Young people of the Nu ethnic group become social media stars to promote local culture and tourism
Another life
Published: Jul 04, 2022 07:33 PM
Li Jianhua, a Nu ethnic influencer Photo : Courtesy of Li Jianhua Villages along the Nujiang River in Southwest China's Yunnan Province Photo: VCG

Villages along the Nujiang River in Southwest China's Yunnan Province Photo: VCG

Li Jianhua, a Nu ethnic influencer Photo : Courtesy of Li Jianhua Villages along the Nujiang River in Southwest China's Yunnan Province Photo: VCG

Li Jianhua, a Nu ethnic influencer Photo : Courtesy of Li Jianhua

Lacking a written language, the Nu people have been passing down their folklore, customs and way of life orally for centuries. The ethnic group is one of the few in China that transitioned directly from a traditional agricultural and hunting society to modern society after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Nearly 10 years ago, they were hidden in villages scattered around the primeval forests along China's southwestern borders, but now there are many young Nu people entering the spotlight with a new career: hometown ambassadors/influencers on Chinese social media. 

Unique lifestyle

"Here we have the stunning views from the galloping Nujiang River and dense forests. After I learned certain filming techniques and editing skills I began my own social media account to upload videos about local villagers' everyday lives," Li Jianhua, a young man from Shawa village, a Nu village in Yunnan Province, told the Global Times. 

In addition to raising chickens and weeding his cornfields, Li regularly uploads carefully filmed video clips on Chinese short video platform Douyin so his followers can get a glimpse into the completely different way of life that his ethnic group have been adhering to for centuries.

The rugged and isolated geographical environment led to the unique customs of the group, such as their worship of nature. 

Their most important festival of the year, roughly translated as the Goodness Festival, falls in April. In one of Li's videos, local people dressed in colorful hand woven clothing stand in a circle and dance and sing together without musical or instrumental accompaniment as they pray for the blessings of nature.

The same geographical characteristics of the region also determined that the group would be easily affected by Western culture introduced by the neighboring Myanmar, which later merged into the Nu's own culture. Li often shoots videos around his village and the local towering cliffs, where one can appreciate Western-style Catholic churches built by missionaries during the 16th to 18th century and local wooden houses built on stone pillars to avoid the damp environment as well as attacks from bears and leopards.

Like other villagers in Shawa, Li was born and raised and lived a simple life. Before Li's social media career as an influencer, he could barely understand Putonghua (Standard Chinese) as the Nujiang River cut off the village from cities in other parts of Yunnan. 

In 2017, a film crew settled in Shawa village to document the lives of local people for four years. During this time, roads, schools and other basic infrastructure were built in the village thanks to China's poverty alleviation programs. Li was one of the main persons the crew followed for the documentary, and this experience gave him the skills to deal with social media. 

After the documentary was broadcast on CCTV, Li's life changed a great deal.

"Now my main daily routine is to record the life we have in Shawa. It may be taken for granted by locals here but others won't," said Li. 

"I hope through my efforts that more people can learn about our group and experience our original lifestyle. Hopefully, we can later develop ecotourism," he said.

Village official/internet celebrity 

Heading north around 200 kilometers along the Nujiang River next to the border with Myanmar, another Nu village, Qiunatong, which means "peaceful" in the Nu language, has been listed as one of the most beautiful rural villages across the country.

Peng Zhizhen, one of the 3 million officials who headed to rural villages during China's nation-wide poverty alleviation efforts, has been part of the work team helping his hometown since 2018. During his downtime, he often takes out his phone to show off local life to his 21,000 followers online.

Speaking of his job with pride, Peng told the Global Times that since the village has been lifted from extreme poverty, their next task is to develop local tourism based on the unique folk customs of the Nu people and the natural scenery in the region.

"In the beginning I was just recording life, but later more people paid attention to my videos and I felt an obligation to promote tourism here," Peng told the Global Times. 

From scenic spots along the Nujiang River to hikes through the rainforest, his videos showcase the folk customs of the Nu people and the historical sites that are a testament to ancient cultural exchanges.

Outside Qiunatong is the ancient Tea Horse Road, a traditional trade route that connected Yunnan Province and the Xizang Autonomous Region. Walking along the winding trails, one can see both the river and snowy mountains at the same time. 

"This place is one of our local attractions. But it's not fully developed yet. We want to preserve the original appearance of the village and not destroy it," added Peng. 

Through his promotional efforts, the local tourism industry has been developing slowly but gradually. 

"At present, there are more than 300 households in the village, and around 30 have opened home stays. In the future, we want more tourists to discover this place and the culture," Peng said.