Netizens Thirsty for Tibetan Heartthrob
He’s devastatingly dashing. He has a white horse named Pearl. And this week, his name has been viewed over 1 billion times on Chinese social media.
It started with a video casually shared online. The star, a 20-year-old Tibetan man whose name transliterates as Tenzing Tsondu, with sun-kissed skin, a mop of brown hair, and a rakish smile, is now the apple of many pairs of eager eyes. The video, now widely viewed, has given Tenzing Tsondu — who is also known by his Chinese name, Tashi Dingzhen — millions of fans, a flood of media appearance invitations, and even a regular salary as a “tourism ambassador.”
Tenzing Tsondu, who lives in Litang County in southwestern Sichuan province’s Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, has been described as “the smile from the world’s highlands” by netizens weary of the cookie-cutter xiao xian rou, or “little fresh meat,” celebrity idols they’re used to seeing online, characterized by their fair skin, boyish faces, and expensive haircuts.
“He’s so pure, I hope he can stay free from all the noise of society,” wrote one netizen under a video of Tenzing Tsondu. “I’m sorry, I know this is the first time we’ve met, but I love you,” wrote another.
As of Friday evening, a hashtag bearing the young man’s name had been viewed 1.3 billion times on microblogging platform Weibo. Tenzing Tsondu recently registered a new account on Douyin — as TikTok is branded in China — and gained nearly 2 million followers overnight.
Tenzing Tsondu’s sudden popularity also came with a job offer. Litang County’s government-owned tourism company pledged to award him 3,500 yuan ($530) per month as a “cultural ambassador,” according to domestic outlet Red Star News.
“His popularity is great publicity for Litang County,” the general manager of the tourism company was quoted as saying. “We hope more people can see the smile of our county through Ding.”
This isn’t the first time an average Joe has shot to sudden stardom in China because of his good looks. In September, a resident in the eastern city of Hangzhou attracted a large following after a local television program interviewed him about his quest to get compensation from his building management after a faulty shower door supposedly broke his arm.
As is often the case with ascendant online celebrities, netizens have eagerly dug up all the details they can find about Tenzing Tsondu. He is the proud owner of a horse named Pearl, he dreams of winning first prize in a certain horse race, and he says he “didn’t have the opportunity” to go to school as a child.
After a few locals invited Tenzing Tsondu — who reportedly doesn’t speak much Mandarin — to participate in their livestreams, netizens began animatedly discussing his next move. A Weibo hashtag translating to “Should Ding leave the grassland to pursue his career?” was trending online this week, with many netizens arguing that he should remain in his hometown, keep saddling up Pearl, and in so doing remain “pure,” as opposed to testing the waters of China’s often cutthroat entertainment industry.
The sudden wave of interest in a Tibetan horse rider has also raised questions of cultural fetishization. Critics argue that, by stressing Tenzing Tsondu’s “purity,” Chinese netizens — the vast majority of whom are ethnically Han — are simply othering a minority group, treating all Tibetans as “exotic.” According to China’s last census in 2010, Tibetans make up less than 0.5% of the country’s population.
“Imagine if an Asian woman who couldn’t speak English was surrounded by a group of white men and had money thrown at her,” read an upvoted post on Weibo, framing the case in a way that might resonate with the broader public.
Correction: A previous version of this story used an inaccurate transliteration for the man’s Tibetan name.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Screenshots of social media posts about Tibetan horse-racer Tenzing Tsondu. From Weibo)