In rural life, everything is connected to everything else. Seen as a complex adaptive system, the “rural” in most regions of the world has evolved over many centuries and is well known to have endured invasive predations and conflicts and to have adapted to changing conditions, both physical and human, many times. Such changes are recorded in the culture and in the landscapes which have continuously evolved and which characterize rural places today. These features of contemporary rural life—economy, culture and landscape—are the key elements of rural systems. Interestingly, they have also become the elements that attract tourists to rural areas. This theoretical paper, starts from the position that the rural world as a whole is complex and that systems adjust in the face of uncertainty, and a type of dynamism that is generated externally in the form of shocks and stresses. Complex Adaptive Systems theory provides an excellent opportunity to examine living systems such as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) in China that can provide new perspectives on resilience and self-organizing capabilities of the system. The paper suggests that adopting such approaches in contemporary research will produce new insights of whole systems and stem the tide of mainstream scientific research that reduces systems to their component parts and studies them with micro-techniques, while mostly failing to reintegrate the component parts back into the system as a whole. By reviewing this approach in relation to GIAHS and by introducing tourism into the rural village system, as a perturbation, we can create new ways to understand the effects of rural development interventions in ancient landscapes such as those which cover many parts of rural China today.
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