Uncle Petrov, the ethnic Russian web celebrity: I am Chinese

By Li Qiao Source:Global Times Published: 2019/12/5 21:08:43

Dong Desheng is featured in a China Central Television program wearing an ethnic Russian costume. Photo: Courtesy of Dong Desheng

"Are you a foreigner?" Dong Desheng is often asked this on his travels to other cities in China. 

"I am Chinese," he always patiently replies.

With blue eyes, golden hair and fair skin, 44-year-old Dong, a farmer who has gained popularity on streaming platforms Kuaishou and Douyin, is an ethnic Russian, one of China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, living in Xunke county, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.   

He has 1.5 million followers on Kuaishou and 700,000 on Douyin, where fans call him "Uncle Petrov."

He appreciates China's policies that protect and unify ethnic groups, crediting them for making his Russian heritage celebrated by such a large fan base. 

Anger toward CNN

At first, Dong did not want to be interviewed when reached by the Global Times. "I was so angry after reading the CNN report after they interviewed me. Although I cannot read English, my friend translated it for me," Dong told the Global Times, adding that the report deliberately denigrates China. 

The article titled "'Uncle Petrov' is the ethnic Russian streaming star making China question what it means to be Chinese" was published by CNN on June 24. 

Dong said he feels that his story was wrongly made use of by CNN to criticize China's ethnic policies.

During his telephone interview with CNN, Dong said that he is Chinese and that he loves his country, he told the Global Times. "I appreciate the efforts that the government made for the unity of ethnic groups. So I was irritated when I knew CNN criticized China's ethnic policy in the latter part of the same report," Dong said.

The CNN report also makes use of his story to discuss "what it means to be "Chinese" in a society where "ethnic homogeneity and social conformity are the norm."

Dong said it was his family's own choice to learn and practice Han culture in life. He and his family have never been forced to change lifestyle by anyone.

His grandfather's earliest memories were all about running away from war until 8 years old when he came to China. The grandfather was grateful that China provided a stable home for him, therefore he wanted the whole family to speak Chinese.

"No one forced our family to abandon the Russian characteristics, and it was the private choice of my grandfather," Dong said.

Born and raised in China

"I am a real Chinese. I speak northeastern Chinese dialect but not Russian," Dong emphasized. He is seven-eighths ethnic Russian and one-eighth Han. 

Dong's ancestors came from Poyarkovo, a Russian border village near China. 

The October Revolution of 1917 was the fall of Imperial Russia. A civil war gripped the country up until the early 1920s. His great-grandparents crossed the frozen Heilongjiang River, also known as Amur River, by sleigh with their two children in 1926 to flee post-civil war conditions. They settled in Xunke county, Heilongjiang Province.

Xunke county is home to the first Russian ethnic village in China, which attracts many tourists for its distinctive ethnic characteristics, Dong said.

According to data from the 2010 national census, there are more than 15,000 ethnic Russians in China, and most of them live in villages along the Heilongjiang River. It is one of the least populous ethnic groups in China.

Dong was born and raised in China. Dong's grandparents practiced Russian ethnic customs. Roasting Russian bread and making borsch soup are just some of the fond memories from his childhood. "However, I don't cook Russian food now. I enjoy having maize gruel and eat green onions with soybean sauce directly, which is authentic northeastern Chinese cuisine," Dong said.

Dong and his wife, Yang Yuemei, who is Han, have a 20-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter.

My children have never been laughed at for their mixed looks. They don't find themselves special among people as I did during my youth, Dong said.

"Over the years, China has made great efforts to protect and develop ethnic minorities. The 56 ethnic groups have become more and more united and prosperous together. We are the Russian ethnic group of China, and this look is our ethnic characteristics, so there's nothing funny about it anymore in this age," he explained. 

With the rapid development of mass media from TV to the internet, a wider range of people can easily attain information. Although the population of the Russian ethnic group is small and most of them live in the north, people have gotten to know their life more with online broadcasting and short videos.

More are familiar with the Russian ethnic group through the short videos of "Uncle Petrov" on Kuaishou.

Dong is proud of helping introduce his ethnic group to all of China.

Matryoshka doll statues in the first Russian ethnic village in Xunke county, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province Photo: Courtesy of Dong Desheng

Web celebrity 

In 2016, thanks to a reality show and his unique traits, Dong found unexpected fame. In January 2018, he went live online at the persuasion of his wife. 

He initially refused going live as the farmer strongly disliked the idea of people posting judgmental comments. However, it turned out that everyone liked "Uncle Petrov." Whether it's planting, harvesting crops, or family parties, Dong enjoys sharing his daily life in rural areas with audiences.

"There are still Russian personality traits in my character, which is optimistic, unconstrained and fun-loving," Dong said, adding that "I also love drinking alcohol so much."

Dong's short videos make his audience curious for his seemingly foreign face. "How could a Russian uncle speak northeastern dialect better than me? Is this a dub?" audiences asked.

People working in cities enjoy watching his live broadcasting as their occupation and lives are under heavy pressure, he said. Dong's unrestrained rural life and his happiness toward farming work deliver positive energy to his fans.

"I enjoy being a farmer; no one can change my mind no matter how popular online I become. And I am a Chinese. I am proud to introduce Russian ethnic group of China to everyone," Dong told the Global Times.
Newspaper headline: Yielding unity

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