On a misty morning, a young woman walks through her sleepy village, trailed by two adorable puppies and a baby lamb. She picks vegetables from the dewy field, fishes in the clear stream, and cooks up mouthwatering food for the season. She barely speaks. When she does, the most common phrase is calling her grandmother to come and eat.
The woman is Li Ziqi, a vlogger living a seemingly fairytale life in rural China. Since joining YouTube in 2017, the Sichuan native has amassed over 8.5 million fans on the platform; on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, she has 23 million followers. “She shows us life in paradise,” gushes one commenter on YouTube.
Vloggers like Li have gained traction both in China and abroad, quietly promoting Chinese culture in a way that has often evaded official organs, and that has caused state-owned media to take notice. “Without a word commending China,” CCTV wrote in a post on Weibo, “Li promotes Chinese culture in a good way and tells a good China story.” Last September, People’s Daily gave her its People’s Choice Award, and in December the Communist Party Youth League named her an ambassador.
These accolades suggest that the state recognizes Li and other vloggers like her are succeeding in spreading Chinese culture where official soft power efforts have often floundered.
Aside from sumptuous visuals and soothing music, part of Li Ziqi’s appeal is that she likes to do things from scratch.
To make a traditional dish of mapo tofu, she’s shown harvesting and grinding soybeans into powder, making the powder into tofu, and eventually cooking in the dish’s signature spicy sauce. In her crafty hands, anything seems possible; in other videos on her channel, she builds a sofa entirely from bamboo, and brews lotus wine using ancient techniques.
“In today’s society, many people feel stressed,” Li tells Goldthread in a recent interview. “So when they watch my videos at the end of a busy day, I want them to relax and experience something nice, to take away some of their anxiety and stress.” Indeed, her fans repeatedly use words like “comfort,” “relaxing” and “cure” when commenting on her videos. (In this way her videos navigate a loophole on Chinese social media, on which ASMR videos are banned as “vulgar and pornographic content.”)
Li’s popularity also reflects an escapist desire among viewers to shed the trappings of modernity and get back to their roots. Prior to travel restrictions caused by the outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China’s biggest travel agent Ctrip reported that there had been a surge in “Li Ziqi-style tours” to rural areas, particularly among millennials from big cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing.
As a commenter writes on one of Li’s videos:
“Here I am, studying for a career I’ll hate one day, spending days with people I don’t like, stuck in a superficial relationship, weighed down by money, worrying what strangers think about me, while I could be picking big yellow fruits in a forest with a lamb and dogs.”
Other successful vloggers tap into this same disillusionment with modern life, even when filming in white-collar environments. Famous for her “office cooking,” food vlogger Ms. Yeah uses a garment steamer to barbecue beef and a water dispenser to cook hotpot for her 8.2 million YouTube fans. In videos, she often likes to quip: “There are not only KPIs [key performance indexes] in the office, but also poems and adventures.”
Fans praise her creativity, and echo a desire to forgo daily responsibilities and the pressure of a 9-to-5 job. “I’m watching this while thinking about how to find a job where I can destroy and cook everything,” writes one.
Ms. Yeah has not been without controversy, however. In September, she paid significant compensation to the families of two girls after one died and one suffered serious burns attempting to copy one of her videos.
While Li says that she “is just filming the life she wants,” her viability for promoting Chinese culture overseas has not gone unnoticed — some have even questioned whether she actually represents a new front in CCP propaganda. Yet her videos have also faced criticism within China for showing a “backward” version of the country, one that potentially panders to outdated overseas views.
In December last year, influencer Lei Silin started a discussion topic on Weibo that quickly amassed more than 750 million views, asking, “Why is Li Ziqi not exporting culture?” The debate that followed quickly revealed the fallacy of believing in a singular vision of “Chinese culture.” Some commenters compared her videos unfavorably with the image of space exploration, bullet trains, 5G technology, and sophisticated ecommerce that the government is often so keen to push to international audiences. Others argued that this was precisely why her videos were so popular — her rustic, personal touch was more relatable, they said.
CCTV echoed that sentiment shortly afterwards, writing: “Foreigners understand Li’s love and passion and that can explain why her videos are popular across the world even without translations.”
Yet there is no “one size fits all” approach to online fame. While some viewers prefer a “gentler, more delicate touch,” others favor down-to-earth humor, bold personalities and a bit of roughness, especially on short form video platforms. Liu Shichao, a 33-year-old rural farmer, was shocked to learn that his short videos had been ripped from Chinese short video app Kuaishou and had gone viral on Western social media. Nicknamed Pangzai (胖仔) or “fat dude,” he claims to have invented a “tornado drinking style” that involves a flurry of fast, skillful drinking.
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As part of a government-led online content “clean-up” operation, more than 100 of Pangzai’s videos were removed from Kuaishou. But after he was told of his overseas fame by international fans (who set up Chinese social media accounts just to get the message to him), he soon set up his own accounts on YouTube and Twitter, inspiring an all-new audience to adoringly dub him “the King.” Somewhat ironically, he was subsequently featured in an article by state media outlet Global Times, which neglected to mention his Kuaishou ban and instead lauded him as an “image ambassador” for Chinese farmers.
As a profile on Whats On Weibo notes, his appeal is “like many young men from the countryside of Northern China: open, friendly, humble and genuinely excited to share his life.” His success also suggests that perhaps the best way for Chinese authorities to project soft power overseas, is to simply let their citizens speak for themselves.
Pangzai’s story also demonstrates that international fame for these vloggers is often an unintended side effect. There’s little doubt that as these individuals’ viewerships grow, the production value of their output go up, but to see them as carefully calculated tools of soft power may be overstating or misrepresenting their ambitions.
Often, at least at the beginning, these videos were never meant to be seen by foreign audiences. This is true for vlogger Dianxi Xiaoge (滇西小哥), who has even more fans than Li on her Weibo account. Her videos follow a similar format but zero in on the cuisine of Yunnan, often exotic even to viewers in other regions of China.
“In my thirty years of living,” writes one viewer, “I never knew there was such a thing as hairy tofu.” The vlogger also includes amusing interactions with her family that resonate with her Chinese audience, such as when her grandmother chides her on camera for going on a diet.
Li Ziqi and Dianxi Xiaoge’s success parallels a government-wide push for increased “cultural confidence,” an attempt to inspire appreciation and pride in Chinese cultural production and identity among domestic audiences. The trend also dovetails with the recent traditional culture craze fueled by Chinese millennials — through historical TV dramas, Confucian education, and hanfu dress — as well as a greater demand for modern goods “made in China.”
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Having found a large audience overseas, Chinese vloggers are also discovering a recipe for success where official efforts are not — packaging interesting culture in a unique, personal way that captivates viewers’ imagination from outside China, and inspires pride at home in being Chinese.
Header: Li Ziqi preparing Spring Festival snacks (image: YouTube)
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