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2019-12-27 10:54:40 Voices

At first glance, Li Ziqi lives in a state of idyllic repose. Each day, she sets out from her beautiful, spacious country house to roam the picturesque, dewy landscape of China’s southwestern Sichuan province. She tills her fields, tends to her bevy of adorable sheep and dogs, and picks fresh fruits and vegetables for her grandmother from her seemingly bottomless cornucopia of a yard. It’s a romantic existence that seems ripped from the pages of “Peach Blossom Spring” — Tao Yuanming’s classic story of a secluded utopian paradise.

Behind all the pastoral imagery, however, is a social media behemoth. Li has over 20 million followers on the country’s Twitter-like Weibo. Even more impressive, she is one of the few Chinese internet celebrities whose popularity has translated internationally: Her YouTube account has over 7.8 million subscribers, and her videos frequently garner tens of millions of views.

Li’s fans, both Chinese and non-Chinese alike, say they’re hooked on her bucolic portrayal of the Chinese countryside. But her unabashedly romantic depiction of country life has its critics. How does she keep her elaborate, traditional dresses spotless during all that farm work? Why doesn’t she seem to sweat? And most importantly: Is she misleading her millions of — mostly city-based — fans by minimizing the harshness of rural life?

But after spending several months studying Li’s online fandom, I wonder whether the critics are asking the right questions. My research partner and I found that many of her fans are fully aware that rural life has little in common with Li’s gentrified, aesthetic depiction of it — they just don’t care. They don’t push play on her videos looking for a window into the realities of rural Chinese life. What they want is an escape, and Li provides an outlet practically tailor-made for today’s overworked, overcrowded, and burned out urban middle class.

A screenshot from one of Li Ziqi’s videos. From Bilibili

A screenshot from one of Li Ziqi’s videos. From Bilibili

Li has plenty of insight into both rural life and its place in the urban imagination. She grew up in the countryside outside Mianyang, a city in north-central Sichuan, before moving away and spending the better part of a decade working and building a music career. According to her account, she returned home in 2012 to take care of her grandmother.

Over the past few years, Chinese have increasingly responded to the rising tide of globalization by embracing their cultural roots.

She uploaded her first video in March 2016. At first, she concentrated on cooking tutorials, meant to show how farmers used natural, fresh ingredients to prepare everything from dinner to holiday treats. As time went on, she expanded her oeuvre, producing highly aesthetic clips that ostensibly taught viewers how to use traditional methods to make everything from clothing to makeup and bamboo couches.

As Li’s fan base grew, she hired a team of assistants, and the production quality of her videos noticeably improved. She registered the “Li Ziqi” trademark and opened an online store through which she sells everything from food to Li Ziqi-brand knives. In 2018, a food company licensed by Beijing’s famous Palace Museum signed her to an endorsement deal.

Li’s popularity should not be viewed in isolation. Over the past few years, Chinese have increasingly responded to the rising tide of globalization by embracing their cultural roots. On an official level, the Chinese government has made revitalizing the countryside one of its key policy goals, and it has trumpeted its commitment to the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and the building of “cultural self-confidence.”

GIFs of clips from Li Ziqi’s videos. From Bilibili

GIFs of clips from Li Ziqi’s videos. From Bilibili

This has formed into a renewed emphasis on the production and dissemination of traditional Chinese culture, both at home and abroad. Earlier this year, officials in Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu named Li an official ambassador of China’s intangible cultural heritage — a broad category that includes everything from woodcarving and traditional music to certain uses of the abacus. Not long afterward, there was a marked jump in the number of her videos featuring traditional Chinese handicrafts like Sichuanese embroidery, woodblock printing, and calligraphy tools.

But all her official titles and endorsement deals would mean little if her content didn’t resonate with viewers. Traditional culture has enjoyed a groundswell of popularity in recent years, as China’s emerging middle class celebrates their country’s heritage through fan clubs devoted to ancient hanfu styles of dress; guoxue, an umbrella term for the study of Chinese civilization and culture; and traditional academies where their children can learn Confucian values.

Viewed in this light, Li’s popularity at home can be partly attributed to how she portrays Chinese culture and “Chineseness” as increasing numbers of Chinese have come to see it: something beautiful, elegant, and timeless. The fact that her portrayal of China has been so well-received abroad only adds to her mystique.

Other fans appreciate Li for her wholehearted embrace of rural life, or at least the rural aesthetic. British sociologists coined the term “rural gentrification” in the 1980s, originally to describe the phenomenon of rich urban or suburban residents seeking to escape the social pressures of modern life by idealizing and eventually relocating to the countryside. In essence, rural gentrifiers sought to commodify rural life by using their purchasing power to buy rusticity.

Pictures of  “Little Bro in Western Yunnan.”  From @滇西小哥 on Weibo

Pictures of “Little Bro in Western Yunnan.” From @滇西小哥 on Weibo

Unlike her competitors on the more rough-and-tumble streaming platform Kuaishou, Li and similar rural lifestyle vloggers like “Little Bro in Western Yunnan” offer their viewers a highly idealized, gentrified vision. After sanding off the rough edges of rural life, including the poor hygiene, the backbreaking — and not particularly aesthetic — nature of farm work, and the endless plague of mosquitos, snakes, rats, and other pests, they package what’s left into approachable, beautiful, and not-too-long audio-visual treats for urbanites to consume. In other words, technology lets netizens live out their gentrified rural fantasies from the comfort of their own homes.

If Li’s fans are deluded, it’s because they crave illusion, not because Li played a trick on them.

That’s why it makes little sense to look at Li’s work through the lens of authenticity. Her fans repeatedly use words like “decompress,” “cure” and “comfort” when commenting on her videos. If she showed the truth of life in the countryside, her productions would instantly lose their restorative effect. Li’s fans want to escape their problems into a “Peach Blossom Spring”-like fantasy, not confront the even greater challenges facing their country’s largely impoverished hinterland.

If Li’s fans are deluded, it’s because they crave illusion, not because Li played a trick on them. “As an urbanite, Li Ziqi satisfies my imagination of pastoral life,” wrote one Weibo user. “Anyone who’s interested in the real countryside can go watch the (state-owned) Agricultural Channel.”

Interestingly, after Li Ziqi became popular abroad, an account appeared on Weibo that translated overseas viewers’ comments regarding Li, especially those praising her. Scrolling through past posts, it’s clear that seeing non-Chinese respond positively to their idol stimulates netizens’ cultural confidence and strengthens their pride in their national identity. Perhaps they also feel a sense of relief — it’s proof they aren’t the only ones who need a break.

Han Li, an associate professor of Chinese at Rhodes College in the United States, contributed to this article.

Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Screenshots from Li Ziqi’s videos. From Bilibili and Li’s online store)