjacent to the main street of the village and punctuated by the performance stage on one end, gives another example of the architectural and spatial intervention (Figure 10.5). The construction of this square involved not only converting several abandoned farm fields into a large paved outdoor public area and building a traditional-style stage, but also refurbishing its surrounding houses to create an aesthetically and visually cohesive space, an approach referred to as ‘style regulation’ (Oakes, 2016) that has become popular in rural heritage-inspired transformation of the built environment. The square is located at the outer and recently developed area of the village where some of the tallest new houses that stand there are made of brick and cement. To bring these houses onto harmony with the core architectural style, auxiliary and decorative components such as eaves, balconies, surface walls, porches, columns, window frames and the like, all made with locally grown wood, have been added, along with tile roofs and boundary walls made of rammed earth. The finished square, known as Phoenix Square, has become the new centre for outdoor events and public gatherings, which have contributed to the growth of public life of the village.

These public spaces provide ample opportunities for art, music, performance and cultural activities that promote both the traditional rural lifestyle and new possibilities of rural living. Naturally, new villagers – the urban-based cultural professionals – have taken the lead in championing a cultural transformation of the village that not only introduced new ideas and forms of living to native residents, but also helped them develop a new sense of recognition towards the value of tangible and intangible heritage of their homeland. All these, together with the increasing opportunities to exchange with people who come to admire the village, have fostered a new collective consciousness about place identity among the villagers. Consequently, many native residents have also become active in the remaking of their personal life, private living space and the collective living environment, which in turn contributes to the growth of the cultural and economic landscape of the village. It has become common for them to make and exhibit art, learn filmmaking, sing and perform on stage, and attend talks, workshops and other public activities. In addition, the village also sees a steady return of its former residents and some entrepreneurial-spirited residents have opened a teahouse, cafe, homestay and other small family-style businesses to accommodate the increasing number of people who come to learn painting as well as tourists, reporters and researchers. By the end of 2020, there were about fifteen homestays owned by local residents, an impressive number that speaks to the rapidly growing economic prospect and influx of population in the village. Some of them would hang their own paintings as wall decorations and continue painting during their leisure time.

The architectural intervention of the village was accompanied by public infrastructure improvements, such as asphalt roads and paved streets, streetlights, running water to individual households, water conservancy facilities and trash and sewage management, which aimed to provide modern conveniences and sanitation to this ancient village. In addition, stone foundations and wooden railings have been installed on the banks of the river and ponds for safety and aesthetic charm, while side projects, such as remodelling some sections of the riverbanks, adding a small pavilion to the landscape and constructing a roof over a bridge, create new points of interest that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. By 2019, Longtan has acquired a very different appearance from its former self two years before.

At the same time, the whole placemaking project largely retains and even strengthens the existing human ties and familiar landscapes in Longtan, which contributes to the growing sense of rootedness and connection among its residents towards the village. It is a reminder of Clifford Geertz’s (1996) assertion that ‘no one lives in the world in general’. Despite all generalising trends and high mobility brought about by globalisation, Geertz (1996) believes that the majority of ordinary people still live in specific locations where human ties and familiar landscapes give rise to sentiments of place, which provide shelter against the vicissitudes of life. The collaborative endeavours of old and new villagers have revived the former declining village into a thriving community, or in Harvey’s (1996) words, ‘a viable homeland in which meaningful roots can be established’. Population has increased, houses in distinctive vernacular architecture style have been restored or built anew, cultural and artistic activities are held in the newly established public spaces, small businesses are developing and streets and rivers are free from trash and pollution. Meanwhile, its unspoiled natural setting and distinctive cultural landscape have attracted a rapidly growing number of tourists whose visits in turn contribute to local business growth. Simply put, the quality of life in the village has seen an evident improvement in both material and cultural terms.

Personal development and placemaking

The architectural and spatial interventions in Longtan village have unfolded side by side with community or people intervention. This is done through painting, an act presented by Lin Zhenglu as a core strategy in his work as the chief curator of cultural and creative industries in Pingnan county. He argues that painting can enable people to develop observation skills, independent thinking and a humanistic perspective, and therefore can be a useful way for rural residents to enter into the world of creative existence, boost self-confidence and develop the courage to pursue a meaningful life (Shan, 2019). This process in turn is perceived to be able to empower them to assume an active role in the revitalisation of their homeland. One might reasonably doubt whether the single act of painting can indeed accomplish what Lin claims, but it is clear that painting has served as a catalyst for personal development and then placemaking in the region. It is reported that since the arrival of the ‘Everyone is an Artist’ project in the county, more than 50,000 people (ranging from 2 to 90 years old) have taken painting lessons from one of the art education centres Lin has established in this region (Shan, 2019). Visitors to Longtan would be surprised to find that painting has become commonplace and an integral part of the village’s public life. Every day, there are villagers painting in the art education centre; they hang their own paintings on the walls of their homes; the newly established Longtan Art Museum displays their paintings; they talk about painting with Lin, new villagers and visitors. In other words, painting, a typical urban cultural and professional activity, has become part of the everyday life in the village.

Lin advocates a bold message: everyone can become an artist. Obviously, he is not the first one to come up with the idea, since ‘everyone is an artist’ is a famous quote from the German artist Joseph Beuys (Brenson, 1995; Adams, 1992). In Beuys’s conception, however, it does not literally mean that everyone is an artist, like a painter or a sculptor. Rather, he uses the word ‘artist’ to describe the essence of being a human, that everybody can participate creatively and become a productive force in shaping society (Adams, 1992). Given Beuys’s affiliation with Karl Marx’s work (de Thierry, 1988), one may be reminded of Marx’s conviction that human beings have an inner need to be creative and productive and self-realisation is an inner necessity (Marx, 1975; Sayers, 2005; Byron, 2016). Lin appears to have adopted the literal meaning of Beuys’s quote, since he actually has attempted to implement it, although one can see an obvious problem in that he equates being ‘an artist’ to merely being able to paint. His ‘Everyone is an Artist’ project unmistakably advocates that everyone can make paintings.

However, Lin is not so much concerned about whether his students’ works meet established aesthetic standards. Responding to critiques circulating on the Internet that these works cannot be called art or that they have low aesthetic quality, he said: ‘I don’t care about this. What I care about is that they have touched themselves through this artistic act and make life more meaningful’ (Shan, 2019). Therefore, Lin’s understanding of ‘artist’ probably comes close to Beuys’s original meaning. The ‘Everyone is an Artist’ project does not aim to turn every student into a professional painter, although a few of his students did take up painting as a full-time profession. More importantly, the project seeks to introduce painting as a new dimension of self-realisation into the everyday existence of rural residents, a process believed to enable them to assume an active role in the remaking of their hometown, including the transformation of their personal life and the collective living environment, for the better. The rationale is that the transformed rural residents will have a new appreciation of the value of vernacular architecture and folk arts traditions in their homeland. Instead of blindly following the mainstream promotion of an urban-centric and consumption-oriented lifestyle, they will have the confidence to create and live their own version of the good life right there in their village. Moreover, with a strong sense of belonging to their home village, they will be more willing to participate in heritage transmission and take initiatives in locally specific placemaking efforts that enhance the overall liveability and visibility of their village.

In this regard, I would like to argue that enabling rural residents to embrace painting as part of their daily routine is a fundamental reversal of the aesthetic regime that governs the operation of the contemporary Chinese art world and regulates the interaction of art and non-art people society wide. Rural residents have been ‘represented’ by professional artists and appeared in contemporary artworks in great numbers, but here they take the matter of ‘representation’ back into their own hands and express directly what they see, feel or experience. The art-based rural revitalisation project, therefore, can be seen as contributing to a potential ‘redistribution of the sensible’ as conceptualised by Ranciere (Ranciere, 2004; Birrell, 2008). Ranciere’s insight is relevant in analysing the project’s emphasis on painting as an approach to rural placemaking, which implicitly challenges the prevailing problem of education and cultural inequality in China (Yang et al., 2014; Wu et al., 2012; Wang, 2014; Huo & Li, 2012). This is a problem symptomatic of the overall decline of the countryside in China that leads to various rural revitalisation projects like the one in Longtan. Ranciere (2004) employs ‘the distribution of the sensible’ in his discussion of established rules and norms that determine what people can see and hear, say and think, and do and make. In the world of art and culture, this ‘distribution of the sensible’ can be understood as perceptions about hierarchy and appropriateness of forms of expression, as well as norms that legitimise inclusion and exclusion of different members of a society.

‘Everyone is an Artist’ therefore presents a perceptual alteration of the established norm of inclusion and exclusion in the domain of art by encouraging ordinary people, especially disenfranchised rural residents who did not receive much formal art education, to assume the identity of a painter. By enabling their aesthetic choices visible through their paintings, rural residents are conducting a ‘redistribution of the sensible’ that rearranges what is visible and invisible in the art world and Chinese society at large. In so doing, they create new modes of artistic expression and, more importantly, new forms of life and community for the geographically, culturally and aesthetically marginalised social groups. Several Chinese scholars and rural construction activists have suggested that major problems afflicting Chinese rural populations in recent years are less economic and more about issues related to cultural, social and identity crises (Sun & Liao, 2014; He, 2007). This came as a result of the mainstream socio-economic and cultural discourses that marginalised rural populations and stigmatised rural living as uncivilised, vulgar and outmoded (Murphy, 2004; Hurst, 2006; Jacka, 2009). The marginalisation and stigmatisation have resulted in an unfortunate condition in which rural residents look down upon themselves, lose confidence in their own culture and see no dignity in their way of life (Wang, 2004; He, 2007). This characterisation of rural life, unfortunately, has been used to justify the continuously unequal distribution of cultural resources between the rural and urban areas (Sun, 2012).

Against such a backdrop, the collective effort of local government, Lin Zhenglu and other professional artists in Longtan village and Pingnan county in general to introduce painting to the daily life of the rural population and enrich local public culture therefore constitutes a counteraction to the established aesthetic and cultural regime. It opens up opportunities for the rural population to enter the domain of cultural, creative and artistic living, and in so doing acquire a sense of dignity and value in rural living. Evidently, the physical, spatial and cultural transformations of Longtan village are the practical outcome of this effort, which will likely continue to foreground art in facilitating local residents’ participation in the revitalisation of their hometown and benefit from the process. Although the exact Longtan experience might not be easily transferable to elsewhere, the idea that placemaking is foremost about personal development and local community empowerment, and art in general can play a big role in this line of undertaking, is certainly worth serious consideration.

Conclusion

The Chinese government in the past couple of years has adopted a more cultural and place-specific approach in its effort to soften the widening rural–urban gap, develop the rural economy and enhance the quality of life in rural regions. This can be seen in the policy initiative of ‘Construction of Beautiful Villages’ (Xu, 2015) in 2015 that has since brought about a national campaign for constructing beautiful villages that, at least theoretically, incorporates not only the usual economic components but also environment, culture, art, sustainability and grassroots participation. This was followed by the ‘Rural Vitalization Strategy’ proposed by president Xi Jinping in 2017 to focus on developing rural China and uplifting the social, economic and cultural life of the rural population as a primary national goal (Xinhuanet, 2018; Mulholland, 2018). In this proposal, culture occupies an unprecedentedly important position and cultural tourism is considered a major strategy to revitalise historically and culturally significant villages.

It is easy to see that the heritage-inspired revitalisation project in Longtan aligns well with this national policy given its reliance on art and culture as the engine for improving local residents’ quality of life. For this reason, Oakes’s (2013) analysis of heritage-making in China as a ‘technology of government’ and an ongoing project of improvement to enhance social cohesion, promote modernisation and pursue economic development rings true. However, Longtan’s case departs from what Oakes (2013) points out as a typical mode of village heritage tourism development throughout China in the 1990s and 2000s, in which the local government usually contracted out development rights of rural villages to outside companies without consulting local villagers. There is no outside company owning the development rights of Longtan. Although the revitalisation project was designed and is still led by an outside expert, Lin Zhenglu, local residents appear to be well informed about it and many of them have actively taken part in its various components. Longtan, therefore, may present a more balanced power relation in terms of heritage tourism development that actually enables local people to experience a renewed rootedness and connection in their everyday living. It is thus a placemaking for the people (Wang, 2018).

While the sustainability of Longtan’s revitalisation project awaits to be seen, I argue that it has served two purposes. On the one hand, it has greatly improved the presentation and visibility of its heritage, including the village itself. This enables it to tap into the rising cultural heritage boom and contribute to local economic development. This is reminiscent of what Dicks (2004) discusses as the production of ‘visitability’, in which a unique ‘place-identity’ was produced with cultural heritage being staged and exhibited for consumption to outside tourists. On the other hand, the project also appropriates heritage to advance a local community-based and personal development-oriented placemaking discourse that can be described as ‘a creative engagement with the past in the present’ so that people can take an active role in the production of a better future (Harrison, 2013). This better future is in the making through art and culture-related activities that seek to empower local villagers and aid in their personal development so they can actively participate in the placemaking endeavour of their hometown, pursue the good life on their own terms and advance a desirable collective rural living.

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