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    China’s ‘Small-Town Literature’ Trend Turns Rural Into Retro

    An increasing number of travelers are visiting smaller cities and counties across China, hiring photographers to document their experiences. Critics, however, argue that it reinforces negative stereotypes, portraying small towns as stagnant.

    Narrow streets, weathered buildings, and young Chinese clad in vintage attire against a backdrop of soulful music: These are among the hallmarks of a new viral travel trend on social media dubbed “small-town literature.”

    Driven by a surge in interest in traveling to smaller cities and counties across China in recent months, the trend increasingly involves tourists hiring local photographers to capture such quaint locales. On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, posts on “small-town literature” have amassed over 470 million views.

    “It’s a unique aesthetic,” said 23-year-old photographer Tang Zihan from Sichuan province in southwestern China. Tang discovered the power of realism in 2021, after encountering a series of photos set against concrete walls and a messy environment.

    Now a freelance photographer, Tang charges several hundred yuan for a group of photos and primarily attracts clients through the popular lifestyle app Xiaohongshu, where photographers also showcase their work and connect with potential clients.

    Available across major cities and small towns, the cost for such services often ranges from about 100 yuan ($14) for a collection of photos to several thousand yuan for renowned photographers with more followers on social media.

    While “small-town literature” has gained popularity as a nostalgic expression reflecting the challenges and emotions of small-town youth, it has also come under criticism for overstating melancholy and serving as an expression of urban arrogance.

    Setting the scene

    In January, Tang captured her first series of “small-town literature” photos in a demolition-bound neighborhood in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. “I felt a thrill from the sense of decay there,” said Tang. “It evoked a complex sense of powerlessness, witnessing the disappearance of old things, and a feeling of alienation from the past.”

    According to Tang, photographers take great care in tailoring shoots to their clients’ needs, often collaborating on the style and content and typically spending half a day on the shoot. This personalized approach has led to an increase in client inquiries as the genre gains traction online.

    One such client is Yang Sikang, a 22-year-old from the southern Guangdong province. Despite growing up in the city, Yang says he’s never truly experienced life in small towns but finds a deep resonance with the style.

    Together, they developed the character for the photoshoot. “She is a confused young person in a small town. She yearns for big cities but is not accepted by people there. She doesn’t care. She does not know how to behave like them,” Yang said about the persona they crafted.

    “Sometimes, I want to run back to the past. Big cities can’t tolerate a lost young person with nothing, but I feel like small towns can,” Tang told Sixth Tone.

    Luo Yanxia, a 24-year-old from the southwestern Guizhou province, was drawn to the style as a means to reflect on her life. Despite being perceived as an obedient daughter, Luo admits to a rebellious side. “But I did not dare to show this side of me in the past, fearing that others would judge me,” said Luo.

    Though “escape” is a common theme in the small-town literature trend, Luo views it not as a desire to flee but as a form of empowerment, believing it allows her the freedom to live as she wishes.

    While the style has its admirers, it also faces criticism for perpetuating negative stereotypes that depict characters as helpless and regions in economic decline.

    Critics argue that small-town literature offers an outdated and melancholic doleful portrayal of small towns, filled with sorrowful and confused characters.

    One widely popular online comment questions these depictions: “Why is the depiction of small towns always so sad? And why are people always portrayed as desperate? This is not the small town I know.”

    Scholars have weighed in on the narrative too. Jiang Qiaolei, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote: “Small-town literature’s unique aesthetic showcases young people’s hardship and reinvigorates their childhood memories. But small towns shouldn’t be dramatized and stereotyped solely as melancholic.”

    Despite photographing numerous clients, Tang says the widespread debate over the portrayal of small towns has prompted her to reevaluate whether her style accurately reflects her own experiences growing up in a small town.

    “I did not understand where the sadness came from. It feels like people are being melancholic for the sake of melancholy,” she said.

    Raised in a small town in Sichuan and now based in the southern tech hub of Shenzhen, Tang has a nuanced view of her hometown. She remembers her parents’s discipline as a reason to leave, yet she fondly recalls the times spent playing with neighborhood children and reconnecting with friends during visits.

    “I love the city for its convenience, but when I’m stressed by its fast pace, the further I am from my hometown, the more I miss its peace and warmth,” said Tang.

    In her efforts to challenge the often somber depiction of small-town life, Tang features more diverse subjects: a cheerful landlady, a well-read intellectual who has moved beyond small-town boundaries, a farm girl, or a fashionable millennial.

    Most of her photography now takes place in Shenzhen, where modern skyscrapers tower over the scattered remnants of small villages. Her shoots often lead her to old neighborhoods, which evoke fond memories of childhood.

    Reflecting on her work, Tang said: “I realized what I appreciate most is the nostalgic feeling of good memories past, not the sad portrayal of small towns. Exploring the diversity of small towns is what I aim to focus on in the future.”

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: A portrait of Luo Yanxia in “small-town literature” style by Zhang Nian. Courtesy of Luo)