Since she began posting rustic-chic videos of her life in rural Sichuan province in 2016, Li Ziqi, 29, has become one of China’s biggest social media stars. She has 22 million followers on the microblogging site Weibo, 34 million on Douyin (China’s version of TikTok) and another 8.3 million on YouTube (Li has been active on YouTube for the last two years, despite it being officially blocked in China).
Li’s videos – which she initially produced by herself and now makes with a small team – emphasize beautiful countryside and ancient tradition. In videos soundtracked by tranquil flute music, Li crafts her own furniture out of bamboo and dyes her clothing with fruit skins. If she wants soy sauce, she grows the soybeans themselves; a video about making an egg yolk dish starts with her hatching ducklings. The meals she creates are often elaborate demonstrations of how many delicious things can be done with a particular seasonal ingredient, like ginger or green plums.
There is even a Li Ziqi online shop, where fans can purchase versions of the steel “chopper” knife she uses to dice the vegetables she plucks from her plentiful garden, or replicas of the old-fashioned shirts she wears while foraging for wild mushrooms and magnolia blossoms in the misty mountainside.
While she occasionally reveals a behind-the-scenes peek at her process, Li – who did not respond to interview requests for this article – is very private. By all accounts, she struggled to find steady work in a city before returning to the countryside to care for her ailing grandmother (who appears in her videos).
Recently, Li has been thrust into a wider spotlight by the Chinese government, who seem to have realized her soft power potential. In 2018, the Communist party of China named her a “good young netizen” and role model for Chinese youth. In September 2019, the People’s Daily, a CPC mouthpiece, gave Li their “People’s Choice” award, while last month, state media praised Li for helping to promote traditional culture globally, and the Communist Youth League named her an ambassador of a program promoting the economic empowerment of rural youth.
As the government increasingly champions her, Chinese citizens have taken to Weibo to question whether Li’s polished, rather one-dimensional portrayal of farm work conveys anything truly meaningful about contemporary China – especially to her growing international audience on YouTube.
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