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    Can Rural Vloggers Make China’s Countryside Cool?

    Rural vloggers are breaking out of the highly curated Li Ziqi mould to show the countryside as it really looks. Audiences are responding.

    Her feet sinking into the muddy field, thirty-something Bamei bends over and nimbly plants a handful of seedlings. A few feet away, her husband captures the entire process on an old iPhone. Once the film is edited, the couple will upload it for their more than 700,000 followers on streaming platforms like Xigua Video and Douyin, the version of TikTok accessible on the Chinese mainland.

    Unlike some of China’s earliest and best-known rural vloggers, including Li Ziqi and Dianxi Xiaoge, Bamei’s videos depict the countryside as a land of hard, unglamorous, yet fulfilling work. Gone are the elegant traditional attire and gracefully choreographed shots of artisanal agriculture; no professional video team helps shoot or edit their work. This is rural China as hundreds of millions of Chinese experience it every day.

    Vlogging is big business in China, providing full- or part-time employment to more than 100 million people. Videos depicting rural life have been popular for years, from the “Jackass”-style antics of farmers on short-video platform Kuaishou to Li Ziqi’s highly curated and YouTube-friendly rural fantasies. But with Li Ziqi still on prolonged hiatus after a dispute with her agency and many of the more rough-and-tumble creators suspended for antics deemed too “crass” for public consumption, space has opened up for clips, like Bamei’s, that showcase the quotidian rituals of countryside life, from taking in the harvest to the everyday goings-on in a village.

    Driving the boom in countryside content is a large and growing community of rural vloggers. Kuaishou claims it gave more than 1 million “short video and livestreaming” trainings to rural creators in 2022 alone. Many of these rural vloggers are recent returnees, back in the countryside after years spent working or going to school in the cities. And while vlogging is often portrayed as an informal and highly contingent industry with questionable long-term prospects, for the rural Chinese I interviewed, it actually offers a degree of stability otherwise missing from their lives.

    Xiucai is a vlogger based in the central Chinese province of Hubei. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I am referring to them by their screen names.) After dropping out of school at 14, he followed the same path as many of his friends and relatives and got a job at an electronics store in Inner Mongolia, just as e-commerce was wiping out brick-and-mortar retail across the country.

    Unable to make a living, Xiucai quit and went to northeastern China in search of construction work. Xiucai’s wife recalls their time in the northeast as trying. “It was tough constructing mud racks with him in the northeast, and our living conditions were terrible,” she said. Confronted with a tough job market and tired of having his wages stolen by unscrupulous bosses, Xiucai finally returned home, seven years after he first left. Shutting himself up in his house, he began making humorous videos about regional accents for WeChat and Douyin. Eventually, his account took off and he began earning ad revenue and donations from fans.

    Most of China’s rural video bloggers have spent at least some time adrift in the country’s cities. China’s “floating population” of rural migrants is concentrated in the traditional manufacturing and service industries, which are characterized by unstable employment and living conditions. To a certain extent, the rise of livestreaming has opened up new options for members of this group. Returning home used to mean abandoning any hope of a career other than farming. Now, the new media economy has enabled young rural Chinese to build an online audience without having to leave the countryside.

    While migrants often complain about a lack of belonging in their new homes, the rural vloggers I interviewed said they had rediscovered a sense of community in the process of producing content. Unlike the early days of the online video industry, which were dominated by young urban viewers looking for escapist fantasies, nearly half of China’s rural vlogging audience is middle-aged, according to a 2022 report. Most of them have lived in rural places and derive emotional resonance from videos about life in the countryside. To succeed, vloggers’ content must be rooted in a sense of place; it should highlight the real life and local characteristics of their homes.

    This means that, unlike cosmetics, shopping, or e-sports vloggers, rural vloggers depend on local communities to build their brands. For instance, village ongoings are an indispensable source of topics for their streams. During my fieldwork, I often saw livestreamers pulling villagers in front of the camera or turning a leisurely gathering into a livestream. Those local relationships not only enhance the liveliness of videos; they also lower the cost of production.

    Rural vloggers face many of the same struggles that plague the rest of the industry: lack of job security, inconsistent traffic, and the challenge of long-term growth. In an increasingly competitive content market, and with platform revenues falling, even successful internet celebrities cannot guarantee long-term success. One livestreamer, LG, lamented in an interview: “Viral celebrity isn’t real. Until it makes money, it doesn’t actually mean anything.”

    Compared to other content creators, however, rural vloggers do possess one key advantage: policy support. China’s emphasis on “rural revitalization” and developing the countryside allows vloggers to align their content with state priorities. A number of accounts have rebranded themselves, not as internet celebrities, but as “new farmers” contributing to the reconstruction of rural China.

    In the process, vloggers are creating an image of farming that facilitates the dissemination of state-sponsored narratives about rural life. Many livestreamers have even taken on roles as spokespersons for their hometowns, promoting local products and tourism attractions in videos produced by local governments.

    Such arrangements offer a sense of stability that these onetime migrants prize. Even though the long-term sustainability of the industry remains an open question, rural vloggers’ videos are already changing the Chinese public’s imagination of the countryside, breaking through the clutter to depict a richer, more diverse rural China.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Cai Yiwen; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: Bamei at work. From Xigua Video)