China’s Real-Life Lo-Fi Girls
Welcome to WWW: What We're Watching, Sixth Tone's new column looking at the best, the most viral, or just what's obsessing us on the Chinese internet.
It is 10 o’clock at night as I stare at my computer screen, trying to write this article in my otherwise empty seventh-floor apartment in Shanghai. I am not totally alone, however. Just to the left of my word processing program there are 29 other people working or studying at their own desks, connected to me via the Tencent Meeting app. I watch as one of them, a woman who goes by the alias Cheng, copies keywords from a thick book onto her iPad in preparation for an exam, locked in silent concentration. We’ve never met and never will, but in this moment we have two things in common: We both need to get something done, and we both work better with company.
Welcome to the soothing world of “online self-study rooms.” The roots of the name are instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up attending Chinese schools, where students are expected to report to their classroom before and after school for hours of monitored “self-study” every day. These sessions are, if not universally beloved, accepted and occasionally even appreciated. The silent accountability that comes from quietly studying with your classmates tends to focus your attention like nothing else.
The pandemic repeatedly disrupted in-person instruction — and in-person study halls — in much of China. Office workers, too, have had to adjust to working from home or under lockdown. Neither Chinese dorms nor apartments are known for being spacious or quiet, and making room to study or work under these conditions isn’t easy. Even if you do succeed, it’s easy to let your mind drift without an office- or desk-mate to keep you honest as you study or work into the night.
That’s where online study rooms come in. Far from a Chinese-only phenomenon, they range from YouTube channels devoted to “lo-fi hip hop” and “study with me” vlogs to livestreams of people doing their homework. Chinese streaming platform Bilibili has an entire section devoted to “study,” with the most popular study room streaming accounts boasting upward of 150,000 subscribers.
Some of these videos have impressive production values, but more typical is one the social media platform Xiaohongshu recommended to me at 5 a.m. on a recent Wednesday. Shot over a standard background, it featured a woman silently studying for a legal exam. Underneath, the title gave some insight into her life — or at least her online persona: “Working mom with one kid, studying every day for 2 hours before work to prep for the Legal Professionals Exam - Day 103.” One of the few “bullet screen” comments scrolling over the video read like a self-affirmation: “Morning! Day 56 for the post-graduate entrance exam. Punching in.”
These videos are a way for people to keep themselves honest — each one functions as tangible proof of their commitment to studying. Others promise viewers immersion. Organized as livestreams, they put you in same time and virtual space as your fellow students or workers. Best of all, they occupy your entire smartphone screen. You can’t minimize the window to check your messages without cutting off the stream.
The standard online study room livestream looks pretty much how you’d expect: a messy collection of 30 video thumbnail windows under a catchy slogan like “stop browsing, come study” or “rat race study center.” Some have countdown timers to various entrance exams displayed to one side. In each thumbnail window, a participant films themselves studying or working. Some show their faces; others film their notebooks or screens. Those taking a break redirect their cameras to a piece of paper explaining the reason for their absence: “Left for lunch, back in 30 minutes.”
I was immediately obsessed. Looking for a way to join, I found a comment redirecting me to a WeChat official account where I paid six yuan ($0.86) for a QR code that got me into the study chat group. There, I received a link and password to a Tencent Meeting room (think Zoom). Finally, I had my hall pass into the ranks of online students.
What did I get for my six yuan? The most obvious benefit was the power of peer pressure. As soon as I joined, I felt a strong urge to conform — to not be the only person on stream goofing off. I didn’t need to know who I was working with or where they were, only that we were all bound by a common purpose.
The WeChat group, which had over 100 active members, also contained spreadsheets where users could share their contact info and find study buddies. Of the 167 people who had filled out the form, about one-third were university graduates preparing for the post-graduate entrance exam, one-third were university students prepping for the same exam or just doing their coursework, and one-third were high school students getting ready for the university entrance exam. There were also 10 middle school students, and 5 others who said they were preparing for the civil service entrance exam.
The list is how I found Cheng. Her real name is Xu Xiaoqian, and she’s a young college graduate in the eastern city of Wenzhou who recently resigned from her job and is preparing for the upcoming postgraduate entrance exam.
Cheng started using the online study room service in October. She says she appreciates the communal aspect of the group. “My studying is not only valuable to myself, but also to people on the other side of the screen.”
In addition to the larger group, Cheng joined a smaller study subgroup in which at least 30 out of the 36 members are women, a ratio she attributes to the importance women place on their study environment. “Usually, girls have a stronger preference for a tidy and cozy immersive study vibe,” she says.
For weeks, Cheng punched in and out of her study periods like everyone else, until the day she realized nobody was checking the timestamps. Suddenly, the clarifying feeling of being watched vanished, and she found herself getting distracted. She circled back to the streams after I added her, and we ended up streaming together four days a week, working independently but keeping an eye on each other.
Her exam is scheduled for this week. After that, we’ll likely drift apart. I’ll miss the company, but at least I know another study buddy is just a swipe away.
Editors: Ding Yining and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from VCG and Bilibili user @小红DEARRED, reedited by Sixth Tone)
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