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Issue 218

Escaping Lockdown in Li Ziqi's Rural Idyll

How the Chinese YouTube sensation has seduced urban dwellers worldwide

BY Julian Junyuan Feng in Columnists , Film | 23 APR 21

Watching Li Ziqi in 2021 has been freshly revealing for me. The cooking and lifestyle vlogger rose to fame in 2019 with her beguiling videos of idealized rural life, steeped in the symbolism of traditional Chinese culture. Winter is coming, so Li weaves herself a cloak from wool clipped and spun from a herd of local sheep and dyed with vegetable skins from her abundant garden. A recipe for chilli fish head begins with her growing the chilli plants from seeds, watching the shoots spring from the soil in time-lapse footage. Soy sauce is made with water drawn from a nearby spring; Li carries it back to her house in the traditional way, balancing two buckets suspended on a yoke. 

Li Ziqi, ‘The Life of Cotton', 2020, video still. Courtesy: Li Ziqi

Since 1978, China has experienced the largest internal migration in human history, as hundreds of millions of people have moved from rural areas to the cities that have been the engines of the country’s economic growth. Li’s critics see her videos as an impossible romanticization of pastoral life in a country where the income gap between rural and urban areas is amongst the highest in the world. This discrepancy is institutionalized by policies including the hukou system of household registration, which ties citizens’ rights to their place of birth. Li’s fans shun such politicization and see her success beyond the Great Firewall as demon­strating the inherent charisma of the traditional Chinese way of life.

It’s fair to say that the debate over Li’s status as a ‘cultural export’ is symptomatic of China’s anxiety today, as it transitions from the world’s factory to a soft-power force. State media outlets, such as People’s Daily, have enthusiastically endorsed her and attempted to hijack her message with nationalist sentiments, even though YouTube – where her channel has accumulated some 14.6 million followers as of March – has long been blocked in China. Watching them in my cramped Shanghai apartment, I used to regard Li’s videos as a form of pure escapism. Revisiting them in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, they have taken on new urgency, hinting as they do at a radical reconfiguration of modern life.

Li Ziqi, ‘Riding a Horse to Find Magnolia Liliiflora Blossoms for My Lovely Fans’, 2019, video still. Courtesy: Li Ziqi

Li and I both happen to have been born in Sichuan province – a large, densely populated agricultural region of southwest China with abundant natural resources. Historically, the region has been highly productive and geopolitically important because of its basin topography and proximity to Tibet and India. I can confirm that the landscape is truly as beautiful as it’s portrayed in Li’s videos: its boundless, oceanic bamboo forests were where the fights in Ang Lee’s stunning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) were staged. Setting aside my minor complaint that Li’s recipes and handicrafts are more of a mash-up from across China than specific to the local region, I have to admire the patience and effort that goes into each short film. Their making can span months. Her video updates are slow-paced and feature seasonal food, following the rhythm of the 24 ‘solar terms’ of the Chinese lunar calendar, which traditionally dictate agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as wider East Asian cultural practices. 

The exceptional production values – buttery smooth editing, cinematic drone shots, time-lapse sequences of sprouts breaking through soil, exquisite lighting and meditative folk music – are only part of Li’s rags-to-riches story. The carefully packaged, easily digestible pastiche of Chinese traditional folklore has helped her build an audience across the globe, like a real-life version of Disney’s Mulan (from the eponymous 1998 film). Her popularity within China and beyond says a lot about a global, urban-dwelling middle class who share a common desire for escape into the otherness of the rural – particularly after a year in which population density and proximity to others has taken on such fatal associations. 

Li Ziqi, ‘The Life of Cotton', 2020, video still. Courtesy: Li Ziqi

Li’s brand of rural self-sufficiency is distinctly contemporary: unsurprisingly, she is signed to a professional influencer agency as well as running a namesake food range. The snacks sold under her brand, however, are entirely mass-produced. While the laborious cooking methods featured in her videos are, for sure, not economically viable at scale, she has leveraged new digital technologies to sell a vision of traditional production that has brought her considerable personal wealth. After all, she’s just being a pragmatist. In February, President Xi Jinping announced that China had eliminated rural poverty – a signature goal of his eight-year tenure, coinciding with the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party this year. If this is true, it’s in no small part down to a generation of digital entrepreneurs, of whom Li is a captivatingly visible example.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 218 with the headline ‘Sichuan Pastoral’.

Main image: Li Ziqi, ‘Riding a Horse to Find Magnolia Liliiflora Blossoms for My Lovely Fans’, 2019. Courtesy: Li Ziqi

Julian Junyuan Feng is a writer and artist. He lives in Shanghai, China.