The Lifestyle Foodie Li Ziqi Brings the Countryside to Urban Viewers

The Chinese cottagecore blogger and Internet celebrity paints a fantasy of self-sufficiency in the calm, crisp countryside.

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‘_ebsie_’ on Instagram depicts Li Ziqi collecting flower petals at her usual workspace.

I often spent my quarantine days aimlessly scrolling through YouTube in the search of nothing in particular. It was then when a video entirely unrelated to my interests popped up in the queue. “Fear not the harsh winter with the cloak made from soft and fluffy wool,” the title announced in Shakespearean fashion. 

As I hovered my mouse over the thumbnail, I was immediately greeted by a woman with bright skin and dark hair that starkly contrasted the fluffy snow-colored neckline of her coat. Suddenly, the video pans to a group of plump, snow-powdered grapefruits and their thin, tightly wound branches. This is followed by a montage of her journey on majestic mountains with waves of mist in the background. She appears oblivious to the camera as if the viewer is watching her through the mountain’s eyes. Suddenly in the distance, baaing sheep surround her, as she cuddles a tiny lamb. 

As I would later find out from her YouTube handle, she is Li Ziqi. Many of her viewers compare her to a Disney princess, adored by animals and nature. But as enchanting as the animations are, nothing comes close to the fairytale-like quality she possesses in real life.  

However, her childhood was anything but magical.

The thirty-one-year-old from the Sichuan province of China was orphaned at a young age, with her father passing away shortly after his divorce from Li Ziqi’s mother. Afterwards, she went to live with her grandparents in order to escape the abusive environment fostered by her stepmother. Li observed her grandfather as he crafted everyday items such as bamboo dustpans to sell at the marketplace. She assisted him when he worked as the banquet cook in the township. The cooking and craftsmanship that she learned would later become a central epithet to her channel.

Once her grandfather passed away, fourteen-year-old Li dropped out of school in search of work. In an interview with GlobalLink, she remembers, “I used to sleep under a bridge or at parks. Then an aunt (the word the Chinese use to affectionately refer to any older woman) helped me and found me a job in her friend’s restaurant.” Eventually, she was hired as a waitress, an electrician, and a nightclub DJ. 

When her grandmother fell ill, she returned to the countryside with experience in editing, and soon after, she started to upload vignettes of her life to Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. From then, she gradually gained 17 million and 16.3 million followers on Weibo and YouTube, respectively.

A watercolor piece by ‘thisonewinter’ alludes to Li Ziqi’s Disney-like qualities, by surrounding her with animals that make frequent cameos in her videos.
(thisonewinter)

Li manages to tell an alluring countryside story without speaking, in videos that are often less than five minutes. The first video I watched was about the process of making a lavender-colored cloak from scratch. She shears the lambs, combs through the cotton balls of wool, soaks them in hot water, and threads them into a thin, tightly spun bundle. 

After a few intermediary scenic shots, the camera refocuses on Li picking blueberries to dye the wool with. The plink-plonk of blueberry juice, the splish-splash as she stirs the basin, and the slow closeup shots provide viewers with the ultimate ASMR experience. The light background instrumental music sets the right mood, but it is never loud enough to drown out the crackling fire.

Her work is not completed over a single day. Rather, it is an ongoing process that is illustrated by the changing sky. Her steady hands work at a fast pace, stitching and braiding the wool. In the end, she dons her new winter cape and strides towards the mountains with a lamb tailing behind her. 

From the moment that one clicks on her videos, the viewer agrees to be sent down a rural black hole.

For me, Li Ziqi came at the perfect time. I was fortunate enough to be stuck at home with nothing else to do, and she provided the perfect retreat from my monotonous routine. 

Watching Li Ziqi’s videos is escapism of the highest level. Her videos did not “fix” the pandemic or lessen the stresses of remote learning by any means. But, sometimes, all people need during troubling times is to be reminded of simple things, a theme that she weaves effortlessly throughout her videos. 

Li Ziqi seldom gives interviews, but in 2019 she told GoldThread, “In today’s society, many people feel stressed. 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.” This makes sense, as her audience mainly consists of urban millennials who face China’s brutal ‘996’ work culture (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week). 

The way that she depicts her lifestyle could make anyone envious. The choice between the hectic and chaotic city versus the rolling hills of the countryside is a no-brainer. Li Ziqi’s videos advocate for homesteading, and it is a part of a larger youth movement that supports the return of traditional culture. For instance, she is seen wearing Chinese Han clothing in all of her videos, and this is in line with the rise of Hanfu fashion in the young generation.

Another theme that Li Ziqi’s channel stresses is the importance of family. During the pandemic, my family and I were able to spend a lot of time together. One of our favorite pastimes was crowding onto our comfy couch and watching Li Ziqi make salted duck egg yolks or handmade tools such as a cat furnace brick by brick. 

Family comes first in many Asian cultures and Li Ziqi knows this better than anyone. She left her jobs behind to come back to the countryside and take care of her sick grandmother. The occasional chatter between the pair mixes with the background music and creates a comfortable, laid-back atmosphere. Li Ziqi’s focus on family adds an extra layer of relatability because it is a universal value.

Yulia Avrutskaya, an artist and designer, who binge-watches Li Ziqi’s videos with her mom, wrote, “One of my favorite videos is where she weaves and sews bedclothes and a blanket for her grandmother.  It’s so cute!” 

Another artist, Hannah Encarnacion, added, “Seeing her taking care of her grandmother fills me with genuine happiness.”

The food illustrator ‘nguyen_illustration’ and his watercolor art was inspired by Li Ziqi’s river snail rice noodle from “Liuzhou “Luosifen”: Slurpy, Spicy, and Absolutely Satisfying.”
(nguyen_illustration)

Another reason for my fascination with Li Ziqi is because of all the new foods that she introduces me to. ‘Hairy tofu’ is not something that I ever expected to want to try. Exactly as it sounds, the tofu grows thin, delicate white “hairs” from the fermentation process. My favorite video of all time, “Go through the whole winter with spicy veggies with bean curd paste in a hotpot,” includes this process. 

Li Ziqi starts by turning a large stone soybean grinder and adding water to the mix periodically. She filters the foamy goop, boils it, and adds brine. Li pours the curds into tofu sheets and flattens the surface. After some time, she cuts them into smaller pieces and leaves them in a dark place to ferment. When the ‘hairy tofu’ is done, their appearance makes it impossible to turn one’s head away.

As Li Ziqi completes the other dishes for the hotpot, she sits across from her grandmother. They laugh and converse into the night with the only two lights perfectly spotlighting them. 

Hot Pot is something that I eat often. It features a simmering pot of soup with various raw vegetables and meats on the side that is cooked by swishing the ingredients in the pot. However, her version of hotpot is very different from mine. It is intriguing to see regional variations of the same foods.

The immense amount of labor that Li Ziqi puts into each dish makes me consider how food does not magically appear in supermarkets as people would like to believe. By dedicating days, and sometimes even months, to prepare a single dish, she shows respect to the ingredients and to cooking. 

Li told a reporter from GoldThread, “When I worked in the city, it was all about survival. Now when I work in the countryside, I feel like I’m truly living. I want kids in the city to see where their food comes from. A teacher friend once told me some students thought rice grew on trees.”

Despite her popularity, Li Ziqi’s work is not without criticism. Early in her career, people questioned whether she really was a “one-woman operation.” Li pushed back on these speculations by detailing the grueling work she endured daily with a mere tripod. Now, she has help from a videographer and assistant, but she still directs most of the creative process. 

In addition, Li also faced backlash for glorifying farm life. The Chinese government recognized her with the “People’s Choice Award” for promoting traditional culture internationally, but Chinese netizens have argued that she portrays a one-dimensional perspective that is not accurate for farmers. 

Here is an artistic rendering by ‘yveath,’ of Li Ziqi braving the cold in her fluffy robe. (yveath)

Despite this, I still believe that Li’s videos are inspiring even if she does not show all the nitty-gritty details. It is fine if she chooses to present only the dreamlike elements of country life, since her main goal is to spread cultural awareness and provide entertainment to those stuck at home. 

My parents, who both experienced farm life in rural China, would agree. My father and mother know firsthand the hardships of that lifestyle during the 1970s. My mother describes the single bed, the endless list of farm work after the long hike back from school, and the search for city jobs in order to support herself. However, both of my parents still enjoy watching Li’s videos, which remind them of how life used to be.

In the end, Li’s videos cross cultural boundaries, striking a chord with people from all walks of life. 

“I quite often watch Li Ziqi’s posts with my mother. Her videos are superbly filmed and have a downright meditative effect,” said Yulia Avrutskaya, the artist and designer. “Would I like to live like her?  I don’t even know. It’s nice to watch the measured village life in the movies; in real life, I understand that this is due to hard daily work. Besides, I’m a city dweller and I’m not sure that I could withstand a long time away from civilization, and the noise of city streets.”

Likewise, Hannah Encarnacion, also an artist, said, “Li Ziqi’s videos motivate me to work productively and remind me to take a break from social media to cherish nature and experience real life.”

Li’s resourcefulness entertains me with the idea that I, too, can extract bars of brown sugar if I landed in a sugar cane field, or that I can make Chinese mayonnaise by marinating bright orange salted duck eggs. Li Ziqi’s videos are a wordless love letter to nature, an ode to a simple life, and a tribute to hard work. 

“It’s nice to watch the measured village life in the movies; in real life, I understand that this is due to hard daily work. Besides, I’m a city dweller and I’m not sure that I could withstand a long time away from civilization, and the noise of city streets,” said Yulia Avrutskaya, an artist and designer.

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