Brother Li, founder of the live-streaming agency Wudi Media, poses in his bedroom in Shenyang, China, in May. From a studio in the northern city of Shenyang, Yu, who goes by Brother Li, spends hours a day broadcasting on YY, a social network.
When he cracks a joke (which is often) or gives a shout out (ditto), fans send him “virtual gifts,” which represent real money. He also founded and runs a talent agency, Wudi Media, which trains and promotes wannabe online stars.
Some are aspiring celebrities hoping to parlay their voice, looks or facility with boob jokes into online fame. To the tens of thousands who tune in to Yu’s show each night, his life is the stuff of legend, the very embodiment of President Xi Jinping’s favorite slogan: the Chinese dream.
Although live-streaming is popular many places, including the United States, China’s broadcasting boom, like much here, is bigger. About half of China’s 700 million Internet users have tried live-streaming apps — that’s more than the population of the United States. Some Chinese stars do, too, but most of the money comes directly from fans in the form of gifts — sort of like a virtual tip jar.
While U.S. firms such as Facebook and Google remain blocked in China, Tencent and other local companies are thriving.
YY started as a gaming portal but has grown into a social communication platform that is a leader in live-streaming. As a Rust Belt kid who built a digital firm backed by Big Tech, Yu could not be more on message.
Watching Yu’s nightly broadcasts, what’s most striking is not the streaming speed, but how status quo things feel, from the sidelining of women, to the push and pull between censors and creators, to the difficulty of spreading the benefits beyond the few. When the younger Lu started out, he was sleeping on a friend’s floor and broadcasting eight hours a day, often for pocket change. A couple of years after signing with Yu, he eats breakfast in Balenciaga sneakers and pulls in thousands a month, he said. Streamers like Lu spend a portion of their shows giving shout-outs or stage time to hopefuls further down the pyramid — exposure, usually for a price. The lure of fast, easy money brings out the odd and extreme: a woman known as Gourmet Sister Feng made her name by eating goldfish and glass, among other things. “As long as you don’t do big surgeries, Botox, injections, fillers and skin whitening are fine.”
With looks playing a big role, China’s censors try to draw a line between sexy and sexually suggestive. Lu Mingming, a 25-year-old rookie, spends four hours a day alone in a studio packed with plush toys. The hardest part of her new job, she said, was mustering the energy to appear cute and happy for hours on end, often seven days a week.
Zheng Tianqi, 28, known as Xiangshan Nanhai or Fragrant Hill Boy, sings and plays guitar for a live stream in Gongzhuling.
Zheng moved from Beijing, where he was street singer, to benefit from Wudi Media support, in the hope of becoming a live-streaming star. Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the YY social network is run by the tech giant Tencent.