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Kings of the Country

Ever since their first reality show appearance, a folk band of farmers has captivated Chinese audiences with their poignant portrayal of country life and profound reflections on social realities

By Li Jing , Xu Ming Updated Mar.1

Wayina on the set of The Big Band season 3 (Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee)

Wayina began their set with the sound of a pickaxe. Band member Lu Min struck the rusty tool as the curtain rose for their first performance on talent reality show The Big Band season 3 in September, the first appearance of a trio of southern Chinese farmers who would blossom into rock stars overnight.  

Wayina broke into “Field Song,” which climaxed with band member Ba Nong grabbing one of the tree branches hanging from his mic stand and ripping into an ear-piercing solo by blowing across a leaf.  

“Their music has a style of its own. The leaf blowing might not be quite in tune, but it is touching, because it is something beautiful. The music is their world,” producer, musician and The Big Band judge Zhang Yadong commented during the show.  

Wayina fully embrace their agrarian roots, wearing the signature head wraps and cloth shoes of farmers in their native Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  

The look is more than novelty. Wayina founder Ba Nong and bandmate Shi Ba are rice farmers, juggling the band’s TV appearances with planting and harvest seasons. “Now that the rice is growing, we’ve come out to grow too,” Ba Nong said on the show before their first performance in August.  

Wayina climbed the show’s rankings to third place, beating out established acts like Supermarket and Buyi, all while maintaining a humility that has endeared them with Chinese audiences.  

The band then returned to their normal lives. Ba Nong and Shi Ba were already back home planting crops in their hometowns and third member Lu Min was working construction in September when the show aired. Within days, their friends began sending them screenshots from social media. Interview requests soon followed.  

But it was their breakout hit, “Big Dream,” that cemented their viral status in late September 2023. Its refrain “If life is nothing but a big dream, what should you do?” became a social media meme.  

Wayina’s touching performance of the eight-minute song on The Big Band grabbed 30 million views in its first three days on short-video platform Douyin, China’s TikTok.  

The melancholy folk song narrates the life troubles an ordinary person faces at different ages, from the cradle to the grave. The realistic but restrained lyrics resonated with people from all walks of life, each finding their struggles represented.  

“I’m 23, going to graduate from college. All my friends are leaving, what should I do? I don’t dare lose my heart to someone, find a job, go back to my hometown, or leave for another city. What should I do?” read the lyrics from “Big Dream.”  

Despite being an ode to China’s wanderers, it was “Big Dream” that gave the band direction.  

A Song for Everyone 
Born in 1979 in Nandan County of Guangxi, Ba Nong spent his childhood in a beautiful but remote mountain village. At the time, there was no electricity and people worked the land.  

Ba Nong had a passion for painting and aspired to go to art school. However, he failed the entrance exam four times due to low scores in English, a requirement for admission. Music was a means for him to alleviate his academic pressures. He found solace in writing poems and songs.  

In 2006, Ba Nong began working as a graphic designer in Guangzhou. In his spare time, he busked in the city’s subway stations and continued to write songs.  

He and friends would gather to play music in a loose collective he called Wayina, a word in the Zhuang language that means “farmland with the fragrance of rice.”  

His Guangzhou days exposed him to many types of music, but he gravitated to Taiwanese folk. During an appearance on The Big Band, Ba Nong said the experience led him to find a new appreciation for the folk songs of his hometown. “Nature and the countryside are inexhaustible sources of wealth,” he said.  

As Ba Nong could not afford many instruments, he wrote only using a guitar and tree leaves, blowing across their edge to create high-pitched sounds. He eventually wrote his first collection of songs, Sky with Floating Clouds.  

Two years later in 2008, Ba Nong returned to farming in Guangxi. But his time away helped him see the countryside through new eyes, inspiring his third collection of songs, Old Man in the West.  

Ba Nong moved between Guangzhou and his hometown multiple times, torn between the desire for a decent job and life in the countryside.  

One winter’s day in Guangzhou, he was on a break from his job designing packaging and brochures, when he saw a beggar on the street enjoying the sunshine.  

“I cherish my time so much, so I wanted to quit and do something I desired and found more valuable,” Ba Nong recalled about that moment while on the show.  

He has returned to farm every year since 2012, growing organic rice. On his plot, he built a barn and a recording studio out of used building materials he bought from a local school.  

Ba Nong believes that it takes experiencing the rat race of the city to truly cherish life in the country. “It’s great that I’m able to come back after taking a detour,” Ba Nong said on the show.  
Sowing Talent 
Shi Ba differs from his bandmates. He was an exceptional student, securing a place in Guilin’s best high school. But he initially failed to get into college, something he attributed to playing too much basketball, according to an interview he gave in Southern Weekly.  

He eventually got a mechanical engineering degree and landed jobs at tech companies. But his love for music led him to busking. He was a regular on Guilin’s Binjiang Road, where he sang his songs in his now signature head wrap and cloth shoes.  

Shi Ba said he has been a long-time fan of Ba Nong’s music. They first met in 2019, when he went to an event promoting Ba Nong’s Chinese-language book about his life experiences, Lowered Head for Farming and Raised Head for Singing, in Guilin. He bought all of Ba Nong’s albums. They stayed in touch.  

Ba Nong eventually invited Shi Ba for a guest spot during one of his shows with Wayina. There he introduced Shi Ba to Lu Min.  

Lu Min has a beautiful singing voice, despite his lack of formal training. Born in the 1990s, Lu was among China’s millions of rural children left in the care of relatives while their parents leave to work in cities. Most remain in the care of their grandparents. Later, his parents divorced, and Lu Min grew up with his grandfather. He dropped out before high school to work in factories, years that he called “a waste.”  

He saved up for a guitar and taught himself to play, busking on the streets for pocket money. He saw music as his only escape.  

Lu Min wrote “Ama’s Back,” a song about his mother. When he was young, Lu Min recalled how the village children would taunt him by saying, “Your mom is back and bought you a lot of stuff.” He wrote those feelings of abandonment into the song, he told NewsChina.  

Ba Nong appreciated the stripped-down sound and simple melodies of Shi Ba and Lu Min’s music. In September 2022, Ba Nong invited the two men to join Wayina for a show in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. It was the first time the three shared the stage.  

In late 2022, Ba Nong decided he would organize a tour for Wayina to “cheer up people affected by Covid” with the optimism in their folk songs, he told NewsChina. Their first stop was Republic of Sound, a venue in Guangzhou. However, with pandemic restrictions still in place, only 40 people showed up. Discouraged, Ba Nong put the tour idea on hold.  

But the trio made an impression on Lajiadu, the venue’s owner. In March 2023, he organized another show for them. Tickets cost only 31.3 yuan (US$4.4) and came with a 200-gram bag of organic rice from Ba Nong’s farm. This time, with pandemic restrictions lifted just months earlier, more than 1,000 showed up. Lajiadu eventually took up a managerial role, and recommended they audition for The Big Band.  

While many of their songs are fueled by personal experiences and their surroundings, some reflect the darker sides of life in China’s countryside.  

In the song “Amei Wants to Be a Townie,” Ba Nong sings about a loving young couple living in mountainous village who splits because the woman wants to live in the city. In “The Mood of Free-range Chicken,” Ba Nong highlights how the poultry industry’s inhumane breeding methods are changing how people raise chickens in the countryside.  

“Rongh Rib,” a song that Wayina performed during The Big Band season 3 finals, depicts his love for nature and the vulnerability of farmers in a fast-changing society where young villagers go to cities for work, leaving the elderly and children behind. “All my childhood playmates who caught fireflies together have left the village for cities, for all kinds of jobs,” Ba Nong said on the show.  

“In their song, I felt the power of simplicity,” said Zhang Wei (aka Dazhangwei), lead singer of Chinese pop-punk band Flowers and regular judge on The Big Band.  

While Wayina’s music leans to the gentler side of folk, its reflections on life in China’s countryside are incisive, winning them praise for their social awareness.  

“Muting our phones and going back to the farm doesn’t mean we’re closing ourselves off,” Ba Nong told NewsChina. “I often pay attention to what’s happening to people in cities and read the latest international news, and ponder why they did what they did.”  

Lu Min

Shi Ba

Ba Nong perform on The Big Band season 3 (Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee)

Playing the Field 
Concerned by the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, Ba Nong began to research organic farming. He often travels to collect heirloom rice strains. For fertilizer, he plants leguminous plants in winter and crushes them in spring, creating a natural source of chloride. Instead of dishwashing soap, he uses rice chaff to scrub his pots, which he then feeds to his chickens.  

Inspired by his organic ethos, Shi Ba also adopted Ba Nong’s farming methods. He now lives off his crop and sells any extra he grows.  

The band only rehearses ahead of scheduled performances. But if they have to choose between a show and farm work, they choose the latter, Ba Nong told Southern Metropolis Daily.  

But Wayina is challenging the stereotypical image of young farmers in modern day China. Ba Nong sets up a table in the field where he sips red wine during breaks from farmwork. “We don’t have to live as tiring a life as our parents,” Ba Nong said on the show.  

While some accuse them of parading their rural identity and dismiss their agricultural backstory as no more than shtick, Ba Nong welcomes the criticism.  

“Why can’t farmers live a comfortable and poetic life like us?” he asked a rhetorical question in his interview with NewsChina. Yet, he acknowledges that he is still striving to achieve the idyllic lifestyle portrayed in his songs.  

Shi Ba enjoys reading about the online haters who dismiss their rural identity as stage persona and their music as “just trying to be sensational.” “Such serious arguments show that we have moved people,” he said in a January interview with South Reviews magazine, adding he even wanted to meet with these “talented” netizens.  

Since taping The Big Band, Ba Nong said his life has not changed much. Shi Ba still occasionally performs on the Guilin streets. But their fame has generated many more paying gigs, which have allowed Lu Min to live off his music. As a construction worker, his wages were often delayed, a common issue for migrant laborers.  

Among them was a livestream concert on December 22 hosted by Chinese rock titan Cui Jian on his WeChat Video account. Wayina shared the stage with a full bill of Chinese rock and folk luminaries, including Pu Shu, Second Hand Rose and Wild Children, as well as Uygur rapper AIR. 

Titled “The Power of Rock,” the three-hour concert reportedly pulled in more than 36 million viewers. It was sponsored by a baijiu brand.  

But despite the influx of opportunities, the band remains cautious. They remind each other to maintain their own pace and strive to spend at least half of their time at home. In their song “Going Home for Farming” Ba Nong sings: “There, you can go up or down, leave or return, and be your own king.”