A tour of China’s last remaining enclave of old-school social governance and architecture: Nanjiecun Village, Henan
By: Paul Stephen
In China, the existential conflict between “old” and “new” in architecture, development, and general society is almost always seen as being a juxtaposition of modern ideas and designs with a vague, ancient Chinese identity—the neo-modernist office parks built atop the ruins of Beijing’s beloved hutong alleyway neighborhoods. Rows of brand-new, uniformly rectangular apartment blocks built atop old farms and villages across the countryside. A Starbucks in the Forbidden City. What is often left out of the conversation, intentionally or not, are the architectural and artistic relics of the Cold War/Mao Zedong Era. While the old socialist-realist architecture of the former Soviet Union has garnered something of a cult following, the Chinese equivalent has gone wholly unloved—and perhaps understandably so. In a country where entire new cities rise from the ground every few months and a general obsession with modernity has taken hold over the past twenty years, it is difficult to imagine a general shift towards appreciating those old decaying buildings—especially when the era that gave rise to them contains so many dark memories.
While those grimy, white-tiled buildings and unintentionally brutalist concrete minzhai apartment blocks might be objectively ugly, they are also entirely unique. The young middle class of China has grown somewhat nostalgic for the Cold War Era (despite being born well after its end), and this can be seen in the numerous hip shops and coffee houses around Beijing selling clothing and souvenirs resembling styles of the socialist decades. There are even some places, such as Beijing’s 798 art district, which do make heavy use of pre-existing Cold War-era architecture. Yet, despite these valiant efforts, most of this appreciation is somewhat ephemeral. Yes, the buildings may be preserved, but merely as an ironic statement of young artistic rebellion against the grinding march of modernization. Surely there is nowhere left in Mainland China where one can trulylive and breathe the form and function of Maoist architecture?
Enter the village of Nanjiecun. A small town in central Henan Province, Nanjiecun is not only a perfectly-preserved showcase of the architecture and design of the 60’s and 70’s in China, it is also a fully-functioning communal village micro-economy with collective wages and labor units. Nanjiecun is a Maoist Disneyland. A tiny bubble of collectivism in a sea of capitalism with Chinese characteristics. According to locals, back in the 80’s when China was just beginning to go down the road of Reform and Opening-up, the leaders of Nanjiecun decided to take things in the opposite direction, and steadfastly held to the old slogans and theories of that bygone era—resisting as best they could the onward march of progress. Just outside the walls of Nanjiecun China exists in its normal state: the ubiquitous buzz of street vendors, small shops and restaurants, KTV karaoke bars, barber shops, and KFCs that one would find in any fourth-tier Chinese city continues right up to the main entrance gate.
As soon as one passes through the entrance, however, there is an immediate change. The jammed streets of vendors and general chaos are replaced with sweeping concrete plazas and broad, empty streets. The urban landscape recalls descriptions of Pyongyang, with its stark utilitarian charm. Giant portraits of Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, et al. loom over the empty plaza, which is punctuated by a large ivory-colored Mao statue in its center and ringed by a series of concrete bollards. Beyond the plaza stands a large, rusting rainbow arch. Two middle-aged women wearing military-style uniforms stand as an honor guard at the foot of the Mao statue. There is a constant, tinny blare of revolutionary Chinese slogans and music from a series of loudspeakers which have been jury-rigged about the village. The village is almost entirely deserted, save for the occasional elderly pedestrian ambling by in a Mao suit, or the odd tractor pulling a cart of goods. Nanjiecun’s main economic engines are a large noodle factory (Nanjiecun brand instant noodles are actually quite famous in the greater-Henan area) and a print shop, both of which have been open since the 60’s, if not earlier.
It seems, however, that the village has become somewhat self-aware in recent years, and has now begun attempting to at least somewhat position itself as a proto-tourist destination, complete with a small souvenir shop off the main plaza. That being said, Nanjiecun remains almost entirely unknown throughout China, and is a unique and somewhat unsettling experience for any traveler who has a fondness of Maoist architecture and all of its élan—as it is quickly becoming endangered elsewhere throughout the Middle Kingdom, with many simply saying “good riddance”. If one ever finds themselves in Zhengzhou, Nanjiecun is but an hour’s drive to the south—and well worth the trip. What lessons does Nanjiecun hold for the disciples of architecture living and working in China? I can’t be sure. But the instant noodles are actually pretty good.
Paul has been living and working in China throughout the past five years, speaks fluent Mandarin, and is a recent graduate from The George Washington University with a BA in International Affairs and Chinese Language and Literature. Though not an architect by trade, he has a strong interest in all things design-related. Paul was born and raised in Buffalo, New York—an architectural haven in North America featuring prominent works of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Frederic Law Olmsted.