From August 10-31, 50 participants from 15 countries, including the USA, France, and the UK, attended the Songxi Session of the Jinhua Homestay (JH).
“Wow, China is so great! Just like many of the other participants who were going to visit China for the first time, I was very much looking forward to the beginning of the Songxi Session. Upon arrival in the village, I was overwhelmed by the welcome ceremony, the enthusiasm of the villagers, and the music of the dragon dance,” said Kathrin Rau about her impression of Songxi.
Düren is a sister city of Jinhua, it was there that Kathrin learned about the JH from her geography teacher, who has done an exchange in Jinhua. Knowing about the JH, Kathrin could not help but register at once and look forward to the opportunity of a lifetime. The participants were divided into different groups to work on tasks aimed to contribute to the growth of the village. Kathrin was a member of the e-commerce group, which focused on the launch and improvement of online platforms dedicated to regional features, including Pujiang’s crystal, painting, calligraphy, and local food specialties.
One of the most noted participants of the Songxi Session is Roy Gal Ezuz from Israel, who was an active character in many events, including being the e-commerce group’s spokesperson and being heavily involved in the Qixi festival and Greenway cycling. Roy explained, “Despite our different nationalities, we were able to communicate and understand each other, in part because we could use our smiling faces to express our friendship. Most of the participants, like me, were in China for the first time or had just started their Chinese experience; we were all a bit lost. But the 21-day stay in the village helped us to explore this new world and, eventually, fall in love with our new home—China.”
During downtime in Songxi, Roy would walk around the labyrinth-like village and “talk” (with gestures) to the villagers. “We couldn’t speak the same language, but we could connect using actions and expressions. Every moment spent here made me feel an endless sense of novelty and intense curiosity, which pushed me to understand and learn more about the local culture. Every time I connected with a villager, I was convinced that each of us participants should maintain our curiosity to discover Songxi, motivation to contribute to its growth, and will to show to the world the natural beauty, historical culture, and traditional architecture of the village.”
Mangisa Yanga is one of the three South African participants who were selected for the Songxi Session. She thoroughly enjoyed the 21-day stay in Songxi: “The lovable villagers are so nice, and the village is enchanting. In the evenings, the locals gather at the entrance of the village or along the creeks to chat and pass the time. Such a peaceful and happy life is not easy to imagine in South Africa.” Mangisa explained that at night in South Africa, it is almost impossible to see anyone outdoors, and in fact, she prefers to spend most of the time in her house. As a member of the publicity group, she put into writing her personal experience and knowledge, telling South Africans and the world stories about this unknown part of real China. “If I could choose, I wouldn’t go home!” witty Mangisa said, waving farewell.
Laura Volaric Horvat, a participant from Croatia, said, “Many Croatians do not know about China: they don’t know how Chinese people live, if they use smartphones, or if it’s a poor or wealthy country.” On her first day in China, Laura was surprised. “Here in the countryside, everyone is cordial and open-minded. Most of the families seem well-off, and everyone uses their smartphones.” Laura’s father works in the media industry, and she has followed in her father’s steps: in only one week, she posted on the local media four articles about China.
Almost every participant praised the JH, saying that one can learn a lot about China by participating in such an unforgettable project. Apart from experience and knowledge, the project also enriched the participants’ lives in terms of friendship.
Because of the JH, three participants—from Israel, Poland, and Germany—decided to write their graduation papers either about the project or about Jinhua. The Israeli, Irit Shmuel has completed her paper, “Sustainable Tourism Development from the Perspective of the Jinhua Homestay”; both the Polish Anna Pączek and German Sandra Schlender—after the Shangjing’s experience—are going to write their papers on a Jinhua-related topic.
Xu Shufang, representative of the JH, revealed that many of the former participants showed their willingness to continue doing what they started during their participation in the JH. Anna is sincerely interested in continuing and accomplishing on a bigger scale the tasks initiated during the Shangjing Session. In fact, she often asks about the plans for a follow-up session, Shangjing 2.0; and Sandra, who was similarly involved in the creation of the International Fairytales Garden in Shangjing and is interested in tourism sustainability, applied for an exchange program at Zhejiang Normal University and is soon to return to Jinhua and continue her adventure there.
The JH has made of Songxi—a remote historical village unknown to many—a focal travel destination. During a visit to the village, Shi Yuegen, former official of the Chinese Embassy in France, praised the JH, saying that it promotes traditional Chinese culture and claims the development of China’s new countryside: “It’s a very interesting and significant activity.” Learned and experienced, Shi compared Songxi to a French village: “Clean, charming, and homelike Songxi is not inferior at all. The French countryside presents many different and particular details; each village has its own features, in which the consciousness of building a small town is strong: each household puts a lot of effort in having their own beautiful spaces around the house. And Songxi is just as warm and welcoming as any of the French villages.”
Suoyuan, Siping, Yuyuan, Zhiyan, and Shangjing; one after the other, the villages touched by the JH are revamping their historical luster, rediscovering their fame, and becoming a destination for many. Like Songxi these days, these villages attract increasing numbers of international and domestic visitors who walk into the simplicity of rural life to embark on a dialogue with history and tradition, and eventually spread the story to the world. (By Li Yan – Jinhua Daily, translated by Marco Lovisetto, edited by Kendra Fiddler)