A journey into rural China—part one

Text by

Charly Wilder

Photographs by

Robbie Lawrence

On my first morning in Fujian, I woke up at dawn to the sound of rushing water. Rising from bed, I slid open one of the old wooden windows of my room, which was situated within a 180-year-old mountain dwelling in southeastern China. I had arrived under the cover of night, and the view now as I stepped into the main courtyard was astonishing—like entering into a painting. Traditional earthen-brick buildings known as “tulou” rose up against a backdrop of lush emerald-green hills ridged with oolong tea plantations and persimmon trees, all hung in mist. The doorways were marked with faded Chinese calligraphy, remnants of its time as a traditional family home during the latter half of the Qing dynasty.

It was hard to believe I was really here, that such a world was even accessible to a foreign visitor like me. And until recently, for the most part, it wasn’t. Tourism to the People’s Republic of China has been building rapidly in the several decades, growing from about 230,000 foreign tourists in 1978 to 59.27 million in 2016. The vast majority of this influx has concentrated in the cities, where infrastructure was more quickly developed. And yet, while the foreign media continues to report on China’s breakneck-speed urbanization, its countryside has been developing at a speed and scale unseen in the West. Drawn by the promise of boundless opportunity, architects and artists —as well as capital flow—have been converging in rural areas across the country.

It’s against this backdrop that billionaire venture capitalist Wang Gongquan, who is famous in China not only as a businessman but as a liberal advocate and sometime poet, launched Tsingpu Retreats in 2017, hoping to serve a growing desire for slowness, silence, rural heritage, and communion with nature and oneself. Each retreat is the work of a different architect, who incorporates contemporary design into the understanding of local history, environment, and traditions. This sensibility pertains not only to the architecture: Guests are offered an immersive program of cultural activities, from bamboo foraging in the hills around Tsingpu Tulou Retreat in Fujian, to Ming dynasty-style fan-folding at Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat.

To get to any of the Tsingpu retreats, foreign visitors fly into one of China’s main international hubs — typically Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong — where they will inevitably get a first-hand feel for the urban crowding and congestion that characterizes much of the country. China’s notoriously poor air quality has improved in recent years, due largely to a government crackdown on pollution. So, I was surprised to exit Beijing airport into a noxious, gray-colored smog. There are still bad days apparently, but I decided to be optimistic—a few days wouldn’t hurt, would they? And as I sat in the back of a taxi, watching hundreds of masked motorcyclists and rickshaw drivers weaving in and out of the narrow hutong alleyways in the shadows of high-rise towers, I couldn’t help but admit the smog lent the city a woozy Blade Runner-esque kind of lyricism.

The next day we headed into central Beijing. We walked the old imperial road to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tiananmen, which is crowned with a massive portrait of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, who ruled the country as the Chairman of the Communist Party from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. We could look south from there onto Tiananmen Square, where Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic, but which is best known in the West for the student-led pro-democracy protests that took place there in 1989.

Wang Gongquan, then a student, was one of the protesters arrested that day, and in a similar contrast between the external and internal depictions of China, he is perhaps best known in the West for his activism. He’s been imprisoned twice—once in the Tiananmen crackdown and again in 2013 in connection with his involvement in the New Citizens’ Movement. Yet in China, his celebrity derives mostly from his tremendous business success and unique biography. Mr. Wang grew up in the northeastern province of Jilin, where he worked for the government before quitting to co-found Vantone Holdings in 1991, one of the country’s leading real estate developers. In the 2000s he ran several venture capital and private equity funds, with which he amassed a fortune, in China but also abroad in Silicon Valley.

“I consider Tsingpu the last work of my career—my masterpiece,” said Mr. Wang through a translator, when I met with him at the company’s headquarters the next morning. Looking at his own career and the rapidly developing Chinese market, he saw an opening for a series of sophisticated, culturally engaged rural retreats that would cater to booming Chinese wealth and interest from abroad. “I’m trying to create a place, a site, for people to feel the beauty of poetry, their inner heart, their artistic spirit.” The project requires intense cooperation with the government, but Mr. Wang said that his past brushes with controversy have not caused him any problems. “On the contrary, I think that most of the officials respect me because of my work to help people,” he said.

Tsingpu also connects with Mr. Wang’s love for classical Chinese poetry, which is rooted in Confucianism and takes pastoral beauty and the contemplation of nature as enduring themes. As a way to explain what he hoped Tsingpu Retreats would accomplish, he quoted Xin Qiji, a 12th-century poet who is one of his favorites. “‘Oh, how lovely the green mountains look to me! Do I look the same in the eyes of the trees and flowers?’” Mr. Wang paused. “So that’s the concept,” he said, looking at me with laughing eyes. “I think I get it,” I told him. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure.

The preceding article is excerpted from the 2019 edition of Directions, an annual magazine by Design Hotels that looks at movements underway in art, design, food, wellness and fashion, and how they affect the way we live and travel. This year’s issue explores the New Sanctuaries, spaces both physical and figurative, natural and designed, where we find renewal, shelter, communion, and expressions of the sublime. Buy it here!

Continue reading:
A journey into rural China—part two
A journey into rural China—part three

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019