Extreme Drinking Challenges Kill Yet Another Livestreamer in China
From a green-tinged mud brick home on the outskirts of Sanmenxia in Henan province, 26-year-old Huang Zhongyuan put on an unusual live show for his followers. He swilled vinegar straight from the bottle, bit into limes, and gnawed on fiery chili peppers, all without the faintest hint of a grimace.
And that was only his warm-up routine. For his main performance, Huang joined other livestreamers in drinking to the point of oblivion.
He earned his income through cash gifts from followers. But behind the camera, his loved ones were at their wits’ end. Over the past few years, every time he finished a livestream, he was so drunk that his family had to carry him back to his room. Some of his followers recall that halfway through one of his streams, his grandmother suddenly appeared on screen and sobbed as she implored him to change his ways.
His family’s begging fell on deaf ears as Huang grew more gaunt and frail day by day. Anyone could see that disaster was imminent, yet no one could put an end to his self-destruction, which eventually ended in his death in the early hours of June 2 after he consumed 10 bottles of alcohol in a single livestream.
One down after another
Huang’s death came only two weeks after his friend, a fellow binge-drinking livestreamer known as “Bro3000” on social media, died on camera. In the early morning of May 17, he died at his friend’s home after a livestreaming drinking contest in which he had lost three of four rounds.
Competitive drinking, or “battling” as livestreamers like Huang and Bro3000 call it, is a common tactic to ramp up views on social media platforms and to encourage followers to hand out as many cash gifts as possible, and whoever receives the most gifts wins. To raise the stakes, the loser needs to drink as a forfeit. After losing in a drinking battle, Bro3000 drank four bottles of baijiu, a traditional Chinese liquor, and three bottles of Red Bull. Later that night, he was found dead by his family.
Huang’s wife, Li Hong, had long shown disapproval of the livestreaming activities of her husband’s friend. She once urged Bro3000 to cut down on his livestreaming, but he said, “We’re gonna drink anyway, might as well win a few competitions doing it. Otherwise, how else are we going to make money?”
A friend of Huang and Bro3000 recalled that when the pair met in late February, Bro3000 urged Huang to go back to drinking battles and earn more money, but Huang worried that his account would be suspended by the video platform, as others had experienced for creating such content.
Huang had quit competitive drinking for a while thanks to his wife’s continued pleas, but he eventually went back to it and restarted streaming every day. News of the deaths of a few fellow streamers from excessive drinking last year did not seem to have deterred him.
Little did he know he would soon follow in their footsteps.
In the evening of June 1, Li came home from a visit to the hospital with their son and fell asleep, instead of getting up multiple times to check on her husband as she usually would. By 9:35 p.m., Huang had been streaming on video platform Kuaishou for 45 minutes, during which he consumed different bottles of what was believed to be alcohol, though it wasn’t specified in order to comply with the platform’s rules.
Around 3:40 a.m., Li woke up to check on her husband, only to find his stiff body lying on the floor. There were nine bottles of beer and half a liter of baijiu on the table, with music playing in the background.
A “madman” with a gentle soul
Huang would never back down from his forfeits after losing a round in the battle, Li said, adding that “he would drink anything, even if it were poison.”
Huang had uploaded a lot of short videos showing him performing all kinds of stomach-churning gastronomic feats, such as eating a whole canned herring in one mouthful, completely downing a full glass of vodka, or putting tiny live fish in beer and gulping them down.
These daredevil acts, however, did not make people think of him as a cold-blooded brute.
Some of his followers said they liked Huang because he was a good sport. He would always accept defeat in battles with composure, never lashing out at his opponent.
Off camera, this “madman” would not even raise his voice to his loved ones. The most daring thing he did was to run through muddy ditches instead of walking on paved roads, according to villagers he grew up with.
After moving to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, for a diploma in fine arts, he dropped out after the first year. His father, who made a humble living through bricklaying and whitewashing walls in nearby villages, had been supporting him financially, meanwhile insisting that his son earn a living through manual labor, which Huang outright refused. According to his grandmother, the father and son never reconciled, and Huang remained rebellious, acting against his father’s will.
Huang gradually turned to a different way of earning a living: livestreaming himself eating food in front of the camera instead of eating with his family.
He became one of the early content creators who rose to fame on Kuaishou, the second most popular short video platform in China after Douyin, China’s own version of TikTok. Thousands of people would watch his streams, showering him with gifts, with the biggest one worth as much as 3,000 yuan ($417). At the peak of his popularity, he had more than 700,000 followers. Even after his account had been suspended several times, he still had over 100,000 followers.
In the ring
It was 2018 when Huang began to try his luck on Kuaishou, posting videos of birds and donkeys, according to Li, who had met her husband that year. None of these videos created much sensation online.
A few months later, he created a viral video called “Crotch on Fire” by chance, in which he attempted to disprove allegations that the baijiu he drank on camera was fake by pouring some on a napkin and setting it alight — except, in the process, he accidentally set his crotch aflame and frantically ran around trying to put it out. This video gained a lot of views, which convinced him that livestreaming himself drinking would turn his channel profitable.
Scrawled across the walls of his streaming room were slogans championing money above all else, with one reading, “I don’t eat, I don’t drink, I only need money.” Ironically, when he died, his family was left without any money. Most of the money Huang made through livestreaming would be spent on painting tools for his hobby. Part of it also went toward the new house he built for his grandmother last year.
Li said Huang’s followers generally would not pressure him to drink unless he was in a battle. However, he would play humble to let himself feel worthy of their trust. “He’d thank people even for gifts that were worth just 10 yuan; if he was drinking, he’d take a mouthful for every gift he got,” she added.
Since 2020, several livestreaming platforms have begun to crack down on binge-drinking content creators. As fewer people were interested in watching drinking battles, Huang began streaming using a different account and he lost viewers over time. Nonetheless, he was unwilling to quit, but he never asked his followers for financial support.
Following his death, many remember Huang as a livestreamer who never begged for extravagant gifts, which was unusual among influencers in China. Instead, he wanted people to support him within their means.
In 2020, when Huang was still quite popular, he would show great leniency toward his collaborators. When they lost in battles, Huang would not insist on punishing them. “Up to you,” he said to his opponents.
Between die-hard streamers, it doesn’t take long before battles are pushed to extremes. A fellow influencer and Huang’s friend, Crazy Dragon, said losers only had to drink beer in the beginning. Over time, they switched to baijiu, vinegar, cooking wine, and even raw eggs. These battles could either bolster or break the “tough guy” image that content creators build up through their videos. But either way, they are bound to garner views. To create this persona, Crazy Dragon deliberately strains his vocal cords to give himself a huskier voice.
Very often, streamers come across “haters” who try to provoke them with vicious comments. While Crazy Dragon tried not to take these comments personally, Huang may have cared a bit more. For some time, it was popular to punish losers in those battles by making them drink vinegar. Huang did not like this, because if someone claimed that the drink was not vinegar, he would have no way to prove the person wrong. Baijiu, on the other hand, could easily be set alight.
While Huang’s ability to hold his liquor had earned him followers, some were simply drawn by his personality. Calling him “Brother Huang,” Wang Chen admired Huang’s integrity despite his humble upbringing. He explained that when many influencers would stop at nothing to get ahead, Huang never pressured his followers to spend their money on him.
At times, Huang’s followers would even tell him to drink less. But once the drinking battle started, they would encourage him to go all out. Li would have to haul him back to their bedroom upstairs. Often, it was not her husband who would hurt himself when he got blackout drunk, but her by falling to her knees, bumping into walls, and tumbling down the stairs while bearing his weight. She believes that her husband chose to drink like this because there was not much else he could do instead, and it was all his followers wanted to see.
After Huang died, social media platform operators WeChat and Kuaishou closed his account, cutting off his family’s access to the revenue generated on the platforms. “It turns out that my husband was working for the platform,” she said. She’s currently seeking legal advice on retrieving the income that he “exchanged his life for.”
After both of his friends died, Crazy Dragon quit drinking. When he began streaming, he just repeated what other streamers did without understanding why anyone would enjoy watching other people drink.
“But now I kind of get it,” he said. “These viewers don’t have any other outlets in their life for venting pressure.” The desire to watch people making a spectacle of themselves is reminiscent of people who used to squat down and share rumours, as some viewers told him.
Li said most viewers sent gifts because they “saw how hard it was for Huang” and wanted to support him, while others gave gifts because they wanted to see the opponent’s forfeit.
Although Huang devoted his life to livestreaming, Li cannot recall a moment when her husband seemed satisfied with himself after a livestream session. To her, it always seemed as though he never enjoyed being watched. His happiest moment was when they travelled as a family and a subway worker recognized him.
Eight days after Huang’s death, his childhood friend Liu Hua told the media that he and Huang were once thick as thieves. He saw that Huang had a “wild streak” in him and he would not be comfortable working a conventional office job.
He didn’t enjoy watching Huang’s livestreams and had urged him to drink less. And yet he felt uneasy telling him this, as he had no viable alternative to offer Huang.
When asked what Huang’s dream was as a kid, Liu said, “He didn’t have any. Boys just dream of making money.”
“As children of peasants, we just want to earn a living. By doing that he destroyed his body. It was as simple as that.”
Reported by Ge Mingning, Fang Siwen, and Zhou Yufan.
(Li Hong, Wang Chen, and Liu Hua are pseudonyms.)
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Ni and Elise Mak.
(Header image: Bentchang/VectorStock/VCG)