Ranting and Rapping Online in China, and Raking In Millions

Ranting and Rapping Online in China, and Raking In Millions

He delivers rants about unfaithful girlfriends, sky-high housing prices and spoiled 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 northeast.

Now, he is one of China’s best-known internet personalities, commanding a fan base of 22 million people for his live video streams and earning more than $2 million a year in payments from his fans.

With his crude jokes and rat-a-tat riffs on modern life, Mr. Li has become a hero to a generation of disaffected young people in China’s smaller cities and rural areas. Many of them are spiteful toward elites, skeptical of authority and eager for an escape from menial work.

“I understand the hardness of their lives,” Mr. Li, 23, said during a recent visit to Dalian, a seaside northeastern city. “I spent my childhood watching sheep and cows and going to the river to swim.”

Mr. Li’s followers tune in daily to watch him laze on a couch, impersonate characters like rigid teachers and raucous cabdrivers and perform rap-like songs, known as hanmai, or microphone shouting.

Many of his compositions center on love, inequality and the struggles facing young people searching for meaning outside of China’s big cities.

Critics have called his work lowbrow, offensive and sexist. But Mr. Li says 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.”

Raised in Jinzhou, a northeastern city of three million, Mr. Li struggled as a child to find his footing.

His parents were laid off from a state-owned pharmaceutical company in the late 1990s as the government pushed to privatize China’s economy. He dropped out of school at 15 and worked odd jobs as a street dancer, car salesman and meat griller.

“Our parents’ philosophy was, ‘If you survive, that means you qualify to be part of society. If you starve, that means you’re not trying,’” he said.

Mr. Li said his own life mirrored the experiences of many of his fans: a bitter childhood that gave way to fierce independence and a desire to provoke.

Angry and dejected, Mr. Li turned his tales of misfortune into songs on China’s modern-day obsession with money and his struggles to court women. He began live-streaming them in 2014 on YY.com, a popular online platform.

One of his most famous pieces is titled “Listen Up, Women!” In it, he argues that young women place too much emphasis on wealth in choosing mates:

Mr. Li’s words quickly made him one of China’s best-known wanghong, or internet celebrities.

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, Mr. 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 like Shanghai and Beijing.

Conscious of his fan base, Mr. Li 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 Mao, another populist figure, often saying, for example, that small villages can band together to rival the influence of big cities.

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

“His fans are people born after 1990 who are brave and say whatever we believe without anything to hide,” said Liu Chenfan, a 19-year-old from the northeastern province of Liaoning who will start college this fall. “He’s a real man, ready to protect women.”

Zhang He, 25, a cashier who makes about $450 a month at a spa in Dalian, about half the median income in Beijing, said Mr. Li understood the plight of workers struggling to make a living outside China’s big cities.

“Each time I watch him, I laugh so hard that I forget things that bother me in real life, like work and relationship issues,” she said. “He never spends money wildly, although he is so rich now.”

Mr. Li calls his fans the “Tianyou Army,” and he solicits their help in vanquishing rival internet stars in nightly competitions.