Like many villagers in this remote corner of Jiangsu province on China's eastern seaboard, Rui Hongxing left his wife and young daughter years ago to find construction work in the nearest big city, Nanjing. Even though it's just one and a half hours away by bus, Rui only came home to see his family a few times a year. Then one day, he decided he'd had enough of the city. He packed up and moved back to Yaxi to open a restaurant in the house he grew up in. "I didn't like city life. It was too noisy, the pace was too fast, there was no natural beauty," he said. "I wanted to return to a slower life."
Slowing down is not a sentiment usually voiced in China. For decades, young people have been streaming out of sleepy hamlets like Yaxi to seek their fortunes in China's coastal cities, fearing they'd be left out of the country's economic boom if they stayed behind. But amid growing unease over tainted food, worsening pollution and spiraling costs of living in big cities not to mention the widespread anger over the recent high-speed train crash near Shanghai that killed 40 people attitudes are starting to change. Many are now seeing the benefits of slowing down, if only a little.
Yaxi believes it can be a model for the rest of the country. Late last year, the village of 20,000 was designated China's first "Slow City" by Cittaslow International, an organization that grew out of the Slow Food movement in Italy as a way of promoting sustainable ways of life in cities. To date, there are more than 130 towns in 24 countries that have been certified as slow cities, including nearly 70 in Italy (the picturesque villages of Positano and Amalfi among them) and three in the U.S. (all in wine country north of San Francisco, naturally). Yaxi is not only a pioneer for China, it's also one of the first slow cities in the developing world.
Cittaslow has dozens of criteria it uses to assess a city's application for membership. First, the town must be small a population of 50,000 or less is used as the benchmark. More importantly, it must be devoted to sustainability and improving residents' quality of life. For example, candidate towns are expected to have measures in place to combat water, air and noise pollution, practice organic farming, promote locally produced crafts and encourage eco-friendly development projects. Yaxi more than met the requirements, Cittaslow director Pier Giorgio Olivetti says. "It's not easy in China life is too fast in many parts of the country," he said. "But in Yaxi, we found people very committed to respecting nature. I remember the flowers and fruit trees and butterflies thousands and thousands of butterflies in the fields."
Local officials say they began paying attention to the environment 20 years ago when they kicked out the only polluting industry in town a chemical factory. Now, sustainability is not just a buzzword, it's become a propaganda priority. Painted in green on the walls in the village are environmental slogans "Everyone should be devoted to environmental protection, then our life will be better tomorrow" instead of the usual messages extolling the virtues of infrastructure projects. "In the past, we had nothing to eat so our country paid attention to economic development," says Wang Cuixiang, the local propaganda chief. "But we've learned lessons from other cities their economies developed but their environments got worse and worse. We cannot follow their way."
Of course, Wang sees other opportunities for making money in Yaxi, namely through tourism. Yaxi's is unquestionably beautiful, like a postcard from China's pre-industrial past. The hillsides are green with bamboo forests, tea plantations and fruit orchards; the only people in sight are farmers with wooden baskets slung over their backs and two-pronged wooden poles to till the earth. Villagers live in tidy, white-washed homes with gray tile roofs and courtyards planted with vegetables and grape vines. Nearly everyone walks or rides a bike. Cars and their horns are a rarity.
Even with the media attention that Cittaslow certification brought, tourism has been slow to take off. But that doesn't mean the bullhorn-blaring tour groups won't soon flood into Yaxi, threatening the peaceful nature and sustainable ethos of the village. Yaxi could go the way of the ancient canal towns outside Shanghai, which have become Disneyfied tourist traps overrun with buses on the weekends. Olivetti recognizes the danger in every slow city, stressing the need for an annual limit of tourists. "We prefer small numbers, spread out over all seasons," he says. Slow cities are recertified every three years, he adds, and if a town grows too quickly, it could be taken off the list.
Whether the idea of slowing down actually spreads any to major Chinese cities remains to be seen. There is a fledgling LOHAS (an acronym for lifestyles of health and sustainability) movement growing in popularity among the affluent in China's big cities, but it's still somewhat misunderstood. "It's less about the actual steps I need to take like recycle, ride a bike and it's more about a mentality of wanting a stress-free life," says Amena Schlaikjer, the Shanghai manager for the Asia-Pacific LOHAS organization. "It's about realizing, 'I wish there wasn't such a demand to be successful, to own a Hummer and a mansion. Is there another choice?'" She said nearly a fifth of middle-class consumers surveyed by the group in Chinese cities desire a slower lifestyle, but there's a lack of awareness about how to achieve it.
Moving to a place like Yaxi might be a start. Zhuang Qing Quan, a Taiwan-born architect, quit his job in Nanjing five years ago to come to the village and start a pear, watermelon and honeydew farm and build a guesthouse for visitors. "I don't like being around so many people," says Zhuang, looking deeply tanned and well rested. "I feel in harmony with the mountains, water and earth here. It's kind of a magnetic feeling." Plus, he adds, slowing down is better for your health. To prove his point, he stands up, grinning broadly, and bends over to touch his toes. "You just have to adjust your attitude to enjoy it."