A Chinese farmer with a penchant for English gains online popularity
By Li Wenhan  ·  2024-04-15  ·   Source: NO.16 APRIL 18, 2024
Liu Tao sings on a bamboo raft on the Yulong River in Yangshuo on April 3 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Fame has traditionally been the result of constant, deliberate and sometimes even painful effort, but now people are often just one video or post away from becoming a celebrity. For 40-something Chinese farmer Liu Tao, his life has been totally changed with a sudden fame.

In August 2021, Liu, from Yangshuo County in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, shared a video on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, where he said, "It is said that Guilin's scenery is the best under Heaven, yet Yangshuo's scenery is the best in Guilin..." in both Chinese and English.

At the end of his video, he thanked his audience, pronouncing "thank you" with an accent that rendered it as something close to "shank q." His novel pronunciation was so infectious that it prompted netizens to share and imitate the "shank q," with the 30-second video clip amassing over 500,000 likes, and Liu gaining 100,000 fans overnight.

In May 2022, Liu recorded another video, singing the English children's song Row, Row, Row Your Boat while on a bamboo raft on the Yulong River in Yangshuo. Once again, his infectious accent captivated viewers, earning a staggering 3 million likes. The song became one of the most popular background tracks on Douyin. "My song has become so popular that it has reached Paris and New York," Liu remarked. Within days, his fan base surpassed 1 million, and he was affectionately dubbed "Shank Q Brother" by his supporters.

In the months following the video's release, Liu encountered a range of opinions online. Initially, some mocked his accent, others accused him of deliberately mispronouncing the words to attract attention and some even resorted to hate speech. However, as Liu's story gained media attention and his background gradually came to light, the negative voices transformed into ones of genuine respect and support. He has emerged as an inspirational figure, symbolizing perseverance in the face of adversity, as he learned English while tending to cows and studied in a cave.

On Liu Tao's Douyin account, his videos embody a humble image that belies the millions of likes they have garnered. His oft-repeated mantra is "I may be poor, but my ambition remains strong." He speaks of the value of hard work and his desire to showcase the beauty of Yangshuo to the world.

Liu arrived an hour early for his interview with Beijing Review, wearing the traditional attire of the Zhuang ethnic group, of which he is a member. Throughout the conversation, he intermittently broke into song. There's a palpable sincerity to his demeanor on and off screen, leaving little room for the facade of a contrived persona. Liu Tao is, quite simply, himself.

Self-studying English

In the 1980s, Yangshuo became a hot spot for Western backpackers, and by the end of 1985, the number of inbound tourists to the county had exceeded 300,000 per year. Liu said, at the time, there were more foreign tourists on the streets than Chinese ones.

Liu has been interested in English since childhood. Even as a 5-year-old, he often saw non-Chinese in his village. They would greet him and he greeted them back. At the time, the sight of those people, often with blonde hair and blue eyes, was quite novel to Liu, and this aroused his interest in learning English.

In middle school, Liu was one of the best students at English, scoring over 90 percent in almost all exams. In 1993, after graduating from middle school with a total score of 540 out of 600 points, he received letters of admission from two high schools but was unable to afford the tuition.

"I have two sisters and two brothers. It was difficult for my parents to fund further studies for all five of us. After finishing middle school, I dropped out," Liu told Beijing Review. He then became a cowherd, taking his family's cows to graze on the mountain every day while studying English in a nearby cave.

During the toughest times, Liu couldn't even afford the 5 yuan ($0.69) needed to buy textbooks, and ended up borrowing the books from his former classmate. He copied words, sentences and grammar rules into his notebook. If he didn't understand something, he would look it up in a dictionary his sister had sent him from Guangdong Province.

He also directly asked English speakers for help in Yangshuo, which was a one-and-a-half-hour walk from his home. He would show travelers the dictionary and ask, "Can you help me with this word?" "They were usually warm and friendly, and taught me when I asked. My English speaking and listening improved greatly during that time," Liu said.

Becoming a guide

In 1998, after passing an interview and a spoken English exam, Liu obtained the first batch of tour guide certificates issued to local farmers by the tourism department in Yangshuo. As a tour guide, he would carry a small package of materials including maps, postcards and notebooks. "After becoming an English-language tour guide, my main job was to provide explanations of scenic spots for visitors," Liu said.

However, life was still difficult. His father passed away in 1999 due to illness and his mother was blind in one eye. The family relied on Liu to make a living. Despite being the poorest in the village, he continued to strive to escape poverty through his work.

In 2013, Liu began working in hotels in Yangshuo, assisting overseas guests with hotel check-ins and introducing them to dining and scenic spots. He was required to receive three to four large groups every day, sometimes each with over 100 tourists.

"If I was receiving French guests, I learned a little French from them; if I was receiving Spanish guests, I learned some Spanish from them. I want to learned different languages from different countries. I can greet people simply in eight foreign languages," he said.

During his years as a tour guide and hotel worker, Liu has received over 60,000 international tourists in total.

Sudden fame

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, the number of guests decreased significantly and Liu lost his job. He couldn't find a new one, and returned farming at home. In 2021, he began making short videos. He had no idea of how to edit them, and just recorded one- or two-minute videos, saved them and then posted them directly to online platforms.

"Before making that video, I was sitting on a bamboo raft, looking at the beautiful mountains, water and bridges on the Yulong River. Suddenly, I recalled the rhyme Row, Row, Row Your Boat that I had learned as a child. So I recorded myself singing while rowing. I didn't expect that video to become popular online," Liu said.

Afterward, fans from all over the world, mainly China, traveled to Yangshuo to visit him. Liu also does live broadcasts, speaks English, sings English songs and chats with fans online.

As the video became popular, some people mocked his English accent. "English is for communication. As long as I can understand foreigners and they can understand me, that's enough. I think having an accent is not a big deal. Many students understand English well but are too shy to speak. In this case, they will never improve," Liu said.

After learning his story, more people began to understand and support Liu. One netizen commented under Liu's video, saying, "I used to superficially think that videos of singing with poor English pronunciation were just for entertainment, but I overlooked that not everyone has had the privilege of receiving an education like the one I have had. We cannot take it for granted. Accent is no big deal and no one can deny his efforts. I can feel his sincerity and love for English and his hometown. I hope Liu continues to pursue everything he loves."

The comment continued by quoting a line from The Great Gatsby, a 1925 novel by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

As the pandemic subsides and global interactions gradually resume, China's tourism industry is also warming up again. China has implemented visa-free entry for over 10 countries since November 2023, further promoting people-to-people exchange.

"My original aspiration is to introduce my hometown to all. My videos showcase the scenery, the food and, above all, the culture of Yangshuo. I want to continue making videos of my hometown and show the charm of Yangshuo to the whole country and the world at large," Liu concluded.

(Print Edition Title: Soar With the Wind)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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