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Who is Ding Zhen, the Tibetan Boy Who Has Dominated the Chinese Internet for a Month?

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It’s been a month since Tibetan boy Ding Zhen first hit social media, but discussions over him and every aspect of his life have hardly stopped since. Initially, it seemed he was going to be one of China’s many gone-before-you-know-it internet stars — clearly, he is not.

Ding Zhen, a 20-year-old horse-racing lover, comes from Litang county, a Tibetan area of Sichuan province in western China. Largely because of his good looks and innocent smile — and the spectacular scenery in that area — he’s taken the internet by storm in recent weeks.

Swoon: Ding and his horse Pearl

Ding’s name has been circulating on social media almost every day since — from swooning over his “dreams to be a horse prince” to discussions over whether or not he should leave his home town for fame and fortune elsewhere. According to analysis from Hotpot News, there were 316 posts about him an hour on social media site Weibo at the phenomenon’s peak. With only 12 posts himself, Ding’s Weibo account has racked up nearly 2 million followers in three weeks.

So who is Ding? And why has he gotten so much attention from the internet, not just for a day, but a whole month?

11.11 Pot Noodle TikTok

It all started from a seven-second video posted on Douyin, China’s domestic version of TikTok. Ding was seen on his way to buy instant noodles. And as people were marking the Single’s Day shopping festival, Ding got his name out for the first time.

Later that day, Ding appeared in a livestream hosted by the photographer where he seemed very shy and didn’t speak Mandarin especially fluently.

Enthusiastic comments such as, “So cute! His clear and innocent eyes are like a stream of spring water,” and “His smile is angelic and melted my heart,” flooded social media.

Unlike China’s “little fresh meat” male idols (xiaoxianrou, 小鲜肉), Ding’s unpolished look and shy smile have given netizens a new type of crush, with many labelling him a “sweet and wild boy.”

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11.18 From TikTok to Tourism Ambassador

Generally speaking, the next step for an overnight internet celebrity is to sign a contract with a management company and start selling goods. But Ding found a different route.

On November 18, a week after he’d first become popular, he accepted a job offer from the local government and became the tourism ambassador of Litang county.

A three-minute short film The World of Ding Zhen was launched days later as a promotion for Ding as well as his hometown.

Thanks to Ding, the number of searches for Litang through China’s biggest travel agency Ctrip skyrocketed by 620% in 10 days.

11.27 Everyone Wants a Piece of Him

The move sparked a war among various departments of culture and tourism in different regions.

Since Ding is Tibetan and he once said in an interview that he wanted to visit Lhasa, netizens naturally associate him with Tibet. But Ding is from Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, technically part of Sichuan province, which borders with Tibet.

As part of his job as tourism ambassador, on November 27, Ding posted a picture on microblogging platform Weibo (which he’d only joined 10 days previously), confirming that he’s from Sichuan. Not surprisingly, topics around Ding’s hometown and roots went viral again.

The image of the young boy holding up a plain red banner was apparently too easy a target for China’s Photoshoppers, and the image quickly became a whole series of memes.

“I want to visit Lhasa,” “I want my horse Pearl to run fastest,” “Shandong province welcomes you,” were among some of the slogans flying around, which prompted Ding to post a new photo: “My home is truly in Sichuan, please stop Photoshopping. Thanks, Ding Zhen.”

Sichuan and Tibet quickly took the opportunity to promote their tourism on Weibo while provinces such as Shandong, Hubei, and Zhejiang all invited Ding to pay a visit.

The sensation even spread to the central government, with China’s state-controlled broadcaster CCTV interviewing Ding in the Tibetan language. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying also tweeted about him:

12.11 The Inevitable Backlash

Fame, good looks, a stable job at a state-owned firm, plus a limited education and ordinary resume… naturally not everyone could be happy for Ding Zhen — a backlash was brewing. One month after he’d sprung to fame, Ding topped Weibo’s trending topics once again, but this time with a more negative hashtag: #WhyStraightGuysHateDingZhen garnered 100 million views in just 24 hours.

The petty put-downs were often contradictory, with some arguing that he was only popular because of his looks and others claiming he wasn’t even that good looking. A web celebrity singer wrote a song to diss Ding (the video has been taken down from streaming site Bilibili) as “nothing but a pretty boy,” with lyrics such as, “Ten years of hard study is nothing compared with Ding Zhen’s smile.” Yet at the same time on Hupu, a sports commentary and news platform, 63% of respondents were claiming “Ding Zhen is less handsome than me.”

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“We don’t hate Ding Zhen, we hate this world that has distorted values,” says a post that garnished nearly 80,000 upvotes on the Quora-like site Zhihu. “We’re angry because we’re insulted.”

Inevitably, there was then a backlash against the backlash, with Ding fans mocking the “straight males” (zhinan, 直男) who’d first complained. “They’re really confident in themselves and super jealous,” reads a popular comment on Weibo.

Regardless, Ding’s name was once again trending on social media. And on it goes. How long he can sustain this level of fame remains to be seen, but don’t be too surprised if he ends up fronting a section on harmonious minorities during China’s Spring Festival Gala TV extravaganza next year.

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.