So what is the future for a village like Songzhuang?
The growing middle class and economic opportunity in nearby cities is a major driving factor for these towns slowly disappearing from the map, but it can also bring them back to life as well. As China's middle class grows, so does car ownership, leisure time, and spending power; the country is reaching a tipping point where the services and experience based industries are taking off and domestic travel has been on the rise.
I was in Songzhuang with a group of architects and a young business woman who will lease the abandoned houses in the village to renovate them into high-end guest houses, coffeeshops and bookshops, networked together as a small resort. By employing the local residents and purchasing their produce and goods their aim is to retain the style and atmosphere of the area to attract this new explorative Chinese middle class to breath new economic life into this ancient town.
This model is springing up throughout China such as in Moganshan, where I often work, this is a successful example of the future of this area, now with hundreds of unique guest houses and resorts, many owned and operated by the local residents themselves Moganshan village is a tourism and economic hotspot.
For Songzhuang and it's residents who are just at the beginning of this chapter, their lives are about to change, bringing new prosperity and new opportunity, and for this beautiful little historic town, it's story is far from over.
Songzhuang is about an hour from the nearest city down a winding one lane country road that skirts around ridges and hills, the road services several little villages in the area and is often the site of two large trucks inching past each other loaded with freshly harvested bamboo or material for a mine or building project somewhere else along the way. With this isolation it means much of the work of the community, the growing of food, and many other labour intensive tasks are up to the villagers, the majority of which are over 60 or 70 years old, which presents growing challenges for this picturesque mountain town.
Songzhuang is a small, but old community, clustered around a small river and surrounded by vegitables patches and bamboo forests. As with so much of China, it has a rich, and long history. At the centre of the community is this bridge, which in many ways the bridge has kept Songzhuang on the map (perhaps only the regional maps), it is estimated to be about 600-700 years old, but has withstood the test of time, and even as the town crumbles and is slowly abandoned by its residents, the bridge still stands as an icon of its history at the centre of town.
There is a saying in Chinese “一方水土养一方人” which refers to the way the ‘soil’ and ‘water’ of different areas ‘foster’ different characteristics of the people who live there; China may be one of the most diverse counties on the planet, with dozens of unique minority populations and countless unique cultures and traditions, offering such a vibrant realisation of the age old saying. It can be said that the people of the small town of Songzhuang could have well been fostered by their soil and water, deep in the mountains of Zhejiang they enjoy a rich red, fertile soil and clear, cool water, a true sign of the local’s calm, down to Earth demeanour, and their self sufficiency. They are very hospitable to the few guests that come by, never asking for much and always willing to make lunch or invite you into their home.