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Rewi Alley, Whanganui and a visit to Lijiang

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I travelled to Lijiang late July with Liu Guozhong as part of NZCFS ‘Revive Rewi Alley’ project. We met with leaders of Lijiang Foreign Affairs Office and Youxie, and representatives of Lijiang city government. We met old Gung Ho leaders, academics and current cooperative leaders.

Rewi Alley visited this region in 1939 and the early 1940s and provided support to establish 36 cooperatives in Lijiang. At this time, the Gung Ho representative here was the Russian Peter Goullart, who wrote the fascinating book titled ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’, which details the local cultures, especially the Naxi ethnic group, as well as recording the Gung Ho record. Rewi Alley and Song Qingling encouraged him to come here.

Peter Goullart’s residency is preserved as a site to visit in the old town of Lijiang. In the history notice boards, there is acknowledgement of Rewi Alley’s visit and support from Gung Ho.

iu Guozhong at Peter Goullart’s residence, Lijiang

At that time, Lijiang was quite isolated, with no vehicular access by road. It was difficult for him to participate with the local people, but through lots of socialising, chatting and drinking together he became accepted. The economic foundation was weak, so in the late 1940s two young Naxi people went to Shandan Bailie School for two years of training.

The 36 cooperatives soon contributed more than half of the GDP of Lijiang, and were in operation until 1949, when they transformed into state owned operations, although some retained a cooperative structure through the 1950s.

We met Mr He Xiaochun, who was in 1991 elected as General Director for Gung Ho Projects in Lijiang area. The department of social sciences and a Canadian University did a research project to revise cooperatives. It was found that Lijiang, through their traditional culture base, had a solid foundation for mutual self-support in the community through the formation of groups that helped each other out by allocating in turn finance to those in need.

This was the among the first areas to amalgamate the new household responsibility system with a cooperative structure, allowing individual households to benefit from cooperative membership, and this achievement was reported internationally through ‘China Daily’.

Mr He spent twenty days of intensive training in Canada, and on return received strong support from the Lijiang government, and internationally. A General Committee for Cooperative Projects was allocated two siheyuan (四合院)compounds as headquarters for administration and training, and eco-tourism and industry cooperatives were established.

More recently the cooperatives have been in decline. Reasons given include

  • the planned economy creating barriers to allow continued progress
  • market economy giving a more rapid response to economic opportunity

Now, there is a new model emerging as a fusion between cooperatives working with a company and the government to coordinate development. The cooperative elects a leader, the government is represented by a party secretary, and the company provides marketing. There are currently around 800 of these associations around Lijiang in a kind of ‘village collective economy’ model.

We visited an eco-tourism cooperative in Yuhu village, which provided horse trekking on Yulong Mountain, the famous 5667 metre Jade Dragon Mountain that overshadows Lijiang. Two hundred cooperative members provide horses allocated on a rotation basis so that the return is equally distributed. A company in collaboration with the cooperative is responsible for marketing, getting tourists to the village to go horse trekking.

A point of interest in Yuhu village is the residence of Joseph Rock, the Austrian born botanist turned anthropologist, who spent 27 years based here, exploring widely the mountains and ethnic groups of South-west China.

Lijiang was liberated early, in July 1949, and Peter Goullart and Joseph Rock departed together to Hong Kong.

We were privileged to revise Rewi Alley’s memory here, and bring it into the fold of the new Lijiang – Whanganui sister city relationship. It is very pleasing to contribute to the NZCFS motto “building new relationships on solid foundations”. Rewi Alley left his rehabilitation farm in the Moeawatea Valley in Wanganui District to travel to China. In the 1940s, as field secretary for Gung Ho, he left his mark in Lijiang. Today, Wanganui and Lijiang have a sister city relationship, and NZCFS is reviving Rewi Alley’s legacy in this area. Discussions included synchronising all aspects of the NZ-Lijiang relationship. Education was identified as a key legacy of Rewi Alley, and also a need in Lijiang today.