Livestreaming Country Life Is Turning Some Chinese Farmers Into Celebrities

Jan 3, 2018
Originally published on January 5, 2018 9:03 am

It's early afternoon, and the roosters of Three Stones Village are clucking themselves into a frenzy. They're responding to the antics of farmer Liu Jin Yin, who darts this way and that between bamboo groves, rice paddies and livestock, carrying a tripod that holds his iPhone.

The barefoot 26-year-old climbs a tree and descends with a handful of flowers. He leans into his phone to explain.

"This is called Dendrobium," he says, gazing into the camera while holding up the flowers. "It grows up here in the mountains of Sichuan province. It's expensive — hundreds of yuan for a kilogram — and it's good for your kidneys and it cures laryngitis."

Liu's phone responds with rapid-fire messages of approval, rolling across a screen that explodes with tiny flower and beer icons, each of them worth several cents — donations from fans from all over China, watching him live.

Of the 731 million people in China on the Internet, about half of them — a figure about the size of the population of the United States — are there to watch people like Liu livestream video of themselves. The content varies from pole dancing to online classes to advice sessions — all part of an industry worth $3 billion, according to Credit Suisse.

Each day, farmer Liu livestreams video of his life in rural Sichuan province to nearly 200,000 subscribers, who pay him the equivalent of $1,500 a month in virtual gifts — far more than anyone in his village has ever made.

"When I was 16 years old, I traveled to the coast to work construction, then a zipper factory, and then I came home to breed goats, but that failed, too," Liu says. "Then I saw that it was possible to make money doing this."

In the process, he has learned a few things, like how to read. Liu dropped out of his local rural school in the fifth grade and was semi-literate when he started this line of work.

"I had trouble reading messages from my fans when I first started," he says with an embarrassed giggle, "but I've made progress. I'm also now able to stay at home to take care of my parents. Everyone's happy. This has changed me."

Liu has even met his girlfriend, a clothing shop manager from the nearby metropolis of Chongqing, from his livestreams. She follows him along a narrow path between terraced rice paddies before they stop at an orange tree.

"Brothers and sisters," Liu says into his phone while picking an orange, "here, have one, my treat! No, no pesticide on these! Thanks for your gifts!"

More virtual gift icons spill across his phone screen, filling his account with more money.

Liu typically begins his day livestreaming his morning chores — picking weeds, feeding pigs and cleaning up their pens.

"When I started livestreaming, my neighbors saw me talking to myself and thought I had gone crazy," Liu says. "Some of them told my parents I was being tricked into a pyramid scheme. Everyone thought I had become a lunatic."

But after the money started rolling in, says Liu, the skepticism vanished. Liu uses Huoshan, one of about 100 popular similar apps, to livestream his daily life. When his viewers buy virtual gifts to support him, the app company takes a percentage of his revenue.

Top livestreamers in China are often young women broadcasting racy content, but China's authorities have banned apps for obscene content, leaving Internet celebrities like Liu who broadcast to a market of 344 million viewers.

"It's very difficult to get entertaining entertainment in China," says Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor-in-chief of the China news site SupChina. "The movies that are shown in the theaters and the stuff that are permitted on the Internet are all highly censored, and as a result, highly predictable."

And that's why revenue from livestreaming content in China has more than doubled in the past year, generating $3 billion per year.

Liu says his online popularity is less about entertainment, though, than about nostalgia among China's fast-growing urban middle class.

"A lot of people who live in urban China grew up in the countryside. They miss life on the farm and the fun they had when they were kids," he explains. "My most popular moments are when I livestream myself playing with an iron hoop or catching eels and crabs in the rice paddies."

And as it turns out, the moment when I, a foreign journalist, arrive to interview him is popular, too. He livestreams our entire interview in a quiet bamboo grove down the hill from his farm. At one point, I turn to his phone and ask his viewers where they live. A list of cities rolls across the screen: "Chengdu, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, the United States..."

A couple of viewers request that Liu and I sing an English song together. Sensing a business opportunity, Liu fires up a karaoke app on another phone and bullies me into singing a Chinese karaoke classic. As I've done for years in China, I reluctantly comply, and suddenly, it's "Yesterday Once More."

"Every sha-la-la-la-la, every woah-oh-oh, still shines," we sing together, the familiar Carpenters song playing in the background while Liu uses a tree branch as a mock microphone.

Beer, flowers and other symbols of virtual gifts from fans fill Liu's phone screen. By the end, he has made $50.

NPR Shanghai bureau assistant Yuhan Xu contributed research to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Seven-hundred-thirty-one million people in China are on the Internet, and half of them, a population equal to the United States, are there to watch others live stream video of themselves. The content varies from pole dancing to online classes. It's all part of an industry worth $3 billion. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us this profile of one of China's unlikely Internet celebrities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's early afternoon, and the roosters of tiny Three Stones Village are clucking themselves into a frenzy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTERS CLUCKING)

SCHMITZ: They're responding to the antics of farmer Liu Jin Yin, who I'm following as he darts this way and that between bamboo groves and rice paddies, carrying a tripod that holds his iPhone.

LIU JIN YIN: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: I just picked some medicinal flowers, he says, jumping down from a tree with a bouquet. His phone lights up with messages and tiny flower and beer emojis, each representing an online donation from his nearly 200,000 subscribers who tune in each day to watch him narrate his life as a farmer. The wiry 26-year-old makes the equivalent of $1,500 a month doing this, more than anyone makes in his village. He's one of thousands of Internet celebrities watched by more than 344 million regular viewers.

JEREMY GOLDKORN: It's very difficult to get entertaining entertainment in China.

SCHMITZ: Jeremy Goldkorn is editor-in-chief of China news site SupChina.

GOLDKORN: The movies that are shown in the theaters and the stuff that is permitted on the Internet are all highly censored and, as a result, highly predictable.

SCHMITZ: And that's why revenue for the more spontaneous live streaming in China has more than doubled in size in the past year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

SCHMITZ: And that's meant that after years of working in faraway factories, farmer Liu can make more money back on the farm with his family. In the process, he's learned a few things, like how to read. Liu dropped out of school in the fifth grade.

LIU: (Through interpreter) I had trouble reading messages from my fans when I first started, but I've made progress. This has changed me.

SCHMITZ: Liu has even met his current girlfriend from his live streams.

LIU: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: The two walk along a narrow path to an orange tree.

LIU: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "Brothers and sisters," he says while picking an orange, "here, have one - my treat - no, no pesticide on these. Thanks for your gifts." Liu typically begins his day live streaming his morning chores - picking weeds, feeding pigs and cleaning up their pens - while talking into his phone the entire time.

LIU: (Through interpreter) When I started live streaming, my neighbor saw me talking to myself and thought I had become a lunatic.

SCHMITZ: But after the money started rolling in, says Liu, they stopped thinking that. He says his online popularity is less about entertainment, though, than it is about nostalgia among China's fast growing urban middle class.

LIU: (Through interpreter) A lot of people who live in urban China grew up in the countryside. They miss life on the farm and the fun they had when they were kids. My most popular moments are when I live stream myself playing with an iron hoop or catching eels and crabs in the rice paddies.

SCHMITZ: And as it turns out, this is a popular moment for Liu, too, the moment when I, a foreign journalist, arrive to interview him. He live streams our entire interview. A couple of viewers requests that Liu and I sing an English song together. Sensing a business opportunity, Liu fires up a karaoke app on another phone and bullies me into singing a Chinese karaoke classic. As I've done for years in China, I reluctantly comply. And suddenly, it's "Yesterday Once More."

(Singing in foreign language).

LIU: (Singing in foreign language).

SCHMITZ: Beer, flowers and other emojis from fans fill Liu's phone. And by the end of the song, he's made $50. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Three Stones Village, Sichuan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDIO CORSI SONG, "YESTERDAY ONCE MORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.