The Gang Gets Pastoral

Two weekends ago, the research team photographed and toured a fish farm about one hour away from Fudan. Before we arrived at the farm, however, we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant. Paintings and inscriptions created in artistic styles native to the local area decorated the halls leading to our private dining room, which also featured beautiful artwork. The meal itself far exceeded anything we had eaten by that point in the trip. Waitresses constantly placed dishes of locally grown food on the massive lazy Susan that sat atop the table. By the end of the meal, our party had eaten from approximately 30 plates of meat, rice, seafood, soup, and vegetables. I learned later that the restaurant was part of a farm geared to cater to agricultural tourists, both from Chinese cities and foreign countries. This being a new concept to me, I decided to look into agricultural tourism in China.

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The Chinese phenomenon nongjiale (农家乐) best captures and perhaps even defines agricultural tourism within China. Nongjiale translates to “peasant family happiness” in English, and its roots extend back to 1978. Although China experienced a rise in standard of living during Mao’s highly politicized regime, his “Great Leap Forward” campaign produced widespread famine and restriction of economic opportunity for Chinese living in the countryside. In addition, the Maoist government’s overinvestment in heavy industry severely harmed the rural sector of the Chinese economy. Deng Xiaoping launched market-oriented reforms aimed at mitigating the problems that his government inherited. The “household responsibility system” (jiating lianchan chengbaozhi 家庭立案产承包制) distributed plots of land back to individual families, who took on full control of production and received compensation proportional to their output. This policy granted greater economic freedom to rural Chinese, who could now use their land as they saw fit. Some decided to rent out extra rooms and prepare meals for urban Chinese who wanted to personally experience the countryside lifestyle. Thus began the nongjiale phenomenon.

One week ago, the research team had the privilege of meeting a man nicknamed “Tigress,” who owns and operates an eco-farm on Chongming Island. When asked whether or not rural life is boring compared to the fast-paced city lifestyle, Tigress explained that the farm life possesses a subtle beauty that could easily be misperceived as dullness. Without cable, Internet or TV, Tigress enjoys sitting outside at night with a glass of wine listening to birdcalls and watching the sunset. His response perfectly describes the scene that many urban dwellers seek to experience when they travel to nongjiale farmhouses.