When Metropolis and Countryside Meet

16 Apr 2020

By now we’re all familiar with the name Wuhan, but what about Wenzhou? Though it hasn’t received much media attention, this city in the southeastern part of Zhejiang has had the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 outside of Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital.

The figures in Wenzhou – home to nine million people – look low compared to those in Italy, but there has nonetheless been a strict lock down imposed since the end of January: roads and transport connections all shut off, public meeting places closed, and only one resident per household allowed go out once every two days.

A metropolis and a province that have powered through stages of history in a relatively short time, like many places in China: from extreme poverty to wealth in the span of just a couple of generations. Today, the province is acting to reinforce and promote its rural culture and ancient traditions, lest they be lost in the turbulent drive of progress.


The Slow Food community in Wenzhou at one of their first meetings.


One Wenzhou native well-known to Slow Food is Piero Ling, a restaurateur in Turin (who is living through the lock down in Italy) and close ally and collaborator in all of the projects we are working on in China. One of these, temporarily suspended like so many of our daily activities, regards his hometown.

“It had been around ten years since I’d been back there when a sinologist friend of mine contacted me to ask how fast things had changed in that time. Zhejiang was for a long time one of the poorest regions in China. The mostly mountainous land had long been an obstacle to large-scale agricultural production, as well as creating problems of distribution. The economic an social situation in China as a whole was worrying throughout the 1960s and 70s, but in Zhejiang it was disastrous. Emigration had begun in earnest during the Second World War.”

Migration was also one of the reasons for the economic growth of the region. A large proportion of the Overseas Chinese population have their roots in Zhejiang, and the money they sent back was a fundamental building block for its recovery. In the meantime, the remaining population organized into family cooperatives and started small businesses. It all started with the production of buttons, and expanded rapidly, eventually becoming “the factory of China”, one of the most prosperous areas in the country.



Terraces of yellow tea in Pingyang.

From there, the local government began initiatives to restore the region’s authentic identity, working to save traditions and natural beauties which tell millennia of history, though it may not be well known. “Our culture is called the Ou, and with great difficulty we’re working to piece it back together, to save it from oblivion. One important part of this culture is the local language, which has been codified in what is, I believe, the only dictionary for a Chinese dialect. Another important part concerns our gastronomic traditions, which still need to be catalogued in a similar manner. It’s a complicated process because local traditions were generally passed on orally, not written down.”

New projects have sprung from these foundations. “A Slow Food communityhas been created. Today there are 35 members, among them local councilors, university teachers, cooks and gastronomes, artisans of porcelain. The objective is to incentivize a dialog between the metropolis and rural areas. Much of this has already happened during the COVID-19 emergency, and a streamlined bureaucracy and smart use of technologies seem to facilitate this dialog.”


The countryside of Zhejiang Province is home to fascinating products, symbols of an agricultural tradition which has been maintained over the centuries. For example, Longxian rice, which is still cultivated on terraces with the use of fish that protect the rice from insects and infestations; horsehoof bamboo, typical of the region and which Slow Food aims to launch a new Presidium; the yellow tea of Pingyang, cultivated on terraces by an ethnic minority. This is also the center of another important project: the creation of a Bank of Tea, conceived to attract international tourism, but also to reconnect the youth to a drink, and a plant, which has lost ground. The protagonists in these projects are the local producers, but also the chefs who cook Ou cuisine, who can illustrate the best uses of these precious foods.


Chinese vegetables and horsehoof bamboo.

This, Slow Food hopes, can be a starting point for rediscovering the identity of the region, showing its gastronomic and cultural potential, and that resilience which has quietly endured for centuries. The foundations are all there: rural communities, clean production methods, cooks working closely with producers, and a dialog between the highland and urban ecosystems, which is already delivering promising results during the COVID-19 emergency: Wenzhou has been divided into blocks, each assigned a contact person who has organized supplies from the surrounding countryside via riders and apps.

We wait for brighter days in order to reactivate all these projects, certain to find that sense of community and love for biodiversity intact.

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