In one video, she hand-dyes a dress with fresh grape juice. In another, she spins yarn from wool from her own sheep and builds her own bed from freshly-cut bamboo. When it comes to food, she relies on natural ingredients from her backyard, ranging from freshly laid duck eggs to perfectly ripe tomatoes.
Li Ziqi is one of the country’s most popular lifestyle influencers, attracting legions of fans with cinematic and largely wordless videos that capture life in rural China. She now has over 22.7 million followers on Sina Weibo and 8.2 million more on YouTube (which is blocked in China), rendering her one of the rare Chinese influencers with global reach.
“Li Ziqi has created short videos that combine idyllic backdrops with food and handicrafts… She has successfully exported a distinct lifestyle brand that incorporates traditional Chinese culture with her ideal rural life,” praised Entertainment Unicorn, a news portal. “She’s already one of the world’s most recognisable influencers. For many Western viewers, she’s more famous than any of China’s biggest A-list celebrities.”
Li grew up in the countryside outside Mianyang, a small town in Sichuan province, before moving at 14 to find a living in the city. She waited on tables and worked at bars. But by her own account, she returned home in 2012 to take care of her ailing grandmother. In 2016, she started publishing her videos, which often capture her at work on her farm – although seemingly never breaking sweat.
In a recent interview with Goldthread, a video site focused on Chinese culture, Li explained that her online content is intended for today’s overworked and overcrowded, urban middle-class. “In today’s society, many people feel stressed. They face a lot of pressure in life and at work,” she lamented in the interview. “So when they watch my videos at the end of a busy day, I want them to relax and experience something nice, to take away some of their anxiety and stress. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Her fans agree. “As an urbanite, Li Ziqi satisfies my imagination of pastoral life,” one netizen wrote. “Watching her videos is like getting a head massage,” added another.
Critics wonder whether Li’s rural idyll is a little too stylised to be real. There have been grumblings that her beautifully shot, gentrified vision of rural life mislead her audience. “I think if she was being a little more honest – that is, admitting that she’s selling us the idea of a utopia and that this is merely her imagined life – I would find her more tolerable. The truth is her videos are not real. It’s like she’s filming a fantasy drama but still insisting that it is authentic,” one netizen opined.“The life she depicts in her videos isn’t real; she’s manufacturing an illusion,” echoed another. “Not even Li Ziqi is living the life that she wants you to think she is.”
What makes Li so successful is that she has figured out how to stand out in such a crowded social media landscape. Under her heavily-filtered lens, rural life is calm and tranquil. People sit down to enjoy their food, which doesn’t come packaged but is plucked directly from the yard. There is time for unusual pastimes, like embroidery and carpentry.
“That’s why it makes little sense to look at Li’s work through the lens of authenticity. Her fans repeatedly use words like ‘decompress,’ ‘cure’ and ‘comfort’ when commenting on her videos. If she showed the real truth of life in the countryside, her productions would instantly lose their restorative effect,” mused ThePaper.cn.
Li’s success also results from her formidable work ethic. When she first started posting short videos in 2016, she faced mockery from netizens. A one-woman team back then, Li would set up the tri-pod camera, film the sequences, stop and watch the playback, and then reshoot. A few seconds of footage was the result of several hours of hard work.
“With equipment that cost Rmb20,000 ($2883), I had to go back and forth to press the start and stop button 40,000 times, that’s about 25 steps each time so I walked about 260km. You don’t have to like my content, but I hope you would respect the amount of hard work content creators put into making videos,” she wrote on her weibo back in 2017.
Persistence has paid off. Li made headlines in late December when a blog post that has since gone viral claimed that she made Rmb170 million in 2019. She quickly denied the figure, but her earning power is not to be underestimated. She now runs her own food brand, which includes handcrafted chilli sauce (Rmb32 a jar if you buy it on Tmall) and ginseng honey (Rmb127). Also in the range: salted duck egg yolk sauce (Rmb23.7) and fish roe from local yellow croaker (Rmb197).
“I have watched many of her videos more than once. I don’t see why so many people attack her. If you don’t think she deserves it, maybe you should have a go yourself,” argued one of her fans. “She didn’t steal, she didn’t rob; so what if she made hundreds of millions? She did it with her own two hands and her own ability.”
“Not only did she not break the law, through her videos she has even promoted China’s traditional culture at home and abroad. I don’t understand why so many people are upset that she has made so much money,” another wrote.
ThePaper.cn reckons that Li’s major income comes from sales of her branded food products on Tmall, plus advertising revenue generated from her videos on YouTube. As her channel regularly generates significant traffic (her record was a Chinese New Year feast that clocked 42 million views), annual income from advertising could reach Rmb47 million, the newspaper estimated.
As her popularity has grown, Li ‘s team has expanded to an assistant and a videographer to help her improve the quality of her content. Nevertheless, she insists that what she puts out is distinctly her own. “Since the very beginning, I have always been the director of my videos, from what to film, how to film and how each shot is framed,” Li told Goldthread. “Now I just want to film and focus on my content. Other things don’t affect me as much. I’ll look at these attacks as validation of my work.”
Li’s popularity shows how the best of the online influencers and key opinion leaders are still as popular as ever. Li Jiaqi (they are not related), China’s best-known beauty influencer, reportedly made Rmb200 million in 2019. Earlier this month, he collaborated with Jinzi Ham, selling 100,000 of its spicy sausages in five minutes. The next day, the company saw its share price surge by the 10% limit on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The jump was so sudden that the bourse raised concern about share price manipulation. But influencers have become so pervasive it now appears they even move stock markets.
In the name of research, WiC purchased a jar of chilli sauce from Li Ziqi’s virtual store on Tmall. Her brand costs about three times the price of Laoganma, the country’s most popular hot sauce (see WiC143). Li’s sauce is spicy, to be sure, but it has a subtle sweetness from the peppers. Other ingredients are Tieguanyin tea leaves and pine nuts, which add further flavour and crunch. We found ourselves reaching for more… again and again…
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