A farmer from Shandong is my hero this week. His elevation was by default really because, like many other surfers in the Middle Kingdom, I washed up on local video sites as I couldn't access YouTube.
Zhu Zhiwen loomed large on the radar screen when Baidu reported he was the Chinese Web's most searched individual. I clicked on a couple of sites to watch him sing some folk opera songs and pitch hay on his farm. Then I spent a perplexed 30 minutes or so wondering what all the fuss was about. He seemed like an ordinary farmer in an army surplus coat to me.
Duh! I should have caught on when the subtitles to the show he performed on, Shandong TV's I am a Big Star, referred to him as the "Male Susan Boyle". It is a familiar narrative. Instead of a polished young performer with idol looks, find a visually challenged (and I don't mean he needs glasses) nobody and make them a star instead. They get the sympathy vote and everyone feels good about it. It's like charity but better.
Supply a villain - a caustic judge like Simon Cowell - and you have great TV. In this instance, the judges doubted the stentorian Zhu was really a farmer. They demanded he took off his coat to reveal a sweater that was frayed at the sleeves. The show's host additionally wanted to check his hands to make sure they were suitably callused and pronounced they were indeed "hands that move bricks".
The result was cheers all round for the good-natured country bumpkin and vitriol for the judges. Incidentally, reporters did double check he was the real deal by going down to Heze in Shandong province for a recce. He was videoed singing while he worked, stroking his favorite fowl and crooning to fellow villagers in the market place. Many of the middle-aged men had Mao Zedong hairlines and the kids watched from the rooftops. It looked like a patriotic film from the early 1970s.
And maybe this was the point too. Talking demographics, his appeal to approximately 57 percent of the population, which is rural, is obvious. He's just like them. But he also scores big with sophisticated urbanites. He seems to stand for the past, a naf nobility that no longer exists in the city. He's nostalgia personified.
I asked one of my younger colleagues whether he liked him. And the answer was a resounding yes. "I feel that he could be a friend," the 20-something said. "He's not sophisticated and I feel like I can trust him."
In this respect he stands for innocence lost. I bet Mr Zhu doesn't even have a computer. In which case his sole topic of conversation over the past couple of weeks would not have been the outages of his Web-browsing experience.
Gmail has been on and off, my virtual private network (VPN) doesn't work any more and the virtual universe beyond China is no longer within my reach. Up to this point, I thought I was special, that the Internet rules didn't apply to me and the Great Firewall was something to tunnel under. How wrong I was.
This explains how I was thrown back into the Chinese Web and submersed in it, revealing Zhu Zhiwen, the singing gentleman farmer. Some might say it has been Edenic, as Internet speeds, proxies, Google and Facebook are the fruits of knowledge and stand for everything that prevents us from enjoying an innocent and content existence.
If only it was so simple.
(China Daily 03/16/2011 page18)