By SIJIA LI
On this morning, white mist rolls through the lush mountaintops of Sichuan Province, China. Birdsong mingles with a piano soundtrack. A young woman in an indigo-dyed blouse, a straw basket in her hand, picks her way through a grove of persimmon trees. Her slim white hand reaches out with a pair of gold scissors and, delicately, snips off a cluster of fruit.
A heroine in a historical drama? No, this Li Ziqi, a food video blogger with 19 million followers across different social media platforms. All of Li’s videos share the same seamless cinematic style, edited together with an expert hand. Unlike other famous Chinese bloggers such as Papi Jiang or Liu Mama, Li rarely ever addressed her audience. Her videos have no advertisements or sponsored content in her videos. The clash between her obvious media savviness and her persona of a village girl from a previous century has made her the object of speculation. People debated if she was a real person, if she actually made her own videos, and one European media outlet had questioned if she was a soft propaganda tool from the Chinese government.
To understand why Li has attracted so much speculation, you have to first understand why she exerts such a pull on her audiences. Unlike other Chinese bloggers, Li has a sizable international following. In addition to her 16 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese app similar to Twitter, but also three million subscribers on YouTube.
Li’s videos combine the visuals of a nature documentary with the satisfying craftsmanship of a DIY reality show. Wearing traditional blouses and gauzy dresses, Li is filmed preparing dishes like lotus-leaf wrapped pork ribs, pea-flour noodles, and cherry blossom tea. She keeps silkworms to make silk quilts by hand, and keep bees to harvest herbal honey. In one of her most watched videos, Li makes a swinging sofa set out of reclaimed wood and bamboo. Needless to say, she does it by hand, without power tools.
“The whole scenery of ur life is dreamy!” wrote one commenter from Chicago. People sent Li greetings from all over the world: the U.S., Vietnam, Poland, Syria. A woman in India wrote “Your videos make me feel happy and also I love nature,” and added that the cameos of Li’s grandmother in her videos reminds the woman of her own grandmother.
Yunuun Narasun is a teacher in Thailand who shows Li’s videos to her young students. “They love the way she cooks and make things out of scratch,” she wrote to me in an exchange. “[It’s] completely different from where we live here in Thailand [where] it is pretty dry.” Dave Otey, a grandfather in the U.S., said that he watches her videos with his grandsons aged three, five, and seven to calm the rowdy boys down.
The sight of Li at work mesmerizes her audiences. Many video bloggers attract followers by speaking into the camera, offering jokes or advice to their audience, but Li eschews chatter for a mute parade of beautiful images. She never acknowledges the camera while she is at work. Without a language barrier, her videos are easy to watch around the world. A teenager in Poland and a teacher in Thailand can both sigh over the sight of Li picking glistening persimmons, without having to speak a word of Chinese.
Li’s video blogging career began in 2016, when she debuted with a video of herself baking rice inside a hollowed-out bamboo stalk. In an interview last November, Li insisted that her first videos were shot with just her and a tripod, and no outside help. She didn’t even have someone to press the on and off button for recording. In an interview with Baidu’s news vertical, Li said that she was looking for ways to make money in he small village. Her father had died when she was young, and her mother abandoned young Ziqi with her grandmother. Li had left her village at the age of 14 to work in the city, where she cycled through gigs in waitressing and DJ-ing, but moved back to her village after she felt too homesick to stay away. Back home, she opened her own shop on Taobao, the Chinese internet retail platform, where she bought goods wholesale and re-sold them for higher. To drum up interest, she began experimenting with videos to promote her shop.
Interest in Li quickly outstripped interest in her products. Within a year, Weibo named her as one of the “top ten viral food bloggers” of 2017. As attention on Li grew, fans began to speculate if her videos were genuine. Chinese fans wrote blog posts wondering if she had more outside help producing her videos than she was disclosing. They pored over the details of her tragic backstory, debating if it was true. Some even shared photos of overripe vegetables and untended plants, claiming that they showed the true state of Li’s garden. Li’s Western fans wondered if she was funded by the Chinese government, posting videos to as a propaganda initiative.
“The goal here is to present a modern traditionalism, to make deeply conservative Chinese (As endorsed by the state) lifestyles appealing to modern 20-35 year old westerners,” said the Tumblr-user katjohnadams.
Li herself had acknowledged some of her doubters. “I endured such hardship, and anyways no one believes the videos [are made by one person], so why not find a cameraperson to help me shoot them? At least I won’t be so exhausted,” said Li in the same interview with Baidu.
Some of the theories around Li did turn out to be true. Li admitted that she signed a contract with Weinian Technology, a company that specialized in incubating online influencers. She said that she worked with a cameraman and a shooting assistant. Everything else – the farming of the animals and the fields, the research into pre-industrial craftsmanship – she insisted that she does on her own.
There is another element of Li’s brand easily missed by her international fans: her source of income. Li never mentions any endorsements or sponsorships, but that’s because she already works for one brand — Li Ziqi herself. In June 2018, she returned to her initial reason for making videos. But instead of buying and re-selling other people’s wholesale goods, Li launched a line of “Li Ziqi” branded food and beverages products on Taobao.
Weinian Technology declined to disclose how much she makes per month. “Her income was very good last year,” said Hong Zhou, a company representative, over the phone. “She gets subsidies from some smaller projects, but the majority is really through sales of her “Li Ziqi” brand.”
Though her products are never advertised in the videos, fans of Li can find them through her Weibo posts or in a quick search on Taobao. There, Li’s official store offers snacks and herbal teas with a cartoon drawing of Li on the front, and a logo that is her name in ink calligraphy. They can buy jars of beef chili sauce for 34 yuan ($5), or a box of swallow nests, which are considered a delicacy in China, for ¥370 ($55). The prices are higher than supermarket prices, but not by enough to raise the eyebrows of an average middle-class shopper.
Unlike in her videos, where everything is produced through pre-industrial handicraft, Li’s Taobao products are factory-made. However, Li claims that she has brought that same element of individual attention to her products. In the description for a jar of beef chili sauce, a signed note from Li described how she narrowed down the choice of the beef from four different breeds of cow, and painstakingly worked and re-worked the recipe until “the factory was annoyed with me.”
The sauce has over 40,000 reviews. “This is my first time buying from Sister Ziqi,” wrote one reviewer in Chinese. “Once I saw her videos, it zhongcao (literally “plants grass,” but used as slang for “incites the desire to purchase”) in me and I bought it. Didn’t disappoint! Wish the blogger and her grandmother well.”
Rumors fly on the Chinese internet that Li’s net worth has exceeded 100 million yuan ($14.9 million), but she has made no public display of wealth. What she does with the material gains of success is a mystery to the public. But her slogan, found on her official Weibo page, would suggest that she has already got everything that money can buy:
“Working at sunrise, resting at sunset. Pure and natural foods and a quiet lifestyle are the pursuit of my life.”