TCM ethos employed to cure countryside ills

Updated: 2016-02-26 08:06

By Zhao Xu(China Daily)

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An NGO is resolving conflicts in the nation's rural areas by applying the holistic approach pioneered by traditional Chinese medicine. Zhao Xu reports from Qufu, Shandong province.

In 1983, Liao Xiaoyi, then a 29-year-old associate professor of philosophy, was diagnosed with a malignant ovarian cyst and underwent surgery to remove her right ovary. Four years later, when a cyst was detected in her remaining ovary, the doctor suggested another operation, but realizing that the surgery would end her chances of motherhood, Liao turned to a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.

After several months of treatment with herbal soups, Liao visited the hospital for a scan, and was told that the cyst had disappeared completely. When Liao gave birth to a daughter at age 34, her faith in TCM was confirmed.

In 1996, she founded the Beijing Global Village Environmental Education Center, an NGO dedicated to environment protection and the construction of a structured eco-society. It was in her role as founder that Liao sat in the front row of a restaurant-turned-performance space in Qufu county in East China's Shandong province, one afternoon in late January.

Sitting alongside her were county and village officials. On stage, eight colorfully dressed 40 - and 50-something women performed an "umbrella dance", trying to hold the poses like the professionals do and winning applause from their fellow villagers, who packed the hall.

Liao first came to Qufu in late 2014. Over the past year or so, she has become a local fixture, and has overseen the introduction of what she calls "the LoHo Life" in 10 of the rural county's more than 400 villages. LoHo stands for "Life of Harmony"; that is, a structured eco-society.

She initiated the LoHo concept in 2008, when she was involved in rebuilding efforts after an earthquake flattened Wenchuan, Sichuan province, resulting in nearly 70,000 deaths and 18,000 missing people.

"I was there to rebuild the houses and the natural environment, but before long, I realized that no rural rebuilding would be possible in the real sense without reweaving the ragged social fibers," she said. In September of the same year, four months after the earthquake, Liao was invited to the United States to receive the annual Clinton Global Citizen Award, established by the former US president Bill Clinton to honor individuals who "exemplify global citizenship through their vision and leadership".

Structured society

"By providing group entertainment, we seek to reconnect hearts that have long drifted apart from one another. People talk about rural China as a loser in the country's ongoing urbanization process; about its dereliction, its brain drain and polluted land and minds," Liao said, referring to the show held a few days before the Lunar New Year festivities.

"But none of these things can be solved without adopting a holistic approach, the approach that lies at the heart of traditional Chinese medicine. For LoHo to become a way of life, it first has to become a mode of thinking, and a form of governance," the 62-year-old said.

To understand her point, one has to be familiar with the social structure and history of rural China. For millennia, the countryside was anchored by what are now called "natural villages", whose residents share the same surname and worship at the local ancestral hall. The best-respected among them were the key figures, and public life revolved around them.

The situation began to change noticeably in the 1980s, according to Liao. "Around that time, the government founded the concept of 'administrative villages' to govern at the grassroots level. On average, an administrative village is composed of 10 to 30 natural villages."

She said the law defines administrative villages as self-governing bodies, but officials are on the government payroll. "A major reason the government has formed administrative villages on top of natural ones is to cut back on public spending - the government simply can't afford to hire too many people," Liao said. "But the problem is that the officials - there are three to five for each administrative village - often struggle under a heavy burden of administrative work handed down from above, and barely have time to play their expected roles as central figures in local life."

Although a leader is elected to supervise activities, the leader's main role in every natural village, called "a group" under the current system, is as a point of contact between officials and locals, rather than someone who rallies the residents.

Consequently, traditionally close-knit rural communities have started to unravel. The process has been accelerated by the decades-long, ongoing process of urbanization and the resultant flow of residents heading to the cities for work.

In many villages, men ages 20 to 50 are rarely seen. Instead, they live far away, as migrant workers in cities and towns they can never call home. Those who remain - senior citizens, children, and the occasional young mother - lead lonely, isolated existences, where local connections are tenuous at best.

Filling the void

Global Village helps to create grassroots organizations to fill the void between the village government and local people. Liao's design for LoHo villages is built on two pillars: huzhuhui, or mutual-help groups, and joint meetings.

"The huzhuhui are based on natural villages or groups, with all the members directly elected from the same team. The leading members of the huzhuhui then form a joint meeting with village officials and social workers from Global Village," she said. "Under this system, village management is no longer a barely populated layer of governance that sometimes floats above the masses. Instead, it becomes a cohesive part of an active and vital mechanism that enables governance and self-governance at the same time."

In addition, the arrangement makes it possible for residents to assess the officials' work, and also allows a partial delegation of power from officials to mutual-help groups.

Yang Hong, head of Shuyuan, a village in Qufu that has adopted the LoHo system, said the system has saved him from being the "ever-blamable guy with an impossible task".

"Conflicts between individuals and families in the rural areas are often extremely difficult to resolve because they are complicated by a tangle of factors, historical and conventional. Before, I was supposed to mediate and, when it was absolutely unavoidable, make judgments. You can imagine the pressure," he said, citing an occasion when an angry throng of people remained in his house during a heavy rainstorm and argued their case.

"Now, in most cases, it's a group decision reached by voting, so the villagers accept that whatever the outcome, the decision is final," he said. "Before, even if I had reached a decision, people continued to petition me, and sometimes they even took the matter to the authorities in Beijing. That has stopped completely since the LoHo system was adopted. I guess that's because people feel justice has largely been done, irrespective of the end result."

Given the level of success, it's tempting to assume that village chiefs greet Liao with open arms wherever she goes, but sometimes that's not the case.

"Initial qualms aside, some village chiefs won't allow us in just because they resent the idea of sharing power," said Liao, recalling how one village head burst into hysterical laughter when she told him she could arrange for villagers to sweep the roads without being paid. She proposed that the monthly 350 yuan ($60) earmarked for road sweeping should be handed over to the mutual-help group, which would then generate goodwill by awarding payments to residents judged to have made worthwhile contributions to village life.

"He agreed, saying 'Let me see what you can do.' However, later when we brought the people together, he instantly pulled back," she said. "Not long after that, various excuses were given to our social workers in the village and they were shown the door."

Vested interests

Wang Zhengwei, who joined Global Village in 2013, directly after leaving the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences where he conducted postgraduate research, was among the workers thrown out of the village.

"Vested interests are often the reason behind officials' strong resistance," the 27-year-old said. "Once, we were nearly expelled by a village head in Sichuan province, who had shares in a local mine that was a major source of environmental pollution locally."

When villages express an interest in the LoHo project, Wang provides an introduction to the project by "stewarding" the first round of joint meetings.

"In rural areas, it's not unusual to find a village chief with a strong character, a strong will, and often, a strong hand. In the beginning, before they learned about the system, some had to be constantly reminded to stop occasionally and ask the other participants for their opinions," he said. "At the same time, the villagers had to be encouraged to participate and speak their minds."

According to Liao, the key to earning genuine support from village chiefs is to place them firmly at the center of the project. "The whole thing is spearheaded by the village government, with the village head chairing the joint meeting. Our role is that of an incubator and facilitator," she said.

Liao, who describes herself as "a pragmatist first and foremost", understands the subtle politics of her work and the importance of gaining the support of the higher authorities. "In February last year, the State Council promulgated a guideline about improving reform and speeding up agricultural modernization. In the document, the government clearly stated its policy to encourage pilot projects to establish natural village-based self-governing bodies," she said. "Without the sanction of at least the county-level government, most village chiefs simply say no."

During the past eight years, Liao's team has helped to introduce the LoHo system to 12 villages in Chongqing municipality and 48 villages in Hunan province. The initiatives in Shandong represent their latest project.

Liao's team is partially funded by local governments who need professional help to get the LoHo system off the ground. Liao routinely recruits local people of both genders, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who previously worked a variety of jobs in the cities. "They belong to this land," she said.


For Yang, of Shuyuan village, LoHo is about reconnecting with history. The village name means "house of learning", and an enclosed area, measuring about 130,000 square meters and dotted with ancient halls and buildings stands on its western fringe. It's believed that Confucius (551-479 BC), China's most-famous teacher and philosopher, taught there.

"Throughout history, rural China has been the breeding ground of our culture and civilization. Its decline during the past 40 years can be attributed to many factors, but the most destructive aspect of this decline is the loss of both morals and confidence," Yang said. "No construction is possible without the revival of those two things, and revival is impossible without people taking the initiative."

The show where the women performed the umbrella dance ended mid-afternoon, and five hours later, at around 9 pm, Liao was back in Beijing. Sitting in a taxi at the train station, she took a long, deep breath and looked out of the window at the chilly night.

"Rural China suffers from many ailments. For any cure to have a chance of working, it must take the rural society as a whole and not focus solely on surface issues," she said.

"When the cyst in my left ovary disappeared, I knew that my future child and I were indebted to the doctor for life, but it wasn't until I adopted the principles of traditional Chinese medicine in my social work that I finally felt as though I had said a proper 'thank you'."

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TCM ethos employed to cure countryside ills

 TCM ethos employed to cure countryside ills

Villagers enjoy special dishes during the Dragon Boat Festival in Shuyuan village, Qufu, Shandong province. With mutual-help groups and joint meetings in place, the villagers are once again beginning to feel a long-lost sense of mutual belonging. Photos provided to China Daily

 TCM ethos employed to cure countryside ills

Liao Xiaoyi (right), founder of the Beijing Global Village Environmental Education Center, with villagers in Pengzhou, Sichuan province, in 2008. Liao believes a holistic approach to conflict resolution should be adopted to benefit communities in the rural areas.

 TCM ethos employed to cure countryside ills

Yang Hong (third from left), head of Shuyuan village, presides over a meeting with leading members of the mutual-help group.

(China Daily 02/26/2016 page6)