Sometimes, as we strive to embrace our future, we are quick to abandon our past. In the process of changing and growing, do we let go of those elements that formed the foundation of who we are, the things that tether us to the place we came from, or do we reflect on them and see them in a new light?
Last April, I participated in a Cornell University online course called Urban Environmental Education, it was here that I first learned about a “sense of place”. This concept soon led me to ideas I have never thought about before.
My hometown and sense of place
The construct of a sense of place first reminded me of something interesting about my hometown, particularly about its name. I am from a place called Qinling, but I promise you will never find this place on a map of China except for the famous Qinling mountains, where my family and I definitely do not live. If you ask local people in my hometown where “Qilizhen” is, few of them could help you, because they probably have never been told they are, in fact, officially in Qilizhen. The first name, Qinling, is actually a convenient name, used by local people for more than sixty years, while the second name, Qilizhen, is the official name, yet not important to local life. I started to wonder if Qinling is derived from our sense of place. Are we calling our hometown by a name that reflects something about our forebears’ sense of place?
First, Qilizhen extends beyond the border of Qinling. It not only includes Huaxing, which is next to and very similar to Qinling, but also includes the several villages surrounding the two districts. Qinling and Huaxing are not big—it takes no more than twenty minutes to walk from one end to the other, but both provide everything you need, so there is often no reason to go very far. To local people, Qinling and Huaxing are two different places. And similar to those in Qinling, most people in Huaxing have never heard of Qilizhen either. How were these place names created and how did they come down through generations?
To find out, I asked my grandparents.
The names Qinling and Huaxing came from the factories they were built around. In the 1950s, two factories were built on this land and workers from cities all over China came here for the jobs. Some workers migrated with their families; some came alone and formed their families here. Factory workers constituted most of the local community at that time, so when the people started using the names of the factories, Qinling and Huaxing, to identify where they worked and lived, the new names stuck. They built up the town from wastelands and farmlands to more closely resemble the cites to which they were accustomed. For example, local buildings were built in the same style as city buildings of the day; they set up hospitals, schools, bus stations and stores, which were rare in the towns before; and they divided residential areas according to a common urban style.
The new towns were built less for the workers themselves and more for their children. My mother’s generation grew up in local schools and most of her peers stayed in Qinling and Huaxing to work in the factories where their parents’ generation also worked. Her generation joined in building the town as well, so they were also builders. The two generations of builders often couldn’t speak the local Shaanxi dialect, but they could speak Mandarin or the dialects from where they grew up. For example, my grandfather speaks Mandarin and Shanghai dialect, but my mother can only speak Mandarin. Even today, those old and middle-aged migrants appear to have more common words with distant city people but share fewer common words with countryside people who are geographically closer to where they now live. Over the past 60 years, the urban community of migrants and their families have become very close but have not bonded with nearby farmers.
Although many families have moved to nearby bigger cities in recent years, such as Xianyang and Xi’an, Qinling and Huaxing remain a significant part of their life-long identity. My grandparents, parents, and their friends often talk about how fast changes are taking place, satisfied with their life today, but also speaking of the past fondly. There was no reason for them to leave, for Qinling/Huaxing provides everything they need to live, and also becomes something they own, something that can’t exist without them. This is especially true for my grandparents’ generation, who came here in 1950s. Qinling/Huaxing witnessed almost every moment of peace and chaos in their past collectivistic life, when each of them was highly bonded with the fate of the country, when their work was such a contribution to the country—a cause of honor. During specific periods in China, my grandparents and parents’ generations survived a series of ups and downs, as a result they developed strong place meanings and attachments as part of their values, and thus formed a deep-rooted sense of place.
Sense of place crisis
However, since the 1980s, as my generation came of age (I was born in 1996), things began to change. For example, this period saw both the implementation of China’s one-child policy and the nation-wide administering of the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. As a result, our experiences are different than those of earlier generations. For example, we have no experience building a town, or even planting a tree as my uncle did, as a family’s only child should be protected. Nor are we expected to stay here, so we long for bigger cities, new identities, achievements, and seek new values. It hard for us to understand why our parents and grandparents stayed in these small places. Qinling and Huaxing became nothing more than two distant names for us.
Education is largely responsible for the shift. On the one hand, the information we receive through school education, from kindergarten, primary, to middle school, is often about how much better it is in the new, bigger outside world; on the other, the education itself also gets tougher as we grow up. We are thus strongly motivated by the contrast to “finish and harvest”, which is the success in college entrance examination.
Besides, as we value the individual benefits of modern education so much, we can’t help but blame our small-town origins for placing us on the downside of an unbalanced distribution of education resources too. Therefore, the contrast again undermines the positive aspects of the place and even disturbs its interpretation. The relatively unsatisfactory local conditions, once compared with cities, would be ever more obvious signs of backwardness and poverty to us. And an increasing number of migrants from rural areas are also perceived to be lowering our community quality. When such uncomfortable thoughts finally arrive at an intention of abandoning Qinling/Huaxing, making it even more real, our original care and love for the place seems worthless, and even the strong part of sense of place turns to a sense of shame. “This place is good for nothing. When will I be rid of this small poor place?”
I can’t say our sense of place is broken, or gone, or wrong, or whatever, but indeed the sense of place crisis is felt here. No one is making a voice for the place, so there is no one listening.
What if there were a reminder for local people, or a place to record memories and history, a platform to rediscover something about the place they live? Would it be an opportunity to increase people’s positive sense of the place? Thanks to my experience with Cornell University’s online Urban Environmental Education course, I learned of some promising approaches to address the crisis, such as digital story-telling and place-based education.
Action for our sense of place!
I still remember that last summer when I brought home the questions about my sense of place, how the familiar landscape suddenly appeared so different before my eyes. I even felt myself energized to learn more about my place for the first time. I started to care about questions like what it was like before and why it had changed. I became curious about how the town was built half a century ago and felt proud of it for the first time. I also felt happy when I discovered that I felt angry to find that the land had not been well cared for, because I believed this was how my sense of place should work. Besides, the idea of having a sense of place has given me an adult perspective on my hometown: “What can I do for it, even if I will not live here for long, but I am still part of it, forever?”
This winter holiday, I initiated with some friends I grew up with, a local program called Legends of Sevenli (i.e., Qili). We created a WeChat public account (a popular blogging and social media platform in China) to record the beautiful parts of our sense of place, and to inspire such a sense in other local people. During the whole month of the winter holiday, we posted about 20 place-based articles to four special columns—Old Home, Landmarks, Childhood, and Cuisines. Old Home collects pieces of story cards from local people related to their old life in a certain area. Landmarks provides local tales about important local spots, such as statues. Childhood gathers memories of our early life in the town, happy or unhappy, excited or upset. Cuisines “re-cooks” those tasty foods, bringing readers back to good times in the town. Happily, some of the articles were very popular among local people, receiving a thousand hits, and were even subscribed to by local newspapers.
My friends and I also successfully organized a three-day story map activity with local children and teenagers. Even though only a few joined in, we were happy because we were doing something for local people. Two teams collaborated to draw one map of an old residential area and collected stories for the map using self-reflection and interviews. As university students, we also taught the children what we have learned, such as how to draw a professional map, and how to interview family members and strangers.
At last, it became obvious that the organizers, once so determined to abandon the place, had rediscovered its beauty and began reconstructing a new sense of place, and are now ready to take more efforts to improve their hometown too.
However, the winter holiday was short, so the aforementioned is all we have done so far. Since returning to our schools for the new semester, it has been not easy for our group to meet again for new activities and articles. The public account of Legends of Sevenli has already been quiet for three months. We invited a middle school teacher to join us as local facilitator, to help collect articles from other teachers and students to keep the public account alive. Unfortunately he was unable to participate because of an unpredictable work load in the new semester. So, it comes to the question of program sustainability. How do we make the program sustainable? Or, is program sustainability even necessary?
We have had serious discussions about our individual time commitments, needs and career demands with regard to finding ways to sustain the program. Unfortunately, there is very little agreement among us, because none of us are in a position to take on the level of entrepreneurship a sustainable program requires. We don’t want to give up on the important idea that originally generated this project; reinforcing our sense of place. It is a worthy goal to continue to strive for; but continuing the program requires a creative spark that needs to be renewed.
However, we are all very sure that our program has had an impact, and that it will serve as a reminder to us and others about appreciating where we come from, and the importance of a sense place. We hope that someday organizations or institutions will create opportunities to support teams of students or concerned citizens like us to take meaningful actions back home to help nurture an appreciation for local history and foster a sense of place. After all, home is always the best place to “act locally, think globally”; it is the origin of our sense of place.
Today though, if there is any chance to tell others our story, we will take it; any chance we can continue the program, we will take it; any chance we meet others with similar ideas in mind, we will help them! Beyond continuing our program, sharing the message of the importance of creating a sense of place is the ultimate sustainability of the cause for the benefit of many others. Isn’t that exciting?
Yueyang Yu / 于悦洋，
Beijing / 北京
With editorial support by Marianne Krasny
Ithaca / 伊萨卡