The Lives of Live-Streamers


The character of Big Li is known for his dramatic displays of emotion during live-streaming sessions.

Since leaving China to attend college in the United States, I’ve come to associate foreign news coverage on my home country, perhaps unfairly, with something that resembles a skeleton. I’m referring to those plastic skeletons most high school biology teachers keep in the back of their classroom (the ones that, you might recall, were given names like Neil or Albert and wheeled out for the occasional educational digression on someone’s dog’s fractured femur) — the kind that is structurally correct in the information it conveys, but lacking in the flesh and blood of the stories it tells.

Occasionally, however, something comes along and turns this analogy on its head. As most of my understanding of China had been based on the narrative of state-sponsored media, stories told about China from outside of the country sometimes draw back the curtain to aspects of Chinese society that I was previously blind to. 

Such was my experience last Thursday evening, when I sat down in Axinn 232 for the screening of director Hao Wu’s boldly-titled documentary “People’s Republic of Desire.” Its Chinese title translates roughly to “Your Virtual Life,” a title that seems a touch more generic than its English counterpart.   

Reviews of the film have compared it to a real-life “Black Mirror” story. 

“It is sort of dark,” Wu said jokingly of his third documentary feature, “but that wasn’t how I had intended it to be.” 

A Chinese filmmaker and a fellow at the Washington-based think tank New America, Hao Wu hopes to “explain China to people outside of China.” 

In a Q&A session after the screening, Wu discussed his motivation for the film. 

“I wanted to capture the changes in China,” he said. To Wu, the online phenomenon of live-streaming is a reflection of the real, offline human desires that run rampant in the rapidly modernizing country. 

As the film opens, we are introduced to what seems like an office space for live-streamers, who sit in undecorated cubicles, singing and speaking to strangers in online chatrooms. Such is what Shen Man and Big Li do for a living. 

The film is driven by its two protagonists — 21-year-old Shen Man and 24-year-old Big Li, two of the Chinese live-streaming platform YY’s highest ranking stars. 

For her monthly income from YY of $40,000, Shen live-streams her videos from the comfort of her own desk at home, where she performs karaoke and responds to comments in her chat room, which regularly hosts over 10,000 viewers.  

Shen explains what she calls the “Love Triangle of YY,” which connects live-streaming hosts to two very different types of fans. The diaosi viewers, usually young men of mediocre appearance, financial means and social standing, idolize the hosts. The tuhao, or nouveau riche, patrons shower the hosts with virtual gifts of roses, diamonds, cars and planes that materialize into real financial boons. 

A graphic of an awards podium at the upper left corner of her chat room lists her most generous viewers. 

“Fans follow you if you spend a lot,” one of Shen’s high-profile tuhao viewers says. “People chat with you.” He admits that he used to have a spending problem, but has since dialed back his spending to the more “rational” sum of $35,000 a month. Where does this absurd pool of funds come from, you ask? “I’m a profiteer,” he divulges nonchalantly. 

In Shen Man’s chat room, another user by the handle of “YY Fish” gifts Shen a considerable amount of money, signified by a virtual car that whizzes across the interface, stirring up an excited flurry of viewers’ comments. “Who is this [patron]?” They ask. “He must be rich,” the comments speculate. 

“F-ck, all that money…” Shen Man’s father muses as he watches one of his daughter’s live streams. “If only any of it were mine.” 

YY capitalizes on these desires, too. Later on in the film, we learn that the platform takes a whopping 60 percent share of the virtual gifts’ monetary value.

While the tuhao patrons certainly have the upper hand in visibility, the diaosi viewers dominate the online live-streaming platform in numbers. The film explains that just as the tuhao get a kick out of the virtual social recognition brought by their extravagant virtual gifts, the diaosi followers become addicted to watching the large gifts occur online as a glimpse into the lifestyle they no longer dream of having. 

The slang term diaosi grew in popularity as a self-deprecatory term for millennials to jokingly refer to themselves. In Chengdu, where the documentary was filmed, as in many Chinese cities, this demographic likely encompassed most of the migrant workforce who left their hometowns in search for a better future. Separated from old friends and family, many migrant laborers lead isolated existences.

Yong, one of Big Li’s many fans, is an 18-year-old migrant worker who makes around $400 per month packing motorcycle parts in a factory. “Sometimes I really want to find someone to have a heart-to-heart, but it’s very difficult,” he admits. “But I’m not lonely. I can watch Big Li on my computer.” 

For those like Yong, live-stream hosts like Big Li are not merely sources of entertainment. Yong sees Big Li as a role model, as perhaps proof that even those from humble beginnings like himself can eventually come into fortune and fame — a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely under China’s steeply declining social mobility.

Off screen, Shen Man holds no illusions about what she calls the “hidden rules of this world.” 

“You think [the big-spending patrons] are idiots, spending all that money for nothing? They will ask to meet in person, or something else,” Shen says matter-of-factly. “In front of money, family, love, friendship — they are all bullsh-t.”

Formerly a “poor nurse,” Shen Man is now her family’s sole breadwinner. “The whole family depends on me,” she tells the filmmaker with a mixture of pride and resentment. Shen is buying an apartment for her father and her stepmother, who both live with her, has purchased a house in her hometown for her grandfather and also plans to pay for her younger sister’s college tuition. 

Like many of her viewers, Shen Man lives in social isolation. “When I think about it,” Shen says, “I’m disconnected from society. I don’t go out. I don’t even see the sun.” 

In an interview with a local television station exploring the social phenomenon of internet streaming stars like Shen, a television producer asks Shen a question that throws her off guard. 

“Are you happy?” he asks. 

“In what sense?” Shen redirects the question. 

“In every sense,” the producer replies. 

“Yes, I am,” Shen answers almost automatically. After a pause, she seems to reconsider her answer. 

“Compared to many others,” she says, “I think I should be happy.”

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