Chinese live-streaming star speaks for the working class

Li Tianyou has 22 million fans and earns more than $2.7 million a year in payments from them.
Li Tianyou has 22 million fans and earns more than $2.7 million a year in payments from them.PHOTO: NYTIMES

DALIAN (China) • He delivers rants about unfaithful girlfriends, sky- high housing prices and spoilt young people.

He films himself spinning on his head and doing push-ups at the gym. He sings about love and desperation and shouts like a military sergeant.

Not long ago, Li Tianyou was a scrawny junior high-school dropout struggling to make a living in China's dreary industrial north- east.

Now, he is one of the country's best-known Internet personalities, commanding a fan base of 22 million people for his live video streams and earning more than US$2 million (S$2.7 million) a year from his fans.

"I understand the hardness of their lives," Li, 23, said.

"I spent my childhood watching sheep and cows and going to the river to swim."

Critics have called his work lowbrow, offensive and sexist, but he believes the strength of his fan base shows his ideas resonate.

"Most Chinese people come from common families or even from poor families," he said.

"My work speaks to them."

He began live-streaming in 2014 on YY.com, a popular online platform.

One of his most famous pieces is Listen Up, Women!, where he argues that young women place too much emphasis on wealth in choosing a mate.

While many live-streaming stars, such as Papi Jiang, an irreverent comic from Shanghai, are culled from the ranks of China's top arts schools, Li is unpolished, raw and agitated.

He considers himself a champion of the working class and regularly rails against what he sees as elitism in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Conscious of his fan base, he has taken his image as a man of the people to an extreme.

He eats bananas because "they are easy to get for ordinary people, not some fancy fruit". He keeps his earnings in the bank account of his mother, a restaurant owner.

And he is fond of quoting former leader Mao Zedong, another populist figure, often saying, for example, that small villages can band together to rival the influence of big cities.

Li is particularly popular among young women, who admire his humility, devotion to his parents and traditional views on marriage.

He calls his fans the "Tianyou Army" and solicits their help in vanquishing rival Internet stars in nightly competitions.

During the contests, he and other stars gather in a virtual chatroom, where they take turns singing and cracking jokes in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands.

They implore fans to show support by sending virtual gifts, which translate into payments for the stars and help determine rankings on live-streaming sites.

Li's fans, hungry for the thrill of watching him try to skewer and upstage other stars, shower him with gifts.

As the influence of stars like Li has grown, the government has taken notice. More than 344 million people in China have tried at least one of the country's estimated 150 live-streaming apps, according to official data. Last year, officials imposed stricter controls on these apps, forbidding sexual content and original reporting during live streams. The government has also shuttered dozens of live-streaming sites and fined some hosts for obscene language.

Li understands the government's power to break stars and said he had cleaned up his act to avoid trouble. He worries that live-streaming has had a negative effect on Chinese society, promoting violence and bad language.

While his critics have compared him to a low-class beggar or street performer, he said he is no different from traditional Chinese opera singers, who in ancient times competed vigorously for money and attention. He hopes to bring his work to new media, including movies, and open a school to train live-streaming stars.

"I'm not used to being rich yet," he said.

"To me, being rich sometimes only means I can have as many bananas as I want."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese live-streaming star speaks for the working class'. Print Edition | Subscribe