By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post
THESE DAYS, everything comes from China. However, the phrase also fits the distant past. In autumn, I began reading a book on this topic, “The Man Who Loved China,” by noted writer Simon Winchester. However, lately I have found the phrase better illustrated by a set of soothing, well-made, five-minute videos. They are from an exceptional young Chinese woman who makes traditional things—housewares and Sichuan cooking—by hand.
Creating mainly for Chinese viewers, the video blogger’s name is 李子柒, transliterated as Li Tuqi or Li Ziqi. These translate roughly to Seven Plums. A Mandarin speaker I met by chance while struggling with the third, rare character explained that it might come from her mother’s surname.
Regardless of the specific reading, the name fits, for Ms. Li is a master of multiple traditional disciplines. She pursues her crafts at her grandmother’s farm in the mountainous countryside near Mianyang, Sichuan Province, China.
As much of Seven Plums’ work is in Chinese, she remains scarcely known in the West. Yet, like Mari Kondo of home-tidiness fame, she is building a global following. This is because her largely Chinese-language presentation is not an impediment to international viewing. The language appears only in episode titles, and occasionally as explanatory subtitles. For Ms. Li is among the rare breed of YouTube “vloggers” who does not speak. Instead, she lets her deft hands tell the story.
In addition to the lack of dialogue, four additional features set Seven Plums’ videos apart. First, like the similar Japanese “Little Forest” films, each venture begins at an early starting point. For example, an episode on roasting mushrooms opens inexplicably on Ms. Li hauling bricks and troweling cement between them. Only later do non-kanji readers realize that she is first making the needed outdoor barbecue. Other adventures begin with her donning boots, then setting out for the fields or forest with only a straw basket and a her meat cleaver, which doubles as a hand ax.
Second, throughout such work, you see no power tools, nor use of electricity. The focus is on adept hand work, accomplishing tasks as they might have been done two or more generations ago. Thus, all cooking, no matter how elaborate, is done on wood-fired stoves.
Third, there is the amazing breadth of the projects Ms. Li takes on. Besides construction and cooking, she produces cosmetics, dresses, needlecraft, silk blankets, and even a pair of shoes.
Last, there is the marvelous cinematography. Close-in shots of the work are interwoven with charming pastoral scenes and whimsical ones that reveal glimpses of Ms. Li’s personality. We see the Mianyang hills in the early morning light. We meet the family dog, neighborhood cats, sheep, and cows. Grandma makes cameo appearances as the lucky diner of each elaborately prepared meal.
To sample a few of Ms. Li’s videos, simply type her name into the search box at Google or YouTube. If you like the few dozen videos you can find that way and want to see more, then you will have to find her YouTube home page. There, her complete set of 72 available videos awaits. To do so, simply click on her three-character name or icon—a girl in a red riding hood—from anywhere within YouTube. If you’ve gone this far, you might as well add yourself to her subscriber list (free), which 2.9 million worldwide have already done, including me. This way you can have the pleasure of seeing her new videos when they first appear.
One approach to viewing the videos would be to do so in chronological order, earliest to latest. That way, you can see the housewares that she makes in earlier episodes appear in later ones—like characters in a movie—as well as the gradual evolution of her video craft.
Alternatively, one can pick and choose. To date, my top four favorite handcrafts episodes are those covering ancient paper-making, wood-block printing, sericulture, and bamboo furniture making.
Among the cooking episodes, all I have seen inspire me to eat more vegetables, which is no small feat! The one on making ramen is essential viewing; it is titled, “A Bowl of Art.” As a Japanese American, I also find the episode on roasted mushrooms that starts with hauling bricks especially intriguing. Are the brownish-white pine mushrooms that Ms. Li pokes out from beneath moss related to our identically written matsutake (松茸)?
A question that some Western viewers have posed, in viewing these remarkable videos is, is Seven Plums for real? That is, does she really do these things, or is she a mere actress, a siren playing a part? The answer in part comes from a TV interview of her, in which she explains how her parents just “left” (after a divorce). She was raised by her grandparents, and later, grandma alone after grandpa died when she was in the fifth grade.
Apparently, this is how Ms. Li learned her anachronistic arts, which make the most of limited resources. Besides feeding grandma and keeping the family farm going, in the past she worked part-time as a party DJ and singer at clubs in town. These days her third “job” is making videos from home, aided by a photographer. Such freelance work is supported in part by YouTube, which pays high-traffic producers like her from advertising income.
Now and then, Ms. Li gets carried away with her outfits. It makes little sense for a woman to stride through the forest in a floor-length dress.
Yet I am willing to forgive her this one artistic whimsy. For her core craft, that of working with her hands, is solid. The adroit swinging of a scythe or the slinging of handmade noodles between one’s arms cannot be faked. One either knows how to do these tasks or not. Further, Ms. Li keeps the focus on her hands, rather than on her face, through scarcely viewing the camera. Instead, she is nearly always looking down, focusing on wielding her tools, as she should be.
Accordingly, each of Seven Plums’ videos is pure visual poetry. No one could live like that, a few Western viewers have remarked. Yet there she is, video after video, doing just that.
Dacid Yamaguchi is a local Sansei. He has written for the Post since 2006. Tweet him @davidyamaguch10.