Artist saves villages from ugliness and pollution single-handedly

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-8-1 5:03:02

Sun Jun. Photo: Meng Si

Sun Jun, had always dreamed of becoming a famous painter.

But that dream changed 11 years ago, when he chanced upon a run-down village in Wushan county, Hebei Province, a place beset by filth and poverty.

"The village was really poor, but it had a good landscape. I thought that compared with drawing it on the canvas, making it into a really beautiful piece of countryside would be more intriguing," painter Sun Jun, who is also director of "Beijing Green Red Cross," an environmental-protection NGO, said.

From then on, Sun spent three years in the village, along with other NGOs, helping local villages to improve the environment, develop their local economy and attract young people to return home by developing rural ecological tourism.

Since then, he has discovered that his life's mission is rural reconstruction using ecological ideas. Now, he spends most of his time on construction sites in rural areas, helping villagers to build  beautiful homes.

Sun vowed to renovate as many Chinese villages as possible and bring prosperity to the people. He believes that China's rural areas are the basis of the development of Chinese society. By bringing back the traditional relationship between the people and the land, and encouraging people to stay in the countryside, he believes China can find a new way of pushing forward urbanization.

Now, his way of helping rural areas is being promoted in several villages in Henan, Hebei and Hubei provinces. Recently, he was made a yearly honored figure with the "Gonghe Award," a prize given by the Gonghe Foundation. 

Haotang village after renovation. Photo: Ding Qin

Shock to the system

Eight years ago, when Sun walked into Yanhe village, Hubei Province, he was shocked by the stench of sewage. At the end of the village road, he saw rubbish piled up along the roadside and the excrement of livestock flowing directly into the village river.

"The first step was to dispose of the rubbish to make the place livable," Sun said.

In 2003, when citizens in urban areas were unfamiliar with the concept of sorting rubbish, villagers in Hubei had to test the water and classify rubbish and dispose of it in different bins.

In order to make this work feasible, Sun simplified the process of sorting out waste and divided it into two different categories: dry and wet. Sun also asked villagers to dispose of used batteries and pesticide bottles separately.

Gradually, by cooperating with officials in the village committee, Sun visited villagers door by door and instructed them on how to dispose of their rubbish.

Sun spent almost two weeks helping villagers get used to the new method.

A monitoring system was also established. Sun organized volunteers to drop in on villagers and check on the hygiene situation. Any villager found littering was fined. Prizes were also given to families who had done well in sorting their rubbish.

Eventually, villagers learned how to classify the dry and wet rubbish and also got rid of the habit of littering.

"If you open a door of beauty, villagers will close the door of ugliness," Sun said.

The next step, Sun said, is to come up with a sound plan on ecological rural construction, including forest conservation, water and soil conservation and organic tea garden construction.

"Villagers have to rely on a good environment to draw in tourists, and after that, you can create job opportunities for local people, and more and more youngsters will return," Sun said.

Shining example

In 2011, Sun was invited by the local government of Xinyang to participate in the renovation of  rural houses as part of the urbanization of rural areas. Sun said Haotang village is an example and he wants to use the model of Haotang to build more villages.

"I want to make Haotang village a meaningful place. Figuring out how to renovate a brick or a corner of Haotang has forced me to do a lot of thinking," Sun said.

Sun also invited designers and architects from other provinces to diversify the design.

"The principle is that we have to respect the will of local villagers. We won't start construction before the owners of the houses agree with the design," Sun said.

In order to persuade villagers to accept the new design, Sun had to make modifications to the sketches many times. Once, a villager asked Sun to narrow the space of the corridors in order to save space for the rooms, and Sun had to work on the design for days before the final version satisfied the house owner.

It has never been easy to persuade local villagers to accept his house designs, due to their different aesthetic values. "Villagers began to think that the common design style of decorating outer walls of the houses with tilts are beautiful, but we have to renew people's ideas," Sun said.

Sun's design is based on the fusion of local traditional buildings with white walls and tilted roof and modern design.

He insisted on purchasing the construction materials locally in order to make the houses compatible with their surroundings.

Sun is nothing if not persistent. Sometimes, villagers would insist that the road should  have straight paving while Sun strongly opposed it, insisting on building curved roads to follow the shape of meandering courtyards in rural areas.

Renewed economy

Five years have gone, and now Haotang village has become a famous tourism village in Henan Province. With two lotus ponds, the village draws in thousands of visitors each year. During the past two months, visitors flooded in to visit Haotang village.

The road leading to the village now is clogged with cars and vehicles during weekends.

A chain of ecological tourism has taken shape. A lot of young people have returned home and opened restaurants, bike shops, hotels and shops, which have become a common sight in the village.

The economy has also picked up due to the development of organic agriculture. Before, one kilogram of tea was sold for a few dozen yuan, but after they planted organic tea, one kilogram can be sold for over 1,000 yuan at peak seasons.

The core concept, Sun said, is to attract youngsters back to villages. "The biggest problem in China's vast rural areas is that young people are leaving and never plan to return. Rural areas will disappear if this continues," Sun said.

Five years ago, when Sun first came to the village, the young people had gone and there were no teachers in the primary school.

Now, after the houses were renovated, at least 80 percent of the villagers have come back to the village, and more and more are considering coming back because of the boom in ecological tourism.

Sun wants to "make villages look like villages."

Apart from building houses for villagers, he has made great efforts to preserve and retrieve the folk culture. For instance, he plans to set up an exhibition center to show the comparison between the old village and its current situation, in order to teach people to accept environmentally friendly attitudes.

"There is still a long way to go, but my dream will never stop," Sun said.

Newspaper headline: Changing the landscape

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