From breathtaking seaside views to bucolic farming landscapes, Xiapu County in southern China is picture-perfect.
The catch? Most of these photos are staged by teams of tour guides angling for a quick buck.
Angry reviewers complained that Xiapu is nothing more than a staging area for a rural photoshoot.
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Xiapu County in Fujian province is almost a little too picture-perfect.
An idyllic sunrise dawns over Xiapu County, a rural town in Fujian, China. From Xiapu’s beaches, you can see a lone fisherman rowing his boat toward the endless horizon. And venturing deeper into the county, you might catch strains of a buffalo lowing and spot chickens scurrying about the lush farmland.
Photos of these scenic spots in the county abound on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
The catch? Most of them are manufactured.
Buffalos? Farmers? Mist? Xiapu has it all – for a price.
Like Colonial Williamsburg, Xiapu reminds one of what rural China was like in its bygone days. It is still a largely agrarian town, but much of its picturesque landscape — and the people within it — is created by teams of photo crews masquerading as fake farmers and fishermen.
Before this bizarre masquerade, Xiapu was best known for its seafood. But years of bad harvests from the sea resulted in the area’s economy suffering. Then the local government had a bright idea: To cash in on rural tourism, they aimed to turn Xiapu into the rural seaside village of one’s dreams. The problem with that plan was — it wasn’t.
Now Xiapu is known for something else entirely. For the right place, Chinese and foreign visitors alike can get the perfect shot for their social media profile, complete with “special effects” courtesy of local businessmen angling to facilitate photoshoots.
Fishermen wave colorful nets at just the right angle for photographers to get the ideal shot.
According to The New York Times, the promise of awesome pictures from staged photo shoots is what really draws crowds to Xiapu County. The Times detailed how hordes of photographers lined up in a neat row along a bridge to catch a staged snapshot of a model in a traditional hat rowing his boat toward the bridge.
The model was paid $30 for his troubles, The Times noted.
Teamwork makes the dream work. The fishermen offering the staged photo services stand by, waiting for the signal to cast their nets.
The Times spoke to Liu Weishun, 40, who manages an attraction where gigantic, unused fishing nets are deployed for staged photos. Liu told the outlet that some 500 visitors come to his site every day and pay him $3 each to take images of people casting the nets. Some even fork out an extra charge for a model wearing a straw hat to row by — directed, of course, by Liu, who gives him stage directions via a walkie-talkie.
“The photographers have expectations for their work,” Mr. Liu told the Times. “They need someone in specific positions, in a way that meets their composition needs.”
Behind the scenes, this “farmer” and his buffalo don’t do much farming at all.
The farmers don’t just manifest from the morning mist, either. Snapshots on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, showed people setting straw on fire as two middle-aged people trudged through the mud, tugging a buffalo behind them.
This re-enacted pastoral shoot is also one of the county’s most popular locales for the social-media-savvy, some of whom show up in hanfu, or Chinese traditional garb.
Filtered photos from Xiapu often show geese taking a leisurely gander. The woman in this photo is a model, though, and the geese are trained to play to the cameras, tourists told Insider.
Fake or not, rural tourist spots like Xiapu recently saw a resurgence in popularity. CNN reported in May that city dwellers were heading to the countryside in search of interesting locales and alternative local travel destinations after international travel was curbed because of the pandemic.
The rural tourism boom was also fueled by the popularity of Li Ziqi, an online superstar who became one of the country’s top influencers on Weibo because of her bucolic depictions of the Chinese countryside.
Smoke and mirrors – the “mist” seen in photos of the area is generated by a sweaty man furiously fanning a stack of burning straw
Eager to put up appearances, some visitors to the county have even likened the county’s landscapes to scenes from “Spirited Away,” the Oscar-winning animated film from Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki.
“Heaven on earth,” wrote one Weibo user ShenghuiFashi, who posted a thirty-second video of the farmers pacing back and forth with the buffalo in tow.
But angry accounts on Weibo beg to differ.
“This place cannot be more fake. Fake fishermen casting their nets, and fake farmers with sad buffalo posing for pictures,” wrote one disappointed visitor.
“Not sure what’s real or fake anymore,” said another.
Some Weibo reviewers say they were scammed into visiting Xiapu believing it would be a wonderful, untouched rural environment. They were sorely disappointed.
Another Weibo poster named Sentez wrote: “This is a scam. Teenagers are getting cheated into making their way down to this hotspot thinking it’s all real. What’s worse is when they find out the farmers are fake and just ‘modeling,’ they still don’t expose it because they’d rather post pretty photos.”
“Behind one brilliant picture of a rural landscape, I’m guessing there are ten tripods. It’s so artificial, but people will be willing to pay for it.”
Another visitor to Xiapu went as far as to warn other tourists not to visit the place at all.
“First of all, the so-called rural people in the social media photos are all actors, and the county itself is pretty much like a staging area for a photoshoot. In reality, without the filters, the place is extremely ordinary. The beach is dirty, and the seafood restaurants are famous for ripping people off,” said the reviewer.
But if staged photos of farmers and fishermen are your thing, then Xiapu is the place for you.
Some, however, were content to embrace the veneer of artificiality shrouding Xiapu County.
“Under the trees, the old people walked around and it kind of looked like a movie. But the mist was just smoke from a burning pile,” wrote Weibo poster OuQiDeBao. “Ah, but in this world, who cares if it’s fake or not, as long as it’s pretty in the pictures.”