Why Li Ziqi Fascinates Us

I recently discovered Chinese vlogger Li Ziqi, whose short videos of country living mesmerize over seven million subscribers on Youtube and many more in China.   Within one episode, I also became a fan. 

Many of Li’s videos show her cooking, often from scratch —  the sowing of seeds in the field or even the tilling of land with her standing on a rolling tiller pulled by an old buffalo. We then see how she waters, fertilizes, harvests, dries, processes her ingredients, and finally, the transformation of such ingredients into mouth-watering delicacies that she shares with her grandma.

Li is also a maker in rural China. Rather than using 3D printers and laser cutters, she uses wood and even beanstalk to create beautiful things. She made beds and lounge chairs with bamboo she cut from a grove nearby. She grew her own silkworm and made quilts for her grandma. She also made paper, lipstick, lampshades, and clothes drying racks, all from natural materials in her environment. We watch with amazement how she builds a home as if from a fairy tale without resorting to pathological shopping and consumerist hoarding. Like the rest of us, she was probably not born with skills to create the things we see in her videos, but she uses everything and everybody around her as her teacher. Li never attended college, but she shows us how empowering self-directed learning can be in this age of abundant learning resources.

Li puts a beautiful human face to a strange and faraway rural China. Many of her subscribers developed goodwill towards the Chinese people after watching her videos. In a way, Li redefined what Chinese culture actually means. The word “culture” actually connotes the cultivation of plants, which happens to be her forte. Rather than calligraphy, poetry, shadow-boxing and other cultural cultivation favored by China’s high society, Li connects with a broader audience as a master farmer, gardener, seamstress, carpenter, chef, and other roles she picked up along the way.

She demonstrates the Chinese culture in the tradition of China at Work by Rudolf P. Hommel, who had spent over eight years studying the tools used by the ordinary Chinese, including axes, saws, tillers, plows, fishing nets, brooms, wheelbarrows, and hammers and anvils. Li shows how ordinary Chinese farmers work and live, which enriches outsiders’ understanding of a country and its people. 

China at Work book cover

Li re-orients us to the charms of country living.  Cultural conflicts abound between country and city living almost around the world. In America, such conflict can evolve into Christmas romcoms with city lawyers finding her true love in a hometown guy with a dog, probably a shotgun, and a heavy accent.  Spring Festival family reunions in China, on the other hand, will not result in romcoms; they lead to rants or even nervous breakdowns of city wives who feel forced to stay, if only a few days, in the countryside homes of their husbands.

For decades, rural China represents an inferior standard of living and the only way to handle it is “out.” The exodus from the country divides China economically, culturally and psychologically. In such division, country living is associated in popular culture with either nostalgic laments from rural-born intellectuals, or condescending sympathy of city folks, in whose imagination countryside is a preview of hell. As someone who grew up in the countryside, I know of country living as an alternative lifestyle rather than an inferior choice. However, it is hard to convince people who have not lived in the countryside for a substantial time. Li’s charming videos finally show the simple joys of country living, which she can improve using her head, heart, and hands. While others become the product of their environment, she engineered her environment as her product. Others see problems and whine, she goes there and fixes it.

Li is a master of many trades. I doubt that any of us can learn to do all the things she does with dexterity and determination. She inspires more than she trains. To learn how to cook a specific dish, we are better off checking cooking apps for step-by-step instruction. We, however, can choose to be inspired by her, to seek the artistic transformation of mundane tasks of a day, such as cooking a simple meal. Many Chinese young couples reduce their living to their jobs and outsource adult tasks such as cleaning and cooking to hired nannies or their retired helicopter parents who have much time at their hands and plenty of zeal to help. Such outsourcing of everyday tasks reduces the creativity,  joy, and relaxation that “doing” life could offer.

I will probably continue to watch her videos for inspiration and reflection. I believe that I, too, can learn to do new things. The more we can do, the bigger our worlds will be, and I thank Li Ziqi for this lesson.

Originally published with China Daily 

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