The Show Must Go On: Livestreaming Intangible Cultural Heritage in China during COVID-19

by Yujie Zhu

SINCE THE BEGINNING of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed everyday life around the globe into a ‘new normal’, with lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the cancellation of mass gatherings. Stay-at-home orders have dramatically changed the way people live and work, with a particularly significant impact on cultural practitioners and folk artisans.

The banning of large-scale festive events and closing of public spaces have caused many cultural performers and artisans to lose vital sources of income. Yet Chinese arts practitioners have been able to adapt to the pandemic’s economic challenges relatively quickly and easily, using short videos and livestreams to promote their art and sell cultural products. Compared with other countries, the Chinese situation has two distinct features.

First, the livestreaming and short-video industries were already well established and prolific in the People’s Republic of China before the pandemic began. Numerous online platforms, including Kuaishou 快手, Douyin 抖音, and Taobao Live 淘宝直播, were already reaching a large number of people, covering diverse age and occupational groups, with a collective user base of more than 550 million in 2021.1 The second feature is an online rewards system that allows Chinese viewers to buy virtual gifts (ranging from one yuan to tens of thousands of yuan) for their favourite Internet celebrities. Throughout the pandemic, cultural practitioners and folk artisans in China have benefited from existing financially supportive online infrastructure and cyberculture. Practitioners — whether singers, embroiderers, traditional dancers or handicraft makers — thus could continue to work and earn income through product sales and rewards, while audiences, both urban and rural, interacted with them and gained comfort from the experience and continuation of cultural practice.

Livestreaming ethnic culture began before
the pandemic
Source: United Explanations, Flickr

Some cultural practitioners had already entered the livestreaming market and gained many followers before the pandemic began. For instance, the Seven Fairies of the Romantic Dong Family 浪漫侗家七仙女 were earning up to 1,500 yuan per day by livestreaming ethnic culture on Kuaishou in 2019 (156,000 followers then; currently more than 1 million).2 The Seven Fairies is the brainchild of a young ‘poverty amelioration’ official sent to an economically impoverished but culturally rich village in the Miao and Dong Ethnic Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou province in 2018. They are named for a local legend in which seven heavenly beings bring song and happiness to local women. Their videos cover many aspects of ethnic Dong customs, from singing Dong-language folk-songs to modelling traditional costumes, preparing local cuisine and enjoying ‘long-table meals’. They sell everything from clothing to rice to their viewers and, by 2021, the People’s Daily Online was able to report that they had lifted their village out of poverty.3

While established performers easily continued their businesses throughout the lockdown period, others had to learn how to use the Internet to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on their livelihoods. Many time-honoured Chinese brands turned to livestreaming and e-commerce while their brick-and-mortar stores remained closed. A Beijing shop called Neiliansheng 内联升 has been making handmade cloth shoes since 1853; its footwear is officially recognised as part of China’s national Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). In the past two years, it has substantially raised its profile by embracing livestreaming and e-commerce. In the shop’s first livestream at the end of February 2020, viewers watched an artisan making a traditional ‘thousand-layer sole’ 千层底 shoe in detail. Although the first livestream generated only 3,000 yuan in sales, this was equivalent to a half-day’s turnover of an offline store during the off-season.4 Furthermore, it effectively promoted the brand’s shoes — originally made for officials of the emperor’s court — to online viewers who wanted to know why cloth shoes could cost several hundred yuan when common versions cost perhaps one-tenth of that amount. A separate broadcast featuring wedding shoes brought Neiliansheng 1.6 million ‘likes’.5 The brand has since regularly hosted livestreams and made active use of this new business model.6

Major e-commerce and short-video platforms, working with governments of different levels, have also hosted events bringing together culture and the economy. Kuaishou, for example, has launched hashtags such as #ICH World #非遗江湖, inviting ‘innovative, pioneering and fashion-sensitive youth representatives’ to help create a more youth-friendly and trendy approach to promoting ICH.7 In June 2020, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Commerce, and more than ten online platforms organised a grand online ICH shopping festival, attracting around 10 million shoppers and selling more than 12.61 million yuan of ICH products.8

While the official ICH industry often reflects elite social practices or ‘high culture’, online livestreaming allows different social groups, especially young people and women, to present their cultural practices to an exceptionally broad audience. Diverse in content and form, these performances introduce new elements such as fashionable video filters and stickers to attract audience attention, breaking down the distinction between high and low culture. Moreover, online ICH livestreaming highlights the ‘tangible’ — the products for sale. This gives rise to a distinct community around cultural production and consumption.

Digital technology provides artists, especially young ones, with new ways to interact with society and earn a living. It can improve social equity, offering Chinese people a space to share and access cultural heritage while helping build resilience among cultural communities affected by the pandemic. On the other hand, the online environment favours people who are Internet-savvy over others such as the elderly and those with little or no Internet access. The Seven Fairies, coming from an impoverished backwater, could not have done what they did without the help of the young official and the team he collected for them.

As with traditional arenas of cultural production such as filmmaking and book publishing, the state controls and strictly regulates Chinese cyberspace. The various levels of government have increased Internet surveillance and intervention. Ethnic-minority culture may be attractive and saleable online, but the management and even definition of ethnic minorities have become a politically sensitive area, as the Communist Party of China, with its anxieties around separatist movements, seeks to promote the notion of a broader ‘Chinese’ ethnicity. So, even though ethnic ‘exoticism’ is a big factor in drawing viewers to livestreams such as those of the Seven Fairies, there are strict rules about the use of minority languages in videos and livestreaming.9 Cyber communities based on online performance and livestreaming more generally must negotiate state power and control no less than their real-world analogues.