Three questions on ‘empowering rural areas with arts’

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-02-26

If “empowering rural areas with arts” is taken as an academic proposition, at least three basic questions need to be asked at the level of knowledge and practice: what does “empowering with arts” entail? How should the relationship between art and rural empowerment be perceived? How can an indigenous theoretical and practical path for empowering rural areas with arts be constructed within the context of Chinese modernization?

Connotations & extensions

The word “empowerment” used in the contemporary Chinese context is a Western loanword. Its semantic origins can be traced back to the concept “empowerment” in modern American management theory, which refers to the transition from centralized to decentralized team management. It advocates that individual rights do not stem from the delegation of authority from the organizational center, but rather from spontaneous and shared actions from the bottom up.

On the whole, the concept of “empowerment” in the field of humanities and social sciences refers to giving individuals, groups or communities greater power, resources and autonomy, so that they can participate in decision-making, affect social affairs, and improve self-awareness and self-development capabilities. This entails transferring power from the original authority or institution to marginalized groups to promote social equality, justice and participation.

“Art empowerment” has two different aspects. Firstly, art is regarded as a medium that can convey information, inspire thinking, arouse resonance and change ideas, and achieve the goal of empowerment by conveying values and stimulating change through arts. Secondly, empowerment is regarded as a result of artistic creation, and the artistic works themselves embody the process of multi-subject self-discovery, self-expression and self-affirmation. In addition, the notion of “arts for empowerment” emphasizes art as a tool to convey information and stimulate change. These two aspects intertwine and jointly construct the rich connotation of “art empowerment.”

Subject-object relation

“Empower” is a verb, and art empowerment inevitably involves the relationship cognition and behavioral logic between subjects and objects. Both the theoretical research and practices of “empowerment through arts” require the rejection of implicit biases and focus on reflexivity. It is essential to deeply understand and continuously pay attention to the subject-object relationship within it: to establish a dynamic relationship of mutual transformation between “art” and “rural areas,” emphasizing equality, respect, and co-construction, enabling farmers and artists to jointly define the creative value of artistic practices for rural life.

Theory & practices

In different cultural and social contexts, the concept of “empowering rural areas with arts” inevitably carries varied meanings and approaches. Only by exploring potential theoretical sources from Chinese cultural philosophy and people’s daily experiences can new theoretical paradigms be developed to address local realities.

Exploring the indigenous theories and practices of “empowering rural areas with arts” requires clarifying the unique characteristics of Chinese “arts” and “rural areas.” Only on this basis can we discuss the relationship and tensions between the two. Firstly, Chinese civilization has deep agricultural roots. The agriculture-based philosophy of “favorable timing, geographical and human conditions” constitutes the fundamental context of agricultural society. Additionally, “rural China” serves as the foundation for the settlement and advancement of the Chinese nation. Therefore, in traditional Chinese cultural identification and expression, the characters “藝” (arts) and “農” (agriculture) share common origins and resonate in their connotations. The three elements of the “agricultural orientation-native soil-artistic philosophy” have historically formed a comprehensive and stable theoretical “meta-narrative” that carries the ontological understanding, value ethics, aesthetic expression, and even physical habits to the world.

Taking the “agricultural orientation-native soil-artistic philosophy” as a means of cultural expression is conducive to the inheritance and promotion of the cultural traditions of rural China. Through artistic expression, rural residents can re-understand their cultural heritage, strengthening their identification with the culture of the native soil. Embracing this philosophy for the development of the cultural industry can also stimulate the diverse value of rural areas in ecological, living artistic domains. It can also facilitate the exploration of new industries, services and activities, so as to realize the diverse development of rural areas and the sustainable rural empowerment through the arts.


Zhang Ying is a research fellow from the Research Center For Contemporary Visual Art at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.

Editor:Yu Hui

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