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    The World of Ding Zhen

    A Tibetan herder’s viral fame helped put a remote rural county on the map — and made it almost unrecognizable.
    Oct 17, 2021#tradition

    It’s a strange feeling when someone back home suddenly becomes famous. Almost immediately after Tenzing Tsondu — better known as the viral heartthrob Ding Zhen — was first “discovered” by a photographer last November, local authorities in Litang County in the southwestern province of Sichuan tried to capitalize on his popularity by releasing a short tourism video titled “The World of Tenzing.” In the year since, everyone from reporters at China Central Television to variety show bookers and social media users have showered the sweet-faced Tibetan herder with attention.

    It’s the kind of fame that can change a person, and maybe even a place. Although I was born and raised in the nearby city of Kangding, I have family in Litang and used to visit the area regularly. I thought I knew Litang, but Tenzing’s sudden fame has placed a very different frame on the village from my youth. No longer is it a remote place that no one I meet has ever heard of; now, it is a fixture of online culture. Yet much of the information I’ve seen circulating on the internet comes from people who have never been to Litang. The experience of seeing a place I thought I knew well through their eyes has been a mixed bag. At first, I was proud: I always believed that my hometown could impress the world if it got the chance. Yet the more I read, the more I wondered. There was so much being shared that I didn’t recognize: Tenzing’s village, his family and friends, and carefully curated photos of tourism sites like the old town or its miniature museums were everywhere — but what had become of the Litang I’d known since childhood?

    So, when my nephew, Nyima, invited me back to Litang in late July to celebrate his high school graduation and attend the annual local horse racing festival, I jumped at the chance. Perhaps worried that he alone wasn’t enough of a draw, he assured me that Tenzing was sure to be in attendance this year. He clearly believed this would be a sufficient enticement for outsiders, and I suppose that now includes me.

    That Tenzing would be at the festival at all hints at some of the changes that have taken place in Litang. Every year on the Maoya grassland, the various work units and villages of Gaocheng Town are assigned specific sections for pitching their tents during the festival. There are thousands of them: a city mushrooming out of the plateau before the biggest horse-racing festival in Litang. But typically, only residents of Gaocheng Town take part in the festivities. In villages like Tenzing’s, horse races are rarely so formal. Often, they’re the product of serendipity: two riders challenging each other for the pride of victory — not the pleasure of speculators.

    Ultimately, the arrival of the typhoon In-fa disrupted my plans. My flight from Shanghai to the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu was canceled, delaying the rest of my itinerary. A message from Nyima told me they had already put up the tents and were waiting on me to arrive, but the festival would have to go on without me.

    They held the opening ceremonies on July 26. Online, I saw short videos of Tenzing and the other contestants parading through the streets of Litang’s county seat, waving national flags and shouting. He might not be from Gaocheng, but it was clear that this was Tenzing’s moment. Nyima later recounted in vivid detail seeing the young man marching along the streets with hundreds of fans from all over the country trailing behind him, chanting in broken Tibetan “Nga khyod la ga” — “I love you!” As he told the story, Nyima mimicked their thick accents. Another of my nephews said he broke his cellphone amid all the jostling of the crowd. Both expressed their astonishment at seeing so many people from outside Litang chasing after a local. They may be Litang born and bred, but even they don’t claim to know the inner workings of Tenzing’s world.

    Beyond Tenzing’s fame, the economic changes that have taken place in Litang have not had much impact on my nephews’ everyday lives. There are shared bikes now, they say, and food delivery platforms have started operating in the town. There were more tourists this year, too, but all of them stayed within the confines of the kitschy Renkang old town and its mini museums. “It has nothing to do with me,” Nyima said.

    Nyima guessed that Tenzing’s village may have benefitted more from the rise in tourism, but by the time I arrived, we didn’t have time to check it out for ourselves. Instead, I made do with a virtual pilgrimage, exploring Tenzing’s world through social media sites and videos. Tenzing’s social media accounts are meticulously managed by his team, and his posts about daily life on the Tibetan Plateau have attracted over 10 million fans across various platforms. Conflicts are also piling up. Fans of Tenzing have started to take issue with the strategies his company and the local government have for his future, a common phenomenon in Chinese idol culture. Some believe Tenzing has been taken hostage by brand managers and local officials to help Litang build its brand, which is keeping him from living his own life.

    Still, the general vibe among Tenzing’s fandom is quite positive. His colleagues at the tourism bureau and even some fellow villagers have set up their own social media accounts, which have also attracted millions of followers from people elsewhere in the country who claim to be their “villagers in spirit.” Devoted fans have gradually come to know everyone in the village by name and disposition, almost as if they were watching a reality show, which in a sense they are. Information about the village is shared freely by fans who indulge in their pastoral, exotic fantasies by imagining a different life in this tranquil, harmonious, and serene village.

    Mainstream media coverage is also reshaping Tenzing’s world. There have been numerous reports on the contributions made by Tenzing and his company to local lives. From them, we see the promising future that lies ahead: a group of old Tibetan women using traditional knitting techniques to make high-end new products; houses being refurbished to meet the needs of wealthy urbanites looking for an “authentic” homestay experience; and villagers receiving training in how to work in a modernized tourism industry. Litang is taking its opportunity seriously.

    There are different ways of looking at all this. Optimists tend to focus on the potential for economic growth in a region in dire need of new industries. Pessimists, meanwhile, worry that the development of tourism will lead to the commodification of Tibetan culture. For them, tourism will always lead to over-commercialization, ruining the purity and authenticity that drew people to Tenzing and Litang in the first place.

    As someone with one foot in Litang and one in the outside world, I can’t say for sure who is right. But by the time I arrived this summer, the Litang that I once knew felt like little more than a backdrop for the world of Tenzing. Some have expressed concern that the rise of Litang could lead to it eclipsing the rest of Tibetan culture in the popular consciousness; few seem worried that Litang itself has already been contorted around the image of one man.

    We cannot, no matter how sincere we may be, ask locals to remain culturally and economically static for our viewing pleasure, othering themselves so we can continue to dream of Shangri-La. Entanglements with global capital and modernized institutions are already present; people like Tenzing merely bring them to the fore. Yet there are still many other places across China, the Tibetan Plateau, and even tiny Litang waiting to be rejuvenated and rediscovered. In her striking study of mushroom pickers on the Tibetan Plateau, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing describes being surrounded by “patchiness”: a mosaic of entangled ways of life, each strand of which is connected to new and different rhythms of life. The answer to Tenzing’s fame isn’t trying to keep Litang in permanent stasis, but rather, restoring its diversity.

    After the typhoon passed and I finally arrived in Litang, I accompanied my niece to the Long Youth Cole Monastery to pray for good grades in the upcoming semester. While there, I met an old Lama who expressed disappointment in the itineraries that tourism companies have started offering to visitors. “Those tour guides never bother to bring tourists up here; they offer only quick tours for quick money,” he complained. He then introduced us, in a mixture of Tibetan and Mandarin, to several places we had never been before. He’s lived in the monastery for over 50 years and knows its every corner.

    Our visit seemed to invigorate him — perhaps because of how rare it was. “I want to tell the stories of our monastery and local culture, but the tourists never come to me,” he said. “I know I should speak Mandarin if I want to communicate with them better, but then those tour guides who can speak Mandarin may not know the local culture that well. That’s the problem.”

    Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: Tenzing Tsondu, better known as Ding Zhen, poses for a photo in Litang County, Sichuan province, 2021. From @时差岛 on Weibo)