Old Version

Utopia Girl

Li Ziqi, one of China’s most successful vloggers, weaves a bucolic, fairy-tale version of rural life that offers an escape for stressed-out city dwellers. In this rare interview with NewsChina, Li addresses the criticism and controversy over a success that has grown from her countryside videos into a multimillion-yuan company

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

Li Ziqi lives a simple life on camera. 

In her rural village in Southwestern China, Li crafts things using only what nature provides. She can dye a dress with freshly pressed grape juice. She builds furniture from harvested bamboo. She makes lipstick from roses grown in her garden while dressed in flowing, traditional Chinese gowns. 

Her short videos present a rural utopia – and her urban fans can’t get enough.  

The 29-year-old vlogger has more than 50 million followers on Chinese social media and another 8 million on other platforms such as YouTube. But Li is still a mystery to many of her fans. She seldom speaks in her videos and rarely accepts interviews.  

Li deals in fantasy, creating an idealized version of the Chinese countryside where time stands still. She hopes that her videos bring them comfort, peace and tranquility – a contentment that people in cities yearn for. 

“I present my ideal life in my videos – a kind of carefree, independent and self-sufficient lifestyle,” Li told NewsChina. 

Pastoral Perfection
It seems that Li can make anything. Her cooking videos are a kaleidoscope of food: steamed purple potato cakes and soybean milk for breakfast, pigeon soup for dinner, sweet persimmons, with homemade ice cream for dessert and homemade beer to drink.  

But unlike other food tutorials, Li starts with growing and harvesting her ingredients. She does the same when making daily items. For example, Li raised silkworms to make a silk quilt. To build a swing in her yard, Li hiked deep into the mountains to collect the wood.  

Li often chooses to make items important to Chinese culture, like calligraphy brushes, ink, ink stones and paper – this quartet of items is also known as wenfangsibao, or “the scholar’s four treasures” – and Sichuan-style embroidery, a folk craft listed as a national intangible cultural heritage.  

Li’s videos also reflect Chinese philosophical ideas about nature. She cooks in accordance with the seasons. On lunar calendar festivals, she celebrates with special seasonal foods. For example, on the Laba Festival (eighth day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar), Li prepared traditional rice congee with dates, lotus seeds, nuts, raisins and red beans. Eating Laba congee on the festival symbolizes prayers for a plentiful harvest. 

Viewers also come for the picturesque scenery of her home. She raises chickens and sheep. She often wears traditional Han Chinese costumes and rides into the mountains on horseback to pick plants or flowers.  

“We grow a variety of fruits and vegetables in our yards. In the early morning, we stroll in the yards, pick fruits and vegetables to eat and flowers to decorate our rooms. When the sun is high, we cool off in our homes and cook, make handicrafts and watch TV. In this way we live to the fullest and grow older,” Li said.  

Starting From Scratch
Li had a difficult childhood. Her photo once appeared in a local newspaper as a poor child in need of community support.  

She was born Li Jiajia in a remote village in Mianyang, Sichuan Province in 1990. When her parents divorced while she was 2 years old, she went to live with her father. He died two years later.  

Li’s stepmother saw her as a burden. From an early age, Li was forced to do all the housework to earn her keep.  

She was also physically abused. In a Weibo post, Li recounted how her stepmother dragged 6-year-old Li into a ditch, threatened to drown her, and beat her half to death.  

Fortunately, her grandparents took her in when she was 7. They were a source of inspiration for her videos to come. Her grandfather was a cook and good at working with bamboo. Li also learned cooking from her grandmother, along with other skills such as making bamboo umbrellas.  

“My grandpa once cooked fried termite mushrooms with homemade ham. Before the dish was served, I snuck a bite of it, and even today I can’t forget that taste. At a time of scarcity, that was definitely the most delicious food I’d ever tasted,” Li said.  

But life was still hard for Li. When she was 14, she went to the city to work. She was a migrant worker for eight years. She was homeless for a time and slept in a park. She scraped by working jobs like a DJ and waitress that paid 300 yuan (US$43) per month.  

In 2012, Li decided to return to the countryside to care for her sick grandmother. In March 2016, she started uploading short videos on Sina Weibo and short-video platform Meipai under the name Li Ziqi, which for Chinese fans evokes the fantasy martial arts world of wuxia novels.  
Most of her earlier videos are cooking tutorials. The first video she made that went viral showed how to make Lanzhou-style beef noodles. Uploaded in November 2016, the video has more than 50 million views and 600,000 likes.  

Later on, she expanded her content to making everything from clothing and makeup to bamboo furniture using traditional methods and organic materials. As her fanbase grew, Li hired a videographer and a production assistant.  

Li is among China’s growing legions of rural livestreamers and video-makers. Content featuring rural life has exploded on social media in recent years, particularly on video platforms TikTok and Kuai, which show seemingly countless clips of farmers singing, dancing, feeding pigs or catching fish with their bare hands. But most of these clips are crudely made. Most have quick, sloppy cuts. Some are vulgar. Li stands out from the ocean of rural content creators with her slow-paced and elegant depictions of rural life. Her videos shine in quality and aesthetic. Rather than use the countryside for comic relief, her videos celebrate a communing with nature. 

Trouble in Paradise 
She has become one of the few Chinese web celebrities to break through internationally. Her YouTube account has over 7.8 million subscribers and her videos receive tens of millions of views.  

Some Chinese State media has praised Li as a cultural ambassador who skillfully tells China’s story.  

She has also capitalized on her success. According to YouTube analytics tool Noxinfluencer, Li earns an estimated US$1 million annually from her videos.  

On August 17, 2018, Li trademarked the name Li Ziqi and opened an official store on e-commerce platform Tmall offering five food products. She sold 10 million yuan (US$1.4m) worth in six days. One year later, her store had grossed around 71 million yuan (US$10m).  

Her fame and fortune also came with controversy. People questioned the authenticity and originality of her videos. Some accused Li of having a professional management company producing the content for her.  

In July 2017, Li co-founded Sichuan Ziqi Culture & Communication with a Hangzhou-based internet celebrity management company.  

Li told NewsChina that the company handles market development and daily operations. The content team has three members: Li, her assistant and a videographer. She maintains total 
control of her content, design and editing.  

“I never prepare in advance for shoots. The videographer doesn’t usually know the content I’ll do until the day of shooting. Filming is always done naturally and spontaneously, sometimes, even willfully,” Li told NewsChina.  

But some netizens have criticized her content for misrepresenting rural China and romanticizing the countryside. Many argued that Li’s overly idealized versions of rural life will lead millions of her fans – mostly people in cities – to overlook the harsh realities of rural China. 

“I’m just filming my life,” Li responded, “Rather, I’m just filming the life that I want.”  

She also disagrees with the notion of equating contemporary rural China with poverty, backwardness and harsh conditions, which she believes are stereotypes.  

“Every coin has two sides. In cities we see millionaires and billionaires spending money like water and parents working multiple jobs and pinching every penny to send their children to school. The case is the same in the countryside,” Li told NewsChina.  

“This year [2019] is the 41st year of China’s reform and opening-up. Are we still stereotyping rural areas as places of poverty and backwardness? Why can’t Chinese farmers live affluently, growing vegetables, plants and flowers in their yards?” she added.  

“You can’t expect everyone in the world to understand you,” Li said.  

“It’s impossible not to be misunderstood when you’re a public figure. I cherish all the kindness that people give me.”