Understanding the international popularity of Li Ziqi: narrative transparency, respect and soft power


Li Ziqi, known as “An Oriental Lifestyle Foodie”, became one of the most popular online celebrities for being a vlogger on YouTube and a number of Chinese social media platforms. Most of her videos are about how she makes daily food and other traditional Chinese items. Li Ziqi has 7 million subscribers on YouTube, more than that of BBC, with only a bit more than 100 videos uploaded, but most of which watched for more than 5 million times. This study mainly analyzes Li’s international popularity with a reference to Robert Olson’s Narrative Transparency Theory (NTT) (1999).

Olson develops the NTT to argue for the success of Hollywood films, that there exist mythotypic elements that make the Hollywood texts “transparent” to audiences from different cultural backgrounds, that they are able to interpret the story according to their own cultural experiences. According to Olson, there are eight general attributes internal to the media text that allow for its mythotypic reading: (1) virtuality, (2) ellipticality, (3) inclusion, (4) verisimilitude, (5) open-endedness, (6) negentropy, (7) circularity, and (8) archetypal dramatis personae (Olson, 1999). More over, two external attributes are worth noting as well: (1) production value, and (2) omnipresence.

Through analyzing the Li’s videos and para-texts including the comments of the videos, I argue that Li’s videos contain a number of the mythotypic elements, including archetypal dramatis personae, inclusion, negentropy, and production value. These elements contribute to the international popularity of her videos. Archetypal dramatis personae refers to characters that are deeply rooted in a culture, that everyone feel familiar with, such as a caring mother, or a supporting joker. Li Ziqi demonstrates two types of archetypal personae, one of traditional Chinese, and one of modern feminist. The way she makes food and other things, the way she dresses, and her filial sense of responsibility for her grandma clearly exhibits a traditional “oriental” Chinese girl, but her independent, unyielding character and her astounding capability of getting things done exceeds the traditional Chinese expectation for girls. This personality appeals to western audiences, earning much of their respect.

Another mythotypic element is inclusion. The inclusive nature of the Li’s video’s is analyzed to explain how her seemingly exclusive content of country life constructs inclusiveness through the themes of topics and production techniques.

Are her works a form of cultural export? I discuss this often-asked question with the concept of soft power, a term famously coined by the Howard professor Joseph Nye. Joseph Nye defines soft power as “the ability to shape the preferences of others” (Nye 2004, p. 5) It works through attraction instead of coercion. The question indeed is: preference for what? Evidenced from audience comments, more audiences like Li Ziqi, irrespective of her nationality. Some show preference for the Chinese food culture and traditional Chinese culture. Few comments openly express their like for China because of these videos. This provides food for thought in relation to the inclusiveness, respect and reciprocity of digital content.