Last year, amid the clamor and horror of a plague, a quiet, resourceful farmer in China’s southwestern countryside seemed to heal all wounds. Does Li Ziqi still require an introduction? Her videos — mostly wordless, meditative glimpses of an idealized pastoral, rural life — have billions of views on Tiktok and Youtube, making her one of a handful of Chinese influencers to achieve global fame.
Li’s videos and elusive public personality seem to invite speculation: Is any of this unedited, unscripted, authentic, or real? The short answer is no; the longer answer is that you’re not asking the right questions. Some describe her as a Disney princess for the streaming era, but this is a mistake. It is rather the Disney princesses who resemble her: She is not a realist, but a Romantic.
Romanticism was born with its head in the clouds, as can be seen from Caspar David Friedrich’s emblematic 1818 painting “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” At its core, romanticism was an artistic movement that arose in reaction to the industrialization and excessive rationalization of early 19th century life. The Romantics saw the natural world as full of enchantment rather than resources; they proposed nature, emotion, and solitude as antidotes to pollution, contagion, and death. It’s no wonder that the 21st century revival of Romanticism has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change: We’re trying to appease nature by watching more of it.
Left: A screenshot from Li Ziqi’s video “Weave a Lamb Wool Cape for the Freezing Winter.” From Li Ziqi’s Youtube channel; Right: Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog,” 1818. From Cybershot800i/Wikimedia Commons
What makes Li’s videos so compelling is their utter lack of mosquitos. In her videos, nature is everything but abrasive: It is generous, pristine, wondrous, and occasionally even saccharine. I recently met someone who claimed to be from a village near Li’s, in northern Sichuan, and asked him whether his home was really that gorgeous. “Her videos are 70% real,” he replied, smiling as if in on a secret. The way nature is framed, enhanced, and gentrified in Li’s videos has something cultish about it, which itself is another byword for Romanticism: The sensual is absorbed into the spiritual, producing desire while satisfying it at the same time. Watching her videos, we feel good about ourselves for being so in touch with nature without ever having to get our hands dirty.
And how resourceful our guide is! Li always has everything under control, from her cabbages and cured meats to the cycles of the moon and sun, as showcased in stunning time-lapses which render nature ever more idyllic. The vagaries of a night sky or the growth of a mushroom are compressed to meet the duration of our attention spans. Is Li out of baskets? No problem, she can make a new one herself. And now we, who are barely capable of changing a flat tire, can envision ourselves digging ditches and learning how to compost, building cabins out of trees, and making shampoo out of cucumbers. And we’ll do it all while looking unblemished — after all, it’s hard nowadays to turn our filters off, even in our fantasies.
Romanticism, whether Friedrich’s sea of fog or Li’s celestial time-lapses, is always careful to provide us with just enough glimpses of dystopia to making imagining a better future enjoyable. We dream, not of addressing the systemic challenges of our society — which would require collective action — but about starting over from zero, which would only require ourselves and, ideally, a trove of YouTube tutorials. It is telling of our current stage of capitalism that starting over seems like the more viable choice.
In her videos, Li looks content — happy, even. This is also a simulacrum. Whatever she actually feels or thinks is beside the point. What matters is what we see through her eyes, how we project ourselves onto her. Li looks content because she is not alienated. We, on the other hand, are, and therein lies the secret to Li’s billions of views. What we consume when we watch Li’s immaculate videos, is a bit of Karl Marx, whose doctrine is, if not perfectly Romantic, at least Romantic-adjacent. If nothing else, Marx always stressed that human labor is a force of nature. Li sows, tends, harvests, cooks, and eats her own food; she raises, shepherds, and shears her own sheep.
Li Ziqi (right) and her grandmother. From @李子柒 on Weibo
Work and nature are not separate domains in her world, at least while the cameras are rolling: She has started over from scratch, and now she is in direct control of her own means of production. Unable to accept how dignified and in control of her life Li seems to be, we jump to the same old accusatory question: Is she real? By which we mean: how many people are working for her behind the scenes? Even our criticism of Li is Marxian: Deep down, we are inquiring about surplus value.
Humans like to watch. The German philosopher Niklas Luhmann termed this phenomenon “second-order observation”: We enjoy watching ourselves engaged in the act of watching the world. As one of the great artists of the early 21st century, Li has perfected this form of voyeurism by making herself a blank slate: Her immaculate and majestic outfits, simultaneously fashionable and incongruous, and her elusive off-camera persona make it not only possible, but also gratifying, to project ourselves onto her.
To maintain this exquisitely Romantic setting, Li makes sure that traces of modern technology seldom enter the frame. They may be implied, but are rarely shown, which makes the YouTube ad intrusions even more jarring: we are reminded, for five to fifteen seconds at a time, that this experience of nature is highly mediated.
Li has a 2019 video endearingly named “When You Missed the Good Time to Dig Wild Vegetables, You Also Missed This Spring.” (It’s a clumsy title that can only come from a pure heart — or an online translation service). In it, Li does something quite unexpected around the three-minute mark: She breaks the fourth wall and looks straight into the camera for a whole second as she readies herself to get out of bed. In trying to feign drowsiness, Li’s gaze comes across as weary, anxious, even. That is perhaps what sets Li apart from Caspar David Friedrich and the early Romantics: She knows too much, we know too much, YouTube knows too much, and this is precisely what makes us dream of starting over. We are anxious with awareness, accursed with algorithm.
Anxiety is a hard thing to quantify, but I’d venture we are much more anxious now than Friedrich’s wanderer ever was 200 years ago, if not for the sheer fact that we now possess more vocabulary to express and be made responsible for it. By gazing straight into the camera, and, by extension, into our monetized souls, Li lets us to know that she knows that we know. She then gets out of bed, washes her hands, and proceeds to reassure us all will be fine with a fresh batch of dumplings. This is how every Li Ziqi video ends, with a pleasant meal served, or a beautiful piece of clothing finished. Her videos soothe our troubled realities by offering us both closure and an opening: the promise of starting over again, tomorrow, for who only ever eats once?
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A screenshot from Li Ziqi’s video “Make a peach blossom crown with silk flowers.” From Li Ziqi’s Youtube channel)