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Nation
The Power of Love
How a collective wedding transformed a village laid to waste by an earthquake
By Li Nan | NO.20 MAY 17, 2018

A collective wedding of 99 couples who took part in disaster relief efforts after the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008 is held in the Red Bean Village, Shigu Town, Shifang City in southwest China’s Sichuan Province on September 22, 2010 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Zhou Xin's wedding was delayed for two years because of an 8.0-magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people in Wenchuan, southwest China's Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008. Zhou was then a 25-year-old military officer serving in his hometown of Shigu in Shifang City—60 km from the epicenter—and had just registered his marriage on May 7, setting the wedding banquet for the end of the year.

Five days later the earthquake struck and Shigu Town was devastated. A total of 70,845 houses collapsed and 45,000 people were affected, with a total of 40 deaths and 164 people injured. The new couple devoted themselves to disaster relief soon after the quake, postponing their wedding again and again.

A bird’s eye view of the new Qingchuan County in southwest China’s Sichuan Province on April 17. The county was destroyed in the Wenchuan earthquake and rebuilt with the help of east China’s Zhejiang Province (XINHUA)

"The wedding wasn't back on our agenda until 2010 when the preliminary reconstruction of Shigu Town was completed," Zhou told Beijing Review on May 8, days before the 10th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake.

To celebrate the preliminary progress of reconstruction and show gratitude to those who contributed to the disaster relief, on September 22, 2010, the Sichuan Provincial Government organized a collective wedding for 99 couples. Zhou and his wife were invited to the grand event.

"It was meaningful to celebrate our wedding together with those who also took part in the disaster relief," said Zhou.

Red Bean Village, a hamlet named after a 1,253-year-old red bean tree that survived the earthquake, was chosen as the venue for the collective wedding. Red beans have long been a token of love in traditional Chinese culture.

Turning point

Before the earthquake, the 2,384 villagers lived off the land by planting tobacco, which earned them 9,800 yuan ($1,540) per capita each year. But their lives were destroyed "that day"—as Red Bean villagers refer to May 12, 2008. Five villagers died and 35 were injured in the disaster. Most of the farmhouses were destroyed and over 90 percent of the local residents were left homeless.

No one expected that a mass wedding would become the turning point for the village.

The wedding was the first major event held in the village after the quake, garnering national headlines and putting the once sleepy settlement onto the tourist map. Many people flooded to the village to see the 50-meter "Tree of Love." Some couples went with the intention of hosting their wedding banquets there, but left with only pre-wedding photos because of a lack of suitable restaurants.

These tourists brought great business opportunities to the villagers. Some residents, like Huang Bo, became wedding service providers. Eight years ago, he started a company to offer wedding services and in 2017, he became a member of a chain of wedding services. The new business has generated an income of 2 million yuan ($314,292) for Huang, 66 times higher than his income before the earthquake.

Homestays, restaurants and teahouses sprung up like mushrooms. Jewels made of red beans sell prolifically to young visitors. In 2016, Red Bean Village was listed as a village of traditional culture at the national level. By the end of 2017, the yearly per-capita income of the village's residents amounted to 17,600 yuan ($2,766), an increase of 80 percent compared with 10 years before.

"We aim to build our hamlet into the top traditional marriage custom experience in southwest China," Lu Xiaoming, head of the local villagers' committee, told Beijing Review.

But there is a long way to go before the village becomes a top rural destination. In Lu's opinion, the biggest challenge is drawing investment.

Huang echoed Lu's views. "The industrial chain is not complete in Red Bean Village," he told Beijing Review. "For example, wedding dessert providers and high-end restaurants are not yet available. More investment is needed to perfect the chain."

The village is not alone in developing agro-tourism. In the past decade, a total of 50 million yuan ($7.85 million) was earmarked by the local government to rebuild earthquake-torn Shigu Town. Eight villages have been given a face-lift and have become rural tourist destinations. A total of 150 homestays were constructed to accommodate tourists, which have created more than 10,000 jobs across the town. Agro-tourism has become an important way for the devastated region to stand on its feet again.

Comparative images of Red Bean Village in southwest China’s Sichuan Province before, amid, and after the Wenchuan earthquake (COURTESY PHOTO)

Comparative images of Red Bean Village in southwest China’s Sichuan Province before, amid, and after the Wenchuan earthquake (COURTESY PHOTO)
A helpful hand 

Most local residents attribute the dramatic turnaround to the help of the Beijing Municipal Government. One month after the Wenchuan earthquake, the Central Government rolled out a plan to engage 20 provinces and municipalities to help the earthquake-hit regions. Beijing extended its helping hand to Shifang City, which had suffered nearly 6,000 deaths and a direct economic loss of 88.9 billion yuan ($13.97 billion). In the first two years, Beijing accumulatively invested 7 billion yuan ($1.1 billion) in Shifang, completing 108 projects in livelihood, public service, infrastructure and rural rejuvenation. In 2017, the urban and rural per-capita disposable income in Shifang reached 32,400 yuan ($5,091.5) and 16,900 yuan ($2,655.8), respectively, increasing by 8.5 percent and 9 percent.

"The disaster destroyed our home. It was Beijing's help that enabled us to enjoy a new life. They not only built us houses, they also offered guidance that led us onto a wider road toward prosperity," said Huang. After two years of joint effort, a brand new Red Bean Village was erected. The village was designed with a love and marriage theme, with the red bean tree as its landmark. A group of specialist architects built Red Bean Plaza, Lovers Bridge and Yuelao Temple in honor of the God of Love, to highlight traditional Chinese wedding customs and culture. Villagers quickly moved into the well-made Sichuan-style quadrangle courtyards.

Sun Xiaoyun, Deputy Secretary of the CPC Shigu Township Committee, invited all those who helped Shigu to visit the small town again. In addition, the quake survivors want to give back to others in need.

Shifang is not alone in getting help from other regions for its rejuvenation. Data from the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2017, the average GDP of the 39 Wenchuan earthquake-hit counties totaled 42,188 yuan ($6,631), three times higher than in 2008.

"We survivors have received lots of help in the past decade. We have learned to release ourselves from grief and are ready to help others who have suffered similar disasters in recent years," Wen Tonggang, a government worker in the Shifang Municipal Government, told Beijing Review.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to linan@bjreview.com

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