At This Instagram Hot Spot, All the World’s a Stage (and the Buffalo’s a Prop)


The morning mist was still thick between the banyan trees when the farmer appeared in the clearing, an ax slung over his shoulder as he led a water buffalo on a rope leash. In the slanting sunlight, unhurried and companionable, the two picked their way through the undergrowth, a vision of the rural idyll.

Then, when the farmer reached the other end of the clearing, he turned and began his trek again. And again. And again, in a constant loop.

CopyAMP code

“Come over here a bit!” called out one photographer on the edge of the glade in southeastern China.

“That’s the way!” said another photographer, shouting out directions and encouragement.

“OK, no need to walk anymore!”

With that, the visitors called it a wrap, satisfied they had gotten the perfect photographs of the bucolic scene.

Later, the images would pop up across the Chinese internet, with captions like, “Going to work in the morning light.”

A few, however, were more honest in their tags: #fakeactionshot. For the farmer (and the buffalo) had only been performing for the tourists and their cameras.

Such staged photo shoots have become the specialty of Xiapu County, a peninsula of fishing villages, beaches and lush hills known as one of China’s top viral check-in points. It is a rural Epcot on the East China Sea, a visual factory where amateur photographers churn out photogenic evidence of an experience that they never had — and that their subjects aren’t having either.

That buffalo lumbering through the banyan trees? Hasn’t been used to farm in years. The farmer’s outfit? Better for a museum diorama showing how field workers dressed 100 years ago.

Even the mist wasn’t real mist, but smoke generated by burning straw (out of frame).

Xiapu is a place at once frozen in time and utterly modern — an entire county whose economy has evolved to cater to the demands of the Instagram age. Hundreds of residents have taken their turn as models while more have worked as straw-burners, tour guides and entrance-fee collectors. Between 2008 and 2019, the number of tourists visiting the region, once known primarily for agriculture and fishing, increased 10-fold, according to official statistics.

The area is not what one might usually think of as a desirable tourist destination. The weather is often cloudy, the beaches muddy and unswimmable.

The unexpected appeal of Xiapu, in Fujian Province, arises from a set of factors specific to this moment in China. The country has a growing number of retirees, who are living longer and with more money than ever before. The government is encouraging rural tourism in the name of poverty alleviation. And everywhere, there is nostalgia for a disappearing way of life, in a country modernizing at mind-boggling speed.

In Xiapu, tour guides herd their charges between villages and mud flats scattered across the county to find the scenic spots that have been prepared as potential photo scenes. At each site, billboards display pictures that visitors can emulate. For those needing more direction, the guides bark instructions about angles and timing through megaphones.

Arguments sometimes break out among photographers jostling for the best spot, or after a drone ruins someone’s shot.

Most visitors are Chinese, but Instagram — which the government has banned — is also full of posts by foreign visitors who claim to have glimpsed a bygone China.

Some photographers come knowing the scenes have been set up for their benefit. Others do not.

“When they hear that these are staged, their hearts will drop a little,” said Liu Weishun, 40, the manager of a popular attraction where colorful — and never used — giant fishing nets bob in the water.

“So sometimes I’ll just say, ‘Oh, it’s not the right season,’” he said. “Just to make them feel better.”

During the peak months from April to June, as many as 500 visitors a day pile off tour buses at Mr. Liu’s site, paying $3 each to perch on a brambly hillside overlooking the water. Below, the nets have been swathed in pink and green webbing for extra visual effect.

On a recent Monday, a tour group paid $30 extra for a model in a straw hat to row by in a red-, yellow- and blue-striped boat. The group’s guide directed the model’s movements by walkie-talkie.

“The photographers have expectations for their work,” Mr. Liu explained. “They need someone in specific positions, in a way that meets their composition needs.”

At another site, in nearby Beiqi village, dozens of visitors crowded onto a four-story viewing platform, forming a thicket of tripods and bulky, arm-length lenses. On the mud flats below, three model fishermen, paid $15 per session, fanned out with large, photogenic turquoise nets in tow.

Some Chinese photographers have questioned the rush to Xiapu.

Dong Zheng, a photography teacher from Hunan Province, traveled there earlier this year with some students who had been asking to visit. Though he took them to the marquee spots, he declined to take pictures there himself.

Instead, he captured more abstract photos of the tidal flats in black-and-white, to distinguish them from the flood of sunset-hued ones. But when he posted his images online, a commenter said he had wasted an opportunity to capture the vivid colors others had.

“I couldn’t even be bothered to reply,” Mr. Dong said.

Xiapu’s defenders point to the egalitarian nature of photography there.

Photography “isn’t like other arts that are hidden in an ivory tower, high above everyone else,” said Wang Shimin, a leader of the Fujian Province Photography Association.

And it’s not as if Xiapu’s amateurs don’t work hard. Tour groups drag themselves out before daybreak to capture the sunrise dappling the water and wait hours for the tide to rise to just the right level.

There also is a backdrop of truth to the fiction.

Mr. Liu’s fishing nets may be props, but there are real crabbers nearby. Another site features a forest of bamboo poles half-submerged in the water, stretching away from the shore in S-shaped rows. Those are real, used in Xiapu’s thriving aquaculture industry for drying seaweed. Some of the models were once farmers and fishermen, or still are.

Many of the area’s residents are eager to cash in on Xiapu’s popularity, at least while it lasts. But the whims of the internet keep changing, and there are signs that the next generation of tourists may have different tastes.

Two years ago, Lei Lushou, who lives in the village of Banyueli, decided he wanted in on Xiapu’s tourism boom. He adopted a buffalo that had been headed for the slaughterhouse, hoping to mirror the success of the “farmer” photographers were flocking to see amid the banyan trees.

But he soon found that many visitors below a certain age weren’t interested in shooting re-enacted pastoral scenes. On social media platforms popular with younger people, Xiapu-related posts often feature not fishermen and sunsets, but tourists lounging poolside at the trendy new hotels that have popped up recently.

Mr. Lei isn’t ready to give up on his buffalo, though. He’s shooting short videos that he hopes will make the animal go viral on Douyin, China’s TikTok.

“Once it’s internet-famous, many things will be easier,” he said. “It can be used to livestream, to sell products. After all, this is the internet celebrity age.”

Joy Dong contributed research.