In an unplanned turn of events, an online English tutor from China has become an unlikely live-stream star.
By CHEN Zhenfang
When DONG Yuhui, a former off-campus English teacher at private tutoring firm New Oriental, first started to sell agricultural produce through live-streaming on the company’s Douyin channel Oriental Selection, he noticed that there were only a few viewers, and even that included his parents.
Over the past six months, Dong has shifted job roles from tutor to anchor as New Oriental Online tries to reinvent itself as an agricultural e-commerce company amid a regulatory crackdown on after-school tutoring.
“Such a change actually didn’t meet my expectations,” he said. “Especially in the early days, some viewers just kept attacking my look and accent.”
But in the process, Dong also discovered value in his new identity.
“For every product I sell, farmers and couriers can make a little money. The more orders I sell, the better their lives are improved,” he said.
Dong, from rural Shaanxi Province, claims he has taught 500,000 students over 8 years and did not expect that last week, he would become a breakout star on social media because of his bilingual live broadcasts.
After finishing some live-streaming on June 9, Dong suddenly found himself an online sensation. On that day, clips of Dong’s bilingual online sales went viral on major social platforms, including WeChat, Douyin, Weibo, and Bilibili.
On the day when Jiemian news spoke to Dong, Oriental Selection had attracted 136,000 real-time viewers, a record high, while its main operator New Oriental Online’s intraday price rose 100 percent.
It took the company six months to go from just a few to more than 130,000 viewers. Oriental Selection now has more than 3 million followers.
On June 13, its highest viewing volume of a single live stream was more than 7.71 million, while live-streaming sales exceeded 10 million yuan from June 10 to 13.
As for Dong’s popularity, he repeatedly stresses: “Everyone likes me because they like New Oriental and our well-known founder Yu Minhong.”
“I also remind myself not to get carried away by everyone’s attention.”
Dong still works from 8am to 2am every day. “Selling products via live-streaming requires you to be truthful, frank, and unpretentious,” Dong said. “You should treat your viewers like your real friends and only recommend and sell those products that you would recommend to your friends.”
Since being a host, Dong has even discussed philosophy and literature when selling products, themes he would usually have talked about in the classroom (both in English and Chinese).
“Our live-streaming room allows everyone to see a brand-new type of streaming e-commerce,” he said. “It’s like showing a parent that his child is not just good at exams, but can be a free artist or a happy farmer.”
Dong was born into a humble peasant family and sees himself as an ordinary young man trying to make his way in the big city.
In the second year of high school, he accidentally broke his leg, and his mother would make different kinds of soups for him every day.
“At that time, I made up my mind to be responsible for myself and not let others pay the price for my willfulness,” he said.
While studying at Xi’an International Studies University, he worked part-time as a tour guide. Once, he rushed back to school in the middle of the night but couldn't get into the dormitory. After a day without food, Dong sat in the yard outside his dorm, eating bread and drinking milk, pondering where it had all gone wrong.
That night, he walked all the way from Chang’an county to downtown Xi’an. Later, it was already dawn, and he had to take several foreign guests to some scenic spots.
“I cannot be vulnerable like that again. I imagine that my father must have suffered far more than I ever did. Since he never complained, I have no right to complain about such things,” he said.
When Dong started live-streaming, he received much criticism but felt that it was more important to “listen to opinions from the world and keep your own thoughts.”
Whenever he felt he wasn’t doing well, he reflected and adjusted quickly as best he could.
In early 2015, Dong joined New Oriental as a high school English teacher before graduating in his senior year. At Xi’an New Oriental School, he was promoted by SUN Dongxu, now CEO of New Oriental Online but who was then the principal.
Since the summer of last year, K12 education institutions, including New Oriental, have been facing layoffs and intense transformation. Dong says this was his “most difficult period.” He could not even tutor his students through their senior year and saw a group of like-minded colleagues leave.
Discussion about New Oriental pivoting to live-streaming took place in the autumn of last year.
“YU Minhong is sincere about doing something in agriculture. He feels that he needs to do something real for China’s rural agriculture and farmers,” Sun told Jiemian Education.
In the early days of the transformation, Dong also thought about leaving: “In selling goods, I felt I had no advantage, so I thought I needed to leave.”
Later, Sun told Dong: “In a difficult time like this, you must believe that our team is still bound together. We can explore together, and maybe then, we can find the right path.”
So, Dong didn’t leave. “If I had left then, I would have felt guilty all the time,” he said.
In the live-streaming room, Dong loves to sell books the most. For a 26 yuan copy of the biography of Su Dongpo, China’s most famed historical poet, he sold over 20,000 copies in under 5 minutes.
In Sun's eyes, Dong is particularly stubborn as he will spend a long time recommending products that are not easy to sell.
“But he’s a particularly lovable and inquisitive guy,” Sun said.
Dong’s enthusiasm seems almost boundless.
“We must let everyone know about us as the first step, and the second step is to launch self-operated products and provide farmers with agricultural training techniques,” he said. “With the government's help, farmers can earn higher incomes, so young people are willing to return to their hometowns. At that time, the elderly will be able to have their children by their side.”
If not expected, the rapid change in the career path is something Dong is undoubtedly warming to.
“If I can play a greater role by being an anchor, I will be an anchor. If one day, everyone thinks that what I say is meaningless, or my existence in the company is of little value, I will volunteer to teach in a rural area,” he said.