I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started watching Chinese lifestyle YouTubers when I moved to LA about five months ago. I had a lot of free time on my hands, and during quiet nights, it was comforting to have something in my family’s language playing in the background.
Have I wasted a shitload of time watching strangers eat hot pot and share their recent luxury purchases? Definitely. But I’ve also gained a lot more than comfort from these YouTubers*, like a deeper understanding of Chinese culture, especially that of my generation, and better speaking skills. Hearing Chinese spoken by people outside my family on a regular basis has upped my game, so much that I’m the one teaching my parents hip lingo now. Because of that, I think it’s improved our relationship dramatically, since I’m such a verbal person and I find it hard to express myself in Chinese past a fourth grade level. (A whole other topic for another time.)
Okay, that’s the backstory. But today I wanted to share this exceptional Chinese YouTuber, Li ZiKai (李子柒), and my fascination with her.
In a nutshell, Li ZiKai makes short cooking and lifestyle videos that have the production value of Travel Channel shows. There are endless reasons to find her appealing–her videos are on unique topics, they’re detailed, educational, beautiful (as is she), peaceful, and…mysterious. They’ve got that je ne sais quoi. Oh yeah–they also have 30 million Chinese subscribers (on Chinese sites not including places like YouTube, where she has 2 million.)
Anyway, if you watch the clip above, you know what I’m talking about.
When I first saw her videos, my inner skeptic immediately decided it was an artificially-produced channel. They build a set like the Garden of Eden in a warehouse, hire a pretty actor to step in when the work is done, and market the whole thing as a fantastical escapist channel. I respect that.
I scrolled through her YouTube comments, filled with marriage proposals and supportive fans–all people who legit believed this woman was real. And I thought wow, are they dumb! I’m so smart! Ha! (Because I have hubris.) I mean, the woman builds a set of furniture out of bamboo with her bare hands. She spins / dyes her own wool to weave into coats. Her wood spoons rival those sold in LA boutiques. And also, there isn’t a speck of dust or age or decay in her farmhouse, which I simply couldn’t believe is the reality of Chinese farms.
But as I kept watching over the months, she brought us into her house and showed her daily life taking care of her grandma, editing videos, doing sponsorships for big brands, and curiosity got the best of me. She kinda seemed real.
I Googled her and tried to decipher shoddily-translated Chinese articles. I asked my dad help me do some digging on Chinese sites. And still, all signs point to her being a real person living that life in the Sichuan mountainside. It’s known fact that at this point she has a production team behind her, but her story is an inspiring one involving being orphaned at a young age, going to the city to find work, missing home and returning to the countryside to take care of her aging grandma. So we’re to believe that these videos are basically real life, polished up.
During my research I also found that she’s been the #1 influencer in this category since 2017–so I didn’t stumble upon some hidden gem. But even before I knew how popular she was, I was already fascinated not just by her content, but the social implications behind why it’s so damn charming and addictive.
Whether she’s real or not, it seems she’s cracked the formula for making something super interesting and satisfying for Chinese urbanites. Sure, her content is probably universally appealing for people of all ages and cultures, but it’s especially meaningful and interesting for Chinese people because of the contrast to real life.
The world she sells (not to get too cynical) is so peaceful, yet meaningful. There’s no one else other than her grandma and a bunch of cute animals. She lives in a pristine and lush farm surrounded by all the resources she needs (fat sheep, clear streams, citrus trees, bamboo forests, etc…) She’s Sleeping Beauty, pre-prince.
Even with my limited first-hand experience, I know this is palpably different from young Chinese people’s reality. Based on what I hear from my family in China and the media, daily life is a constant struggle, especially in big cities. Job security is hard because competition is fierce, clean resources and food are difficult to find and cost a month’s salary, and it’s hard to trust brands and people. Everyone is in it for themselves, and getting anywhere involves complicated networking and schmoozing. Especially for young migrant workers from villages, daily life is a lonely, uphill battle.
Maybe I’m overthinking it (surprised?) Mostly, online commentary attribute Li ZiKai’s success on how relaxing, wholesome and unique her brand is. But every time I watch it, I think of dog-tired young people (like my cousin) or migrant workers who work six days a week and go home to their family once a year if they’re lucky. I think of them at the end of a long day of emotional and physical labor, eating their instant noodles, hoping to lose themselves for a while in this fantasy where nature has taken care of everything–all you need to do is reach out, grab it, use your hands and good sense to create what you need, and pet the dog.
It’s always a bittersweet experience for me, watching these videos. It’s so far from the truth of what my peers in China live. But it’s so fucking pretty. Anyways, it complicated. I like complicated. That’s the point I’ve reached right now, but I’ll check back in if I learn anything new about my favorite Chinese princess.