Behind the scenes with Li Ziqi, the mysterious Chinese internet celebrity with 58 million fans
- In her videos, she performs the work of a farmer with the grace of a fairy, impressing with her deep knowledge of food, nature and Chinese culture
- She says working in the remote Sichuan countryside makes her ‘feel like I’m truly living’
On screen, Li Ziqi’s life seems to defy the rules of reality.
The Chinese internet celebrity is famous for her videos in which she performs the work of a farmer with the grace of a fairy. Her fans on social media platforms, both in China and internationally, including YouTube and Weibo, number more than 58 million.
In one video, she picks flowers on horseback in a red cape, evoking the image of Red Riding Hood. In another, she builds a bamboo furniture set using traditional Chinese techniques.
While the videos have a cinematic quality to them, it’s her deep knowledge of food, nature, and Chinese culture that impresses viewers. She appears to make everything from scratch, going as far as hatching baby ducklings and raising them just to make a sauce from egg yolk.
Li rarely speaks in her videos, and when she does, it’s in the local dialect of her home province, Sichuan.
She also seldom gives interviews. But in our exclusive interview with her, she opens up to us about her life, craft and early struggles as a one-woman band.
“In today’s society, many people feel stressed,” Li says. “So when they watch my videos at the end of a busy day, I want them to relax and experience something nice, to take away some of their anxiety and stress.”
Li grew up with her grandparents in a rural part of Sichuan province in southwestern China. She says she moved in with them after her stepmother mistreated her.
When she was 14, she went to the city in search of work, but she decided to return to the countryside in 2012 to take care of her grandmother.
Four years later, she began filming her life there.
“When I worked in the city, it was about survival,” Li says. “Now when I work in the countryside, I feel like I’m truly living.”
Li’s videos depict her and her grandmother as they go about their daily lives in their modest home. She is often seen preparing elaborate meals for her grandmother using basic ingredients and traditional techniques.
“I simply want people in the city to know where their food comes from,” Li says. “A teacher friend once told me about some students who thought rice grew on trees. So I want kids in the city to know where their food comes from.”
Li is part of a growing field of online video makers in China. The market is competitive, worth an estimated US$6.5 billion and with a potential audience of hundreds of millions.
Video channels depicting rural life are a dime a dozen. One only needs to scroll through TikTok and Kuaishou, a Chinese video app, to find clips of people catching fish with their bare hands, farmers fashioning clothes from burlap sacks and campers going full MacGyver in the wild.
But while many of these videos are fast-paced and cut with quick edits, Li’s videos have an ethereal, cinematic quality to them.
“I think this is just how things happened,” she says. “At first, when I did everything myself, I’d set up a tripod, film and then press stop. That’s why all my shots are on a tripod and don’t move, and that’s why my videos are still filmed this way.”
Her detractors question the one-woman-band premise, but Li brushes it off as sour grapes. Two years ago, she uploaded a behind-the-scenes video showing how she used to operate on her own.
Nowadays, she has help from a videographer and assistant, but she still directs all her videos. During our interview, which Li’s crew filmed, she did not hesitate to give precise instructions on which angle to shoot from and where to stand.
She even suggested pouring tea for me while I said hello to her on camera (that shot ended up on the cutting floor because it felt too staged).
“I’ve always been the director of my videos,” Li says, “from what to film and how to film to how each shot is framed. Often, my videographer only knows what he’s filming on the day of the shoot.”
The poise that Li displays in her well-polished videos belies a playfulness and spontaneity that only comes out when the camera is off.
While we were hanging out on a bridge, Li tried to pluck a lotus flower that was growing an arm’s length away.
When she couldn’t reach it, she got down on all fours before completely falling on her stomach, laughing and joking in Sichuanese as she desperately tried to touch the flower.
And while Li never utters more than a few words in her videos, off camera, she can be loquacious.
While we were waiting to set up for the shoot, she went on for a good five to 10 minutes on the subject of bamboo.
Once the cameras were ready, she composed herself again.
Viewers often ask whether her videos are real. Indeed, her final pieces are heavily edited — even our interview footage came retouched with heavy filters — but after spending time with her, I believe the question might be moot.
While Li’s videos allow her audience to indulge in a fantasy world, many of the techniques she portrays are grounded in real-world knowledge and come from a genuine desire for the pastoral ideal. The only thing she has sculpted is her on-screen persona.
“I’m just filming my life,” she says. “Or rather, I’m just filming the life that I want.”