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On home ground

2023-06-26 (


Li Degjin dances in a show at Urad Rear Banner, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, in the summer of 2020, kicking off the tour titled Beautiful, which Li and singer Khuslen initiated with the hope of bringing music and dance to nomadic families in the region. CHINA DAILY

Forced to return to their roots after their shows were canceled because of the pandemic, two performers have found a new lease on life, Chen Nan reports.

When Li Degjin got onstage and started dancing, audiences were intrigued by his movements. The maneuvering of his hands, shoulders and legs originate from the nomadic way of life in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region. They express aspects of the ethnic Mongolian lifestyle, such as household labor, customs and traditions.

Li left his hometown and came to Beijing as a teenager to study at Minzu University of China, where he graduated in 2005. Since then, Li has been pursuing his dream of being an independent dancer touring the big cities around the country.

Like many young people pursuing their dreams in bigger cities, Li had no plan to return to his hometown until his life and regular job as a dancer were disturbed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With his performances and tours canceled or postponed, Li moved back to Bayannuur, Urad Front Banner, where he was born and grew up, meeting childhood friends and family members he hadn't seen for years.

One day in the early summer of 2020, Li drove with his longtime friend, singer Khuslen, to the Ulan Suhai Lake, just for fun. Like Li, Khuslen, who rose to fame by performing Hongyan (Swan Goose), an old Mongolian folk song, also lived and worked in Beijing and other big cities around the country. They were amazed by the beautiful natural scenery of Ulan Suhai Lake and they danced and sang near the lake.


Li leads local people in dance during the tour.CHINA DAILY

All of a sudden, an idea hit both Li and Khuslen. They wanted to perform for their families, friends and a hometown audience.

"We grew up playing near the lake. We'd been away from home for years, and the moment we returned to the lake, we felt like going back to our childhood. It made me realize how much I missed my home and how beautiful my home was," says Li, who was born to a Han ethnic father and a Mongolian mother. He learned to dance at the age of 14 at an art school in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, and later gained a fan base by performing on the Chinese reality TV show, So You Think You Can Dance, in 2014.

"We've performed for people around the country. Since we both returned home, we hoped to perform for people we love and people who may not have any chance to watch live performances," says Khuslen, 41, referring to nomadic families living in remote areas of Inner Mongolia.

On Aug 9, 2020, they drove to the Gobi Desert region in Urad Rear Banner, where they performed a show for over 100 local herdsmen. So far, they have performed 45 shows by visiting over 50 villages and townships in Inner Mongolia.

"I can still recall the first show vividly. The density of population is low in Urad Rear Banner. The audience came to the show in different ways, riding motorcycles, horses or camels. We just drove our own car, carrying our instruments and equipment with us. The show took place in the desert. Apart from the herdsmen, senior people and children, we also had flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle, and camels as our audience," says Li.

"We just prepared a few songs and some dance works we used to perform during our tours. But the show ended up with an impromptu program. We sang what the audience wanted to hear and danced with them," adds Khuslen, who closed the first show with the famous song, Hongyan.

After their first show, the two artists decided to give a name to their tour in other places of Inner Mongolia. They named it after a well-known Mongolian folk song, Beautiful.

"It's a charity tour and we have no formal stage or any stage design, or lights. But we have a great time because of the warm feedback of the audiences," says Li. "During the past three years, we have traveled to many places in Inner Mongolia, some of which were foreign to us. We feel very happy because we can go to those places, which we had never been to before, and see some beautiful sceneries and talk to local people."

Besides the warm feedback of the audience, they have also been treated as honored guests, offered food and drink in local people's homes. Apart from performing, Li and Khuslen have also collected folk songs and dance moves that they had never learned before.


Li rose to fame by appearing in Chinese reality TV show, So You Think You Can Dance, in 2004, with his Mongolian ethnic dance.CHINA DAILY

Khuslen mentions that, after one show, it was totally dark outside. When they prepared to leave, their car had two flat tires. They had to spend the night at the home of a herdsman, who volunteered to help them repair the tires the next morning.

"When we woke up the next morning, the tires were already fixed. Later, we realized that the herdsman drove to a vehicle repair shop by driving his truck during the night. The shop was about 400 kilometers away from us," says Khuslen. "We were very touched and grateful. We promised to come back and perform for them again."

"Some senior people call us Ulan Muqir because they've watched performances by Ulan Muqir when they were young. It's an honor," says Li. Ulan Muqir means "red bud" in Mongolian, and is a collection of art troupes. They travel from one place to another performing for herders who live in some of China's most remote areas. Usually the performances feature singers, dancers and instrumentalists, as well as actors and actresses playing short skits, which are about local heroes either adapted from folklore or based on real stories.

They called their artist friends living around the country to join the tour and nearly 50 artists have performed with them by traveling from different parts of the country. Li has served as one of the judges of China Central Television's popular show, Star Boulevard, since 2018. The reality show, which premiered in 2004, gathers music and dance lovers — mostly amateurs — to compete with their performances, giving birth to lots of stars well-known among its audience. Li invited some of the reality show's winners to join in the tour, enabling the tour's programs to be diversified.

"Since all the artists have their own jobs and schedules, we arrange the programs to be flexible and colorful. Only Khuslen and me are permanent performers during a tour," says Li.