Aug 02, 2023
Li Ziqi’s Online Pastoral Poetics
By Oscar Schwartz Somewhere in the mountainous region of northern Sichuan, a young woman harvests soybeans alone in a field. She cuts through the beanstalks with a sickle and stuffs them into a wicker
By Oscar Schwartz
Somewhere in the mountainous region of northern Sichuan, a young woman harvests soybeans alone in a field. She cuts through the beanstalks with a sickle and stuffs them into a wicker basket. Once the basket is full, she makes her way to a courtyard garden, where she shells the beans by hand and grinds them in a stone mill. Working industriously yet serenely, she boils the resulting pulp in a wood-fired wok, drains it in a cloth, curdles it with salt, and finally presses it into a large block of tofu.
The scene I am describing might seem like an outtake from some period drama. She is, say, a farmer living during the Six Dynasties period, forced to cultivate soybeans alone after her husband has gone to the northern frontier. Or she is a diligent worker manufacturing tofu for the People’s Republic. Instead, this is the opening scene of a five-and-a-half-minute-long online video on how to make mapo tofu from scratch. And the young woman is Li Ziqi, a thirty-three-year-old Sichuanese influencer and the proprietor of what Guinness World Records has dubbed the most popular Chinese-language channel on YouTube.
The mapo-tofu video is typical of Li’s œuvre. In her hundred and twenty-eight YouTube posts, she uses traditional methods to farm, cook, craft, or build. The depth of her skill and ingenuity is almost beyond belief. She can make anything from anything, like some sort of rural MacGyver. Li sews a dress from a fabric of subtle lilac, which she dyed with the skins from purple grapes. She constructs a brick oven to grill a rare fungus foraged from the forest. She fells bamboo trees and fashions a daybed with a machete and a handsaw.
All her videos are thoroughgoing demonstrations, but Li should not be categorized alongside other instructional YouTubers. To do what she does would be, for most of us, entirely impossible. (Who has a spare half acre to plant a soybean crop for a single mapo-tofu dinner?) Her videos, rather, offer the viewer an opportunity to reside, if only for a moment, in an idyllic otherworld. Spliced between her labor are highly stylized shots of rural life. Goats, kittens, and puppies frolic around Li’s feet as she works. She shares a meal by the fireside with her ever-smiling, wizened grandmother. The sunflowers turn to face the eastern sun. Purple clouds gather over the mountains. A full moon rises over a field of lotus pads.
Li began posting these Waldenesque vignettes to Chinese social media in 2016, and quickly gained a loyal following. She then took a rare leap for Chinese influencers and began posting her content to YouTube, a service that had been blocked in China since 2009. Her Arcadian aesthetic proved just as popular with a global audience, specifically during the pandemic, when Li’s life of “simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust,” as Thoreau put it, tapped into a desire to escape a sick society. By 2021, she had more than fourteen million followers on YouTube, the most ever for a Chinese-language account. But then, in July of that year, she stopped posting. Li, or at least the version of her that we knew in the videos, disappeared.
There is a fairy-tale quality to Li’s videos. Sometimes she is reminiscent of Cinderella, toiling alone in the kitchen. Other times, she is Little Red Riding Hood, traversing a forest of blooming magnolia on horseback. It is a contrived persona, to be sure—and one that she safeguards carefully. Li gives few interviews and renders sparse intimate details about her life beyond the videos. Most publicly available information about her comes from interviews with Chinese state media or outlets with some government affiliation. In those interviews, she suggests that her life has followed a Disney-like narrative arc.
According to an interview for Goldthread, a subsidiary of the South China Morning Post, Li grew up in rural Sichuan. Her parents separated when she was young, and she lived with her father but then moved to her grandparents’ home. There, she learned traditional cooking techniques from her grandfather, a local chef. At fourteen, Li dropped out of school and, like so many migrant workers of her generation, left the countryside for the city, working variously as a waitress and a d.j. In a profile for United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Hemispheres, Li said that she moved back to the village in 2012 to care for her grandmother, who had fallen ill. She opened a store on Taobao, an eBay-like Chinese online-shopping platform, hoping to sell clothing and produce. She noticed that her brother, who posted videos of himself performing on the video-sharing platform Meipai, was getting some views and followers. She wondered whether she might be able to attract a similar following on Weibo, a Chinese social-media platform, by posting scenes from her rural existence and then diverting viewers to her store. “I thought it would be interesting for people to know where their food comes from,” she told Hemispheres.
This was in 2016, a time when short-form online videos were becoming popular in China, and the so-called Wanghong economy—the influencer-to-online-commerce pipeline—was emerging as a major economic possibility for millennials. Young rural migrant workers, hoping to get noticed, made videos that exaggerated the consumptive excesses of city life. Li’s concept went in entirely the opposite direction, speaking to a growing subculture of those embracing Han neo-traditionalism as a solution to ever-westernizing Chinese cosmopolitanism. In her first video, created in March of 2016, she picks peach blossoms and turns them into wine—a pastoral poem made with a smartphone camera.
Initially, her retrograde sensibility did not gain much traction, but she bought a D.S.L.R. camera and a tripod and persevered. Her first viral success came in November, 2016, when she posted a video in which she prepares Lanzhou beef noodle soup. In the video, Li uses ingredients picked from her garden, makes the stock and dough from scratch, and expertly hand-pulls the noodles herself in her immaculate courtyard—an image of wholesome self-sufficiency.
According to an article in China’s English-language tabloid the Global Times, the noodle video found its way in front of Liu Tongming, the founder of Hangzhou Weinian Brand Management Co., a business which functions like a talent agency for online-video platforms. According to an open letter Li later posted on Weibo, Liu took her out for a hot-pot dinner, and offered to use his contacts at Weibo to help promote her videos to reach a larger audience on the platform. She agreed, and soon millions of followers flooded in.
Sometime in the summer of 2017, Li signed with Weinian, and soon enough Liu was parlaying her popularity into commercial opportunity. They opened an online store on Tmall, a business-to-consumer retail platform, selling prepackaged versions of her delicacies, as well as a selection of her clothes, jewelry, and kitchen utensils, like Li’s signature meat cleaver.
In 2017, Weinian also signed over Li’s international publishing rights to WebTVAsia, a Malaysian-owned company. YouTube was blocked in China, but WebTVAsia outlets beyond the mainland were still able to upload her content to Google’s platform. Li’s videos worked there because they were mostly nonverbal. Non-Mandarin speakers could simply sit back and enjoy watching her make beef ribs and glutinous rice in an earthenware pot without feeling like they were missing the point. In fact, her pastoral poetics evinced the same kind of yearning in the West as it did on the mainland. Under a video in which Li prepares lotus wine, one woman commented that Li made her dream of her tribe, from Attu, Alaska, coming back together to live their traditional ways.
Liu also encouraged Li to hire a production team. In a Weibo post dated May, 2017, Li estimated that in one year she walked more than a hundred and sixty miles back and forth between her camera and the scene, just to get the shot right. That year, she hired a videographer and an assistant, and her online shop was turning over millions of yuan. By the following year, Li had exceeded seven million YouTube followers. Her videos grew lengthier and more elaborate. Other characters began to appear more regularly, too, like her grandmother, whom Li dotes on with saccharine filial piety, as well as a few other friends from the village. Sometimes, at the end of the videos, they all feast together on Li’s food in the garden—a vision of a happy ending.
The international scope of Li’s success prompted a debate on Chinese social media: was she an apt cultural ambassador? One prominent cultural critic compared Li’s influence to that of the Confucius Institute, a state-backed organization that disperses Chinese culture abroad. The implication was that her channel was just as effective in spreading good vibes about Chinese culture as this multibillion-dollar cultural-diplomacy operation. Others were less enthused. One common criticism was that Li glossed over the relative poverty and hardship of rural life. Another suggested that she was framing China as some backward society, stuck in its agrarian past, when it should be projecting its technological prowess and cosmopolitan verve. This debate grew so lively that in early December, 2019, “Li Ziqi” became a trending term on Weibo.
Before too long, state media outlets were weighing in, too, decidedly in Li’s favor. “Without a word commending China, Li promotes Chinese culture in a good way,” a piece of commentary published on CCTV News’ Weibo page read in mid-December.
Xi Jinping seemed to understand that social media could be used as a tool in the broader effort to “present a true, multidimensional, and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s cultural soft power,” as he said in a speech delivered at the Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, in 2017. At the same National Congress, Xi also outlined his sweeping ambition for “rural vitalization,” a strategy to forge stronger connections between rural and urban life by modernizing agriculture and boosting commerce in the regions. Li, who began posting her videos to YouTube that year, was a personification of this policy, as if she had materialized out of some C.C.P. politburo.
Had she? When I spoke to Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an expert in Chinese social media, he said that this is unlikely. “As far as I know, it is all organic,” he said. “Her motivation has always been commercial. Any sort of soft-power dividends that China has got off the back of it has been a second-order effect.”
Almost all of the biographical information about Li Ziqi comes from her own social-media posts or from state-affiliated media. There is one exception: Li’s profile in Hemispheres, from December, 2019, for which she granted an in-person interview. I reached out to the writer, Ellen Freeman, who told me that meeting Li was a dreamlike experience. Freeman took a train from Chengdu to the second-largest city in Sichuan, where she was picked up in a van and driven for hours into the countryside, until she arrived at an expanse of blooming lotuses. Li was waiting there on a wooden pagoda with a picnic of fresh fruits and vegetables. She appeared, to Freeman, exactly as in her videos: beautiful, calm, officious. She spoke candidly of her childhood with her grandparents, those years of hardship in the city. The only point of friction came when Freeman brought up accusations, which routinely spread online, that Li could not possibly do everything she claimed to in her videos all alone. “She kind of bristled,” Freeman said. “There was an edge to her voice when she told me that she did it all herself.” Then, as if to prove her bona fides, Li took a palm leaf and effortlessly wove it into a basket, and packed the leftover food for Freeman to take home with her, as a parting gift. “It was very much like being in the presence of a fairy, and I was totally swept up in her magic,” Freeman told me.
During the lockdowns, when the need for escape was visceral, some simulated self-sufficiency by putting scallion trimmings in water. Others baked sourdough. Some even fled the city to embrace the cottage-core life (and post about it on Instagram). I binged on Li Ziqi.
I first came across her videos on my Instagram. It was early 2021, and I was scrolling my way through one of Melbourne’s interminably long lockdowns, watching reel after reel of cats cozying up with babies, comical skiing accidents, competitive eating—content that satisfied some base impulse that the algorithm dredged up. Amid all of this, I noticed a video of a Chinese woman with perfectly braided hair calmly picking red chilies and herbs in her garden, and then using the ingredients to make mouthwatering spicy beef jerky. I clicked on a link to Li’s YouTube channel, and then proceeded to watch almost every one.
Around the same time that I started my journey down this YouTube spiral, Li was officially confirmed by Guinness World Records as having the most subscribers for a Chinese-language channel on YouTube—a total of 14.1 million. That February, Li was also named Person of the Year at Weibo Night, a kind of Oscars for Chinese Internet celebrities. She wore a modest mint-green dress and told the media that she was thinking about her grandmother and her vegetables, which had just sprouted, and needed tending.
Li had ostensibly achieved the impossible, capturing the hearts of a Chinese and a global audience while remaining simpatico with the C.C.P.—and true to herself. Then, in July of that year, at the height of her influence, Li posted a video titled “Firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.” In it, she travels to a neighboring village where she helps a man derive salt from salinated well water. This was typical of her recent videos, which had become more didactic—showing urban people how the things they consumed each day were made and where they came from. It was also her last.
Toward the end of August, with no content uploaded for more than a month, Li Ziqi fans began to complain. Her personal assistant took to Weibo to say that Li needed some time to pay attention to “many real-world problems.” A few days later, Li posted a photo of herself filing a report at a police station, along with a comment: “Have asked lawyers to keep a record, this is so scary! Capital indeed has its good tricks!” (“Capital” is often used as a shorthand in China for big business.)
It was all very vague and out of character, and some of her fans began to speculate that she had somehow run afoul of the C.C.P. Eventually, details began to trickle out through Chinese media. When Li signed with Weinian back in 2017, they created a joint venture called Sichuan Li Ziqi Culture Communication, of which Weinian owned a majority fifty-one-per-cent stake. Initially, Li seemed happy for the agency to control the commercial side of things while she retained creative control of the content. But now business was overwhelming her original vision. In October, 2021, Li hinted at her discomfort with the hyper-commercialization of her brand in an extensive interview on CCTV. It’s a double-edged sword, she implies. She saw her brand identity foremost as a “new-style farmer” in a socialist country. She wanted to teach Chinese youth about where their food came from, and yet her signature instant snail rice noodles were so popular that the brand announced plans to build its own factories to produce them.
That month, per news reports, Li sued Weinian to regain control of her trademark. It was clever timing. Xi Jinping had recently made several public speeches in which he was directly critical of the country’s überwealthy, many of whom made their money through Internet technology. “She came out and gave these interviews where she used all the right buzzwords—common prosperity, cultural heritage, the corrupting influence of big tech,” Ryan said. “It was really savvy. It gave her political cover, which would have helped her in her fight with her agents.”
But Weinian still sued her in turn, and then throughout 2021 and 2022 the two parties countersued each other a total of five times, until finally they reached a settlement under mediation. Li’s shareholding in Sichuan Ziqi Culture Communication increased to ninety-nine per cent. That was in December of last year. Li still has not posted.
If she did, she would now be competing with the many Li Ziqi facsimiles who have popped up in her absence. Most are harmless ripoffs—young women trying to cash in on the Zeitgeist. Others, like Guli Abdushukur, a young Uyghur woman who posts videos to YouTube about her idyllic life in Xinjiang—a region that has been described as a prison state for certain ethnic minorities—are far more contrived. According to a study published last year, co-authored by Ryan, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Abdushukur is one of many so-called frontier influencers who have received at least tacit support from the C.C.P. for depicting lives that hew closely to government narratives about the troubled regions of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia.
There is something distinctly spammy and crass about the so-called frontier influencers. Indeed, many of these accounts pop up, pump out videos with a political agenda, and then shutter shortly after, having served their function. Li’s videos, by comparison, hold up as objets d’art. As far as life-style vlogging goes, they are masterpieces of the form.
There is one that I like to rewatch where Li prepares taro rice, a dish that her grandfather taught her how to make. In one shot, around two minutes in, she stokes the fire underneath a large cast-iron wok. Every detail in the shot feels perfectly in its place: a bunch of celery and a squash in the wicker basket, red onions on the windowsill. A terrier watches Li attentively, as light streams in from a window, casting shadows on her face. The scene is at once obviously staged and entirely natural, evoking Vermeer’s “Milkmaid.”
Pastoral art and poetry have always relied on concealing the rough realities and ever-present sufferings of rural life to transform the quotidian into a sublime ideal. Li is part of this tradition. Her videos are not portals into her real life in the Sichuanese hills. Instead, they are—like so much portraiture, particularly self-portraiture—fastidiously manufactured fantasies. “The life-style depicted in the videos is also the life-style I’m longing for,” Li told Freeman in the Hemispheres interview.
It’s pleasant to imagine that Li is now free to till the fields, harvest her vegetables, and share some rice wine with her grandmother. I like to think that she has disappeared into her carefully constructed world like Wu Daozi, a Chinese artist fabled to have painted a mural so lifelike that one day he walked right into it, never to return. But, of course, this is just a myth. ♦