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I recently discovered Chinese video logger Li Ziqi, whose short takes on country living have been mesmerizing more than 7 million subscribers on YouTube.com along with many other followers in China. After one episode, I also became a fan.
Many of Li's videos show her cooking — often from scratch — and sowing seeds in the field or even tilling land as she stands on a rolling tiller pulled by an old buffalo.
We then see how the vlogger waters, fertilizes, harvests, dries and processes her ingredients, transforming them into mouth-watering delicacies, which she shares with her grandma.
Li is also a craftsperson in a rural area of Southwest China's Sichuan province. 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 a teacher. Li never attended college, but she shows us how empowering self-directed learning can be in an age of abundant learning resources.
Li puts a beautiful human face to a strange and faraway China. Many of her subscribers have developed goodwill toward the Chinese people after watching her videos.
In a way, Li redefines what Chinese culture actually means. The word "culture" connotates 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.
Li demonstrates the Chinese culture in the tradition of China at Work by Rudolf P. Hommel, who had spent more than eight years studying the tools used by 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.
Li also reorients 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 romantic comedies in which a city lawyer finds 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 rom-coms; they lead to rants or even nervous breakdowns of city wives who feel forced to stay, if only for a few days, in the countryside homes of their husbands.
For decades, rural China has represented an inferior standard of living, and the only way to handle it is to get "out". The exodus from the country divides China economically, culturally and psychologically.
Amid such division, country living is associated in popular culture with either nostalgic laments from rural-born intellectuals, or the condescending sympathy of city folks, in whose imagination the 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 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 engineers her surroundings as her product. Others see problems and whine, while Li goes and fixes them.
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 educates more than she trains. To learn how to cook a specific dish, we are better off checking cooking apps for step-by-step instructions.
We, however, can choose to be inspired by her, to seek the artistic transformation of the mundane tasks of a day, such as cooking a simple meal. Many young Chinese 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 on 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 teaching this lesson.
The author is a US-based translator.