By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Not only do Lǐ Zǐqī’s videos offer us the satisfaction of seeing material labor, but they also suggest the impossibility — in the modern world — of genuinely recreating the work of the past.
The Chinese New Year is off to a pretty unorthodox start. The Year of the Pig ended with a pork shortage. The word “home” (家), symbolized by a pig under a roof, carries with it an assumption — wholly modern — that the millions of Chinese who return to their hometowns will be served pork dumplings, a treat the ancients once prized very highly. Then the Year of the Rat began. Not with omens of prosperity, but with a sign that was more akin to the rodent as a Western bearer of pestilence: the Wuhan coronavirus. Travel plans have been disrupted, trips back to school and work postponed. Unnerved by the inauspicious start to the year, with its fears of infection and calls for quarantine, the Chinese have found a way to pass the time that also inspires the spirit … YouTube videos romanticizing an idyllic rural past.
The most popular Chinese YouTube channel in the genre is “李子柒 Liziqi,” with over 1 billion video views and 8.67 million subscribers (nearly a million of them subscribing within the past month). The over 100 videos showcase the handicrafts of Lǐ Zǐqī, a young woman living in her grandmother’s village in Mianyang in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province. The channel details a wide variety of traditional rural skills, from handmade bamboo furniture to mushroom foraging. The videos are mostly between 5 and 10 minutes long, leaning toward the latter in recent months. View counts range from 4 million to 40 million. Lǐ Zǐqī’s format is simple and direct. Few words are spoken; the occasional Chinese that appears on-screen is offset by the English that dominates her video titles. Her aesthetic is romantic: a touching backstory, high production values, cinematic editing, ambient music… to say nothing of the immaculate traditional costume, the perfect makeup, the nonchalant disregard for the camera(s). There is, as well, a degree of rural wealth and abundance which would have put the Russian kulaki to shame. All of this is accompanied by opportunities to buy Lǐ Zǐqī’s merchandise, available through online marketplaces and liziqishop.com.
While a portion of Lǐ Zǐqī”s success may be attributable to a celebration of the traditional past, there’s likely something else at work in the “primitive technology” YouTube trend of which she is a part. Australian John Plant’s “Primitive Technology” channel, with 10 million subscribers, provides an interesting comparison. Peel away Plant’s extremely rare dips into “survivalist” rhetoric (arguably a vestige of settler-colonialism) and what do you have? Something remarkably similar to “李子柒 Liziqi” — minus its sentimentality. Think of the attraction of the Discovery Channel program How It’s Made: entertainment generated through the vicarious satisfaction of watching material labor accomplished. How It’s Made, according to Kate Wagner, “portrays the diverse nature of the working class[,]… offers an encyclopedic knowledge of material labor” and “elevates the status of the everyday through the objects we use and the people who make them.” Seen in that light, Lǐ’s nostalgic additions are intriguingly relevant. For not only do her videos offer us the satisfaction of seeing material labor, but they also suggest the impossibility — in the modern world — of genuinely recreating the work of the past. What we have here is carrot and stick.
Lǐ’s numbers on Chinese-based video platforms Tencent (78k) and Youku (120k) are dwarfed in comparison to her presence on the American platform, despite its having been banned in mainland China. She has 23 million fans on Chinese social media site Weibo, but it is easy to see that her YouTube presence is what is driving her worldwide celebrity. Some of this growth is doubtlessly foreign, perhaps owing to efforts by the government to manipulate content exposure, the likes of which we have already seen. State-owned CGTN quotes Malaysia’s WebTVAsia on Lǐ’s top nations for viewership: “Vietnam, the United States, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines,” adding that the “U.S. accounted for 11 percent of the total number of subscribers.” Her China fan-base, however, almost certainly accounts for a large portion of her viewers on YouTube. Circumvention of the YouTube ban is widespread among Chinese internet users. Given the government’s praise for Lǐ, you could almost argue that in her case it has been implicitly condoned. Why else would her newest video, found in the feeds of 23 million Chinese Weibo fans, have only a fraction of the views that her upload on YouTube does?
In 2018 she was named one of China’s 100 “good young netizens” by the Communist Youth League and the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). She won the People’s Choice Award and Second Prize in September 2019 from the Party-run People’s Daily. But most of what the country’s leadership has had to say about the Lǐ phenomenon frames it as a matter of “methods of spreading influence overseas” and of Chinese culture “going to sea.” Across the board, state and Party media have embraced Lǐ’ as an effective and on-point brand ambassador, both abroad and domestically. More than that, she has become emblematic of the potential for Chinese officialdom to engage with the “influencer economy” that is so much a part of internet celebrity, and which the CAC enthusiastically describes as a change “from selling products to selling trust.” If you think that sounds like something which would make Marx spin in his grave, you’re not alone. As philosopher Slavoj Žižek has opined about Coca-Cola, the internet celebrity economy offers China “not an ordinary commodity, but a commodity whose very peculiar use-value itself is already a direct embodiment of … ineffable surplus.” It’s the pig under the roof of “home,” minus the millennia of etymological history and the satisfaction of real pork.
After the 19th National Congress in 2017, President Xí Jìnpíng has shown a particular concern with the power of culture. The phrase “spreading positive energy” has been repeated recently, and recent studies have indicated that the state is deploying methods to shape online behavior that reflects the spirit of “positivity” and distraction. Accordingly, the Chinese government has wholeheartedly embraced an enabling phenomenon: Internet celebrity training courses. Such seminars have been in existence for years but, with the government’s involvement, “internet celebrity” has been rebranded as a “new media anchor.” Strategies for standardizing and administering that kind of “star” role are accelerating. In 2018, the predecessor of China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT) along with the Communication University of China’s Phoenix School jointly opened a course in Shanghai. This month, Harbin Vocational College of Science and Technology will open enrollment for its own program, approved by the MCT (who will issue the certificates). The CAC describes the purpose of this newest program as improving “the legal awareness and norms of new media anchors” and “strengthening content supervision and standardizing market behavior.”
To borrow a a quote from the CAC, “In essence, the ‘internet influencer economy’ is also the internet’s reflection of the real economy.” Nothing could be truer. It is for this reason that Lǐ Zǐqī’s labors are so captivating. However manipulative the media veneer, people are still fascinated by watching manual labor. Many of us love to look at “what work used to be,” especially when it comes along with suggestions that such labor is rare and becoming rarer. These days, handicrafts have also become cloaked in an idyllic otherworldliness; Chinese city dwellers are feeling increasingly distant from the places where such labor is still prevalent. The realities of industrial, commercial, and managerial life today are much different for them (as they are in rural China, as well). Automation, migration, alienation, time constraints, the division of labor, and other factors are sealing people off from the products of their labor.
Thus the real economy that internet influencers like Lǐ reflect becomes a matter of making consumerism comfortable. For example, Lǐ’s story has gone from from one of a failed urban migrant (anathema to officialdom) to “Ambassador for the Promotion of Chinese Rural Youth to Get Rich.” She is tapping, profitably, into the dreams of the Chinese middle class who are traveling back to the countryside for the New Year. They return to their ancestral lands with the unshakable sense that they have left something valuable behind. They feel derision for the peasants eating bat soup, yet long to learn a recipe or two from some imaginary laborers who are becoming wealthy filming themselves as they cook. The irony is stark: the government cannot guarantee food safety regulations in connection with either the trade in wild animals or rampant industrial adulteration, but it encourages internet inflencers to rubber stamp the fantasies of the middle class. Perhaps the talented and attractive Lǐ might take some time out from her busy day to work that contradiction out.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com, and he sometimes maintains a blog entitled That’s Not Southern Gothic.