China's millennial 'new farmers' opt to live off the land

Millions of young Chinese are increasingly uninspired by modern society's demands, spawning a succession of viral online memes encapsulating millennial despair. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Ms Hu Siqin had a promising career in Shanghai with a Fortune 500 company and more than enough money, but something was missing under the bright lights of the big city, a sense of what she calls "roots".

So the 33-year-old chucked it all in to lay down literal roots as part of a nascent back-to-the-farm movement in which young Chinese professionals are quitting the rat race for the simple joys of an organic, agrarian lifestyle.

"People like me don't feel that material comforts stimulate us, and deep down we remain unsatisfied," said Ms Hu. "So we've started thinking, what is the purpose of our lives? What am I living for?"

In many ways, it's a homecoming. Before the 20th century China was a primarily agrarian country for thousands of years, most of its vast population scratching out a life from the soil.

The ruling Communist Party, however, has for decades officially encouraged urbanisation and migration to growing cities to help lift millions out of rural poverty and build a more modern, consumer-oriented economy.

But with a measure of national prosperity now reached, attitudes are reversing among some people.

Millions of young Chinese are increasingly uninspired by modern society's long work hours and meagre pay, urban congestion and high living costs, and parental pressure for success and grandchildren - spawning a succession of viral online memes encapsulating millennial despair.

Empty inside

Ms Hu, who has worked in marketing and supply chains for French companies like personal-care giant L'Oreal and sports retailer Decathlon, said that in her career she "appeared happy on the outside, but felt empty inside."

She now sows organic, pesticide- and fertiliser-free sweet potatoes, long beans and other crops on rented plots of land with like-minded friends on Chongming, a large, primarily agricultural island on Shanghai's outskirts.

Ms Hu, a petite dynamo with a shovel, can barely contain her delight as she pops sweet potatoes out of the soil and samples sorghum plants that tower over her.

"So sweet!" she exclaims, biting into a stalk of the grain.

According to the government, around 20 million people have joined what it terms a "new farmer" movement, some of whom have millions of social media followers as they post on their lifestyles.

Farmer Hu Siqin preparing lunch in Chongming island in Shanghai on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

China's government has recognised the potential advantage of an influx of tech- and business-savvy millennials bringing new ideas and enthusiasm to an ag sector still largely dominated by longtime peasant farmers, and has pledged financial and policy supports.

The movement also ties into efforts by fast-growing start-ups like Pinduoduo, whose platforms help small farmers tap into a swelling Chinese market for freshly delivered produce.

Another path

For "new farmers" like Mr Liang Funa, 34, its about enjoying a healthy, peaceful and more sustainable life. The former ad executive felt burnt-out due to excessive work hours and a deeply unhealthy lifestyle.

"Our generation is under huge pressure, and people who stay in cities can't see many other choices," he said. "The people around them talk constantly about buying a house or a car or getting married, like these are the only measures of success and there are no other roads available."

Mr Liang, who moved to Chongming three years ago, has had to rapidly learn horticulture - his farmer neighbours and Internet websites help - while dabbling in side work online for extra income.

But his life is now relatively stress-free, and Mr Liang has realised just how few consumer goods he really needs. And by eating only his own organic vegetables, he feels healthier, mitigating the need for trips to the doctor.

Liang Funa (right) and Hu Siqin getting dressed for farm work in Chongming island in Shanghai on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Convincing parents to accept this life choice is another matter.

Ms Hu's parents are baffled, accusing her of "going backwards" in life. But she is unconcerned, and is now negotiating a long-term lease on a farmstead of her own in rural Zhejiang province near Shanghai.

She hopes to sow her first crop in the spring.

"I jumped out of my comfort zone and went to an unfamiliar and uncertain place, and it has been very profound," she said.

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