BRANDING HEAVEN

Commodity, Fantasy, and Conceptual Architecture in the Chinese Countryside

Nathaniel Flagg

ABSTRACT


Since 1993, the village of Huaxi in southern Jiangsu province has emerged as one of the most esteemed model villages of the Chinese reform era. Under the supervision of former village party secretary Wu Renbao, Huaxi has grown from a modest, agrarian, communally owned township enterprise into an enormously profitable corporation of industrial plants in which all the villagers are shareholders. With the net worth of each villager drastically surpassing that of the average Chinese citizen, Huaxi’s residents refer to the village as the “wealthiest village in China” and the “First Village under Heaven.” However, for all of Huaxi’s financial successes and public recognition, the village does not represent a sustainable development model for China’s agrarian communities. Huaxi’s enterprises, managed by former farmers, use the hands of migrant laborers from rural regions who are socially and financially separate, paid far less than Huaxi natives, and prevented from attaining similar levels of success through structural obstacles. The prosperous image of the village is engineered through a spectacle of daily life that transforms the architectural space of Huaxi into a dreamscape of fiscal wealth. Through strategic manipulation of the gaze of both visitors and residents and the internalization and representation of Party-sponsored mores, the social architects of Huaxi create a development model that is at once lived and consumed as a fantastic hodgepodge of commodified images and styles.

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