Viral Video of Disabled Chinese Carpenter — Inspirational or Idealized?

While some people are inspired by the positive attitude of the man featured in the short documentary, others view the video as ‘poverty porn’

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3:17 PM HKT, Fri July 29, 2022 2 mins read

The latest household name in China is neither a government bigwig nor a ‘little fresh meat’ idol, but, surprisingly, an elderly Chinese citizen living in rural China.

Erjiu (meaning ‘second-oldest maternal uncle’ in Mandarin), a 60-something-year-old with a physical disability, is the subject of a short documentary that has taken the Chinese internet by storm. Titled I Went Back to the Village for Three Days and Erjiu Cured My Inner Turmoil (yep, quite a mouthful), the video was produced by a young relative and runs about 11 minutes long.

Since dropping on Bilibili, China’s answer to YouTube, on July 25, the video has gone viral in the Sinosphere and has been viewed almost 33.9 million times in just four days. On Weibo, the hashtag ‘Erjiu’ amassed more than 500 million views and topped the microblogging platform’s trending list at the time of writing.

Despite being an exceptionally bright student in his younger years, Erjiu never found favor with Lady Luck.

His greatest misfortune was crossing paths with an inept village doctor, whose solution to curing a fever was to give him four injections in one of his legs — all in a single day. This caused permanent damage to the unfortunate patient’s leg, and he has never walked normally again.

Erjiu Viral Video

Although Erjiu initially struggled to accept his fate, he learned to fend for himself and picked up the profession of carpentry. In addition to learning woodworking, the disabled craftsman built his own tools and began eking out an existence.

While Erjiu never married, he adopted a daughter, whom he named Ning Ning, and was able to marry her off by building a premium set of furniture that served as a decent dowry — a remarkable feat for a man of his predicament and humble origins.

The filmmaker positions Erjiu’s life and struggles in the context of landmark socioeconomic changes in China, such as the country’s transition to a market economy and the dismantling of its socialist welfare system, and the documentary has been extensively covered by state media, such as People’s Daily and China Daily.

Erjiu Viral Video

The viral video, which underscores Erjiu’s resilience and ability to survive under dire circumstances, invites self-reflection and self-betterment. For instance, the videographer explains how Erjiu cured my mental turmoil in a voiceover in the film: “I’m completely physically able, attended college, and live in an era full of opportunities. I’m supposed to live to my fullest life.”

This seemingly innocuous comment is, in fact, slightly loaded and rings of silent disapproval of the ‘lying flat’ generation, who are put off by China’s intense working culture.

In this sense, some netizens sympathize with Erjiu’s situation but don’t buy into the film’s motivational message. These people highlight that it’s okay to be touched by his resilience but that viewers must recognize that social inequality contributed to his struggles.

Some netizens have drawn parallels between the short film and author Yu Hua’s work of historical fiction To Live, which has been adapted into an internationally acclaimed film by director Zhang Yimou.

Contrary to the novel, however, Erjiu’s life is not narrated in the first person but is scripted — and possibly romanticized — by the videographer. Erjiu is merely the film’s main subject, one who walks, works, and watches over his ill mother but never speaks for himself.

The sexagenarian is not the only country dweller to have seized the spotlight in recent years.

Calling himself ‘Teacher Liu,’ a content creator took the Chinese social media platform Douyin by storm earlier this year after releasing English-language videos in his hometown of Yangshuo county in South China.

Teacher Liu

With a very thick accent, Liu proudly and confidently introduces his 2.6 million followers to his hometown’s stunning scenery in said videos. Following his rise to fame, many netizens began creating their own videos mimicking Liu (mocking accents included) — content that has performed equally well on Douyin.

Huang Xiaoxie, a scholar with 1.7 million followers on Weibo, has suggested the recent rise in popularity of rural content among internet users is a reaction to a “decade-long domination of online narratives by elites.” She pointed out that individuals like Erjiu and Liu provide “unique contrasts” to the middle-class majority.

Huang also warned others not to indulge in the voyeurism of the underprivileged or to otherize them: “I hope they aren’t just a spectacle-like commodity for the middle class.”

Additional reporting by Beatrice Tamagno

All images via Bilibili and Douyin

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