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    Sister Yu: The Wonder Woman of Northeast China

    Online influencer Sister Yu has earned millions of fans for her videos highlighting the charming yet harsh reality of a female farmer’s life in China.

    As social media stars go, Sister Yu breaks the mold in more ways than one.

    While the internet is well stocked with content showcasing lofty and idyllic visions of the Chinese countryside, this 45-year-old farmer from northeast China has earned more than 10 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, for her brash, no-frills approach.

    To die-hard fans, Sister Yu is a wonder woman who defies traditional gender stereotypes. Various videos show her chopping thick logs into piles of firewood, balancing pails of water on her shoulders, slicing marinated mustard plants at phenomenal speeds, and — in one particularly memorable scene — forcefully kicking open a flimsy wooden door and slamming an aluminium bowl on her kitchen countertop to announce the start of a new day.

    She also is seen helping her family stockpile food for the winter, which is common in rural areas with harsh weather conditions, although the quantities in her stores would likely dumbfound most city folk: 250 kilograms of potatoes, bunch upon bunch of green onions, 200 kg of cabbage, and bags filled to the brim with mustard greens and radishes. Some followers speculated that if the apocalypse were to arrive, she’d have enough supplies to last a decade.

    Sister Yu, who lives in Benxi Manchu Autonomous County, Liaoning province, is especially popular among people from her native northeast, known in Chinese as dongbei. According to comments under her videos, the sight of her making local delicacies, such as potato fritters cooked in shrimp paste, dumplings stuffed with marinated vegetables, jerked grunions, and stewed pork ribs with green beans, is enough to bring some of them to tears.

    To many of her viewers, Sister Yu provides a much-needed antidote to the sometimes vapid, middle-class influencers found on social media. Compared with seaside villas, Lululemon leggings, and blueberry smoothies, they say, her unpretentious appearance and approach strike them as far more worthy.

    In the early morning, as the rooster crows, Sister Yu leaps from her heated brick bed, throws on a padded jacket and pants, puts the kettle on, and scrubs her face with soap. She then gives her pots a good wash and starts to make rice porridge for breakfast. She takes out pickled vegetables from a ceramic jar and fries them in a wok, and prepares dough and stuffing to make meat pancakes. By this point, her husband is still comfortably tucked up in bed.

    Those unfamiliar with China’s northeast region might be taken aback by many of the scenes in Sister Yu’s videos. For instance, for Lunar New Year in January, she slaughtered a pig for a traditional roast — a significant occasion, given that one pig can cost as much as 3,000 yuan ($420). From catching the pig and transporting it home, to dehairing and butchering its carcass, she was involved in every step. Few men could match the ease with which she pinned this fully grown animal to the ground.

    In another video, Sister Yu shows off her outdoor freezer: a row of ceramic, open-top vats overflowing with seafood, pork, seaweed, pickled vegetables, and baked pancakes, as well as frozen pears and persimmons, two of the region’s quintessential desserts. Nestled in the knee-high snow, a common feature of the dongbei winter, this food will be safely stored until next spring.

    Family dynamic

    Although she has enjoyed a loyal local following for some time, Sister Yu only began receiving national attention about a year ago. Her big break was a three-minute viral clip in which she cuts her own hair, using scissors and electric shears, and then gives her husband a pampering shampoo and trim.

    Inverted gender roles are a focal point of her videos. She refers to her husband as “Laokuai,” an affectionate term in the local dialect typically used by a man to address his wife. Laokuai is at least two heads shorter than Sister Yu and, by all accounts, lets his wife take the lead in most things: When the couple does farm work, she will pull the cart while he sits inside with the grain; and as she washes and stir-fries vegetables, he plays with their cat on the bed. Some have commented that they seem more like mother and son than husband and wife.

    However, considering that Chinese society remains largely traditional, particularly in rural towns and villages, it is interesting that there is hardly any discussion of gender roles in the comments under Sister Yu’s videos — almost as if, thanks to her unique charm, these issues become irrelevant. Even when she’s seen tending to farm work alone while Laokuai relaxes indoors, most viewers’ key takeaway appears to be the couple’s positive attitude toward life, not the roles they play in the home.

    Sister Yu’s fans are intimately familiar with her backstory. Her father is said to have died when she was just 3 years old, and her mother remarried when she was 9 to a younger man who didn’t want children in his home. Sister Yu was instead sent to live with her grandparents, where she led a lonely existence until she met Laokuai, with whom, she says, she experienced true affection for the first time.

    Before becoming an online celebrity, Sister Yu used to make a living growing hazelnuts, one of the region’s main crops. She would make videos on the side, though they never got many views. Her early content had poor image quality and mostly copied the videos of other successful rural vloggers, showing little of Sister Yu’s own experience. Later, as the couple’s circumstances improved, she and her husband opened a farm guesthouse, and they continued to make videos to promote their new business.

    Today, Sister Yu’s productions are far more sophisticated, featuring not only complex cinematography — action shots captured at high speed and slowed down, as well as from multiple camera angles — but also carefully crafted characters and plots. She employs a team of “apprentices” who have traveled from all over northeast China for a chance to work with her. They play various roles on camera, often standing in the background to help hawk different products.

    And as her influence has increased, Sister Yu has tried to use her fame to support local farms. Virtually all of the products she sells on her livestreams — such as corn, honey fungus, black tree ear fungus, and handmade rice noodles — are locally sourced. One farmer recently released a video on Douyin to thank her for helping his village sell 8,000 ears of corn without asking for a single yuan in return.

    Powering up

    Experts suggest that the advent of short-video platforms has offered women in rural China, like Sister Yu, a kind of virtual empowerment. Often, in a bid for popularity, female vloggers from the countryside will cater to mainstream society’s view of traditional femininity, presenting themselves as hardworking, self-sacrificing, and virtuous. Through a combination of short videos, livestreaming, and e-commerce, they can significantly increase their buying power, which in turn gives them greater authority in the home.

    In a recent research report on social media’s impact on rural female empowerment, sociologists Wei Xiaojiang and Huang Yujing, from Renmin University of China in Beijing, divided content uploaded by rural women to the Chinese short-video platform Kuaishou into three broad categories.

    The first category is content focusing on labor, to showcase the creator’s diligence, down-to-earth nature, compassion, and competence. This accounted for 40% of all the content analyzed, and catered to mainstream expectations of rural female behaviour, the research report says. The second category is revealing content (33.85%), which toys with viewers’ desires and fosters parasocial relationships, and the third is self-deprecating or self-depreciating content (8.62%), in which vloggers send themselves up “to satisfy viewers’ morbid curiosity.” The remaining 17.53% comprised recordings of monologues, scenery, and children.

    According to data from iiMedia Research on Chinese netizens’ online shopping preferences, 61% consume region-specific agricultural produce, providing a golden business opportunity for rural vloggers. However, it’s far from a get-rich-quick scheme. Even if a content creator’s labor and skills translate into online success, they can have trouble earning the respect of their families and village neighbors. And if viewing figures begin to dwindle, they could face accusations of not doing “an honest day’s work.”

    Social media has opened the gig economy to rural women, allowing them to envisage possibilities other than those they have traditionally been afforded. But the hope of a different life can be quickly snuffed out by their more conservative peers.

    Videos released by Sister Yu and other rural women often receive comments such as “Marrying you would be the equivalent of several lifetimes of good fortune.” They conform to the most positive stereotypes about women among some sections of society: Filial daughters, dutiful housewives, and caring mothers preparing tables of delicious food after toiling in the fields until their arms are thick with muscles and their faces are crimson from the sun.

    We only see the most fortunate among them. For every Sister Yu, there are countless others who will never achieve the same success, working away silently far from the glare of the camera.

    Reported by Huanggua Qishui

    A version of this article originally appeared in Huxiu4youth, a platform focusing on youth culture in China. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Visuals from @东北雨姐 on Douyin)