Tales from the riverbank
Liu Tao (left) holds an interview at home in Baisha town, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.[Photo provided to China Daily]
Online celebrity with a penchant for English, 'Teacher Liu' happily informs his followers about the bucolic lifestyle of his hometown in South China, Shi Ruipeng in Nanning and Ye Zizhen in Beijing report.
"Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream...," sings Liu Tao in a video posted on social media of a boat trip he took along the Yulong River in Yangshuo, South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
The video of him reciting the English ditty hit a record 130 million views on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, in just a few weeks. He puts it down to his accent.
Going by the handle Teacher Liu on Douyin, the 44-year-old man from Yangshuo, a popular tourism destination, was born into a poor farmer's family in Baisha town.
"I'm a farmer, even I can get famous on the internet," he says.
Liu has four siblings. He dropped out of school after finishing junior high, because his parents could not afford the tuition fees.
"I like learning English, and have done well since I was young. My performance in English at school was quite good," Liu recalls, explaining why he chooses to record most of his videos in the language.
At the time, a semester's tuition fee was 1,000 yuan ($148), the equivalent of about three years' expenditure of his family.
Liu (third from left) poses for a photo with fans.[Photo provided to China Daily]
"I remember borrowing English textbooks from friends in high school, and copying the textbooks into my notebook," he says. "To practice my oral English, I would go to the Lijiang River, about 12 kilometers away, by bike, to speak with foreign tourists there."
In 1998, Liu sat an exam set by the local government in Yangshuo and became one of the first group of amateur English tour guides.
A farmer, a tour guide and now an internet celebrity, Liu has experienced changing public opinions of him, and they are reflected in the comments on his videos.
Some found his English accent relaxing, and some say he does not have the same accent as a teacher.
"I began to guide foreign tourists in Yangshuo in 1998, and I also worked at the reception desks of local hotels. Many villagers were jealous that I could speak in English with foreigners," says Liu, explaining why he chose the moniker Teacher Liu.
He says the foreigners he met were all very friendly. "They could understand my English."
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has resulted in a severe drop in the number of tourists to the area.
"I literally lost my job because there were so few tourists."
In March last year, Liu started posting videos about his hometown on Douyin, seeing it as a new way to introduce his hometown to others.
"My first hit video was the one I made introducing the Lijiang River in both English and Chinese and, later, the row boat song became another hit," Liu says.
"There used to be many tourists riding bamboo rafts on the river. It inspired me to make this video, and share the beautiful views of my hometown with friends across the world," Liu says.
He also does livestreams, during which he sings in Chinese and English, and shares with fans his daily life in Baisha town.
His home is a two-story building with a wooden front door. Liu says the house is more than 100 years old.
There is an old-style kitchen on the first floor, and the hallway on the second floor is narrow, with clothes hanging on the walls-a way of drying laundry in southern China because of the volume of rain.
A view of the Yulong River in Yangshuo, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.[Photo provided to China Daily]
Liu livestreams from his room on the second floor. It is decorated with all the awards he won at school, as well as his notebooks and photos he took with tourists in the past.
As well as work, Liu spends a lot of time with his mother. "My father passed away in 1999, and my mother supported the family and raised us, It was not easy for her to raise five children," he explains.
In one video, Liu cooks beer fish, a local Yangshuo dish, for his 89-year-old mother.
Liu says he is not in any rush to make a fortune from being an internet celebrity. His down-to-earth personality attracts lots of fans because of his attitude toward life.
He often receives business offers, many of which he has declined.
"I have no head for business. All I want is to talk with people who like to watch my livestreams, and to introduce my hometown to others."
Nong Peiyi contributed to this story.