Streaming video can provide a unique perspective on under-seen aspects of ordinary life. One of the finest creators of such videos today is Liu Shichao, aka “Pangzai,” a self-dubbed “ordinary peasant” from China’s Hebei province. Over the past half year, he’s built one of the most genuinely inspiring and idiosyncratic bodies of video work in some time, evolving from simply posting clips showing off his incredible drinking skills to chronicling everyday life and culture in China. Though he may appear to hew closely to the standard vlogging form, Pangzai’s sense of style and framing distinguish his output as a vital and generous endeavor, especially in a time of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment in the West.
Pangzai first became well-known in the Western world in August 2019, when one of his drinking videos on the Chinese social media platform Kuaishou was cross-posted to Twitter. The minute-long clip is a marvel. After guzzling a beer in his trademark “tornado drinking” style, he fills a jar with another glass of beer, an unidentified blue liquid, a glass of the extremely strong Chinese grain alcohol baijiu, part of a Pepsi can, and a cracked egg, then downs it all in a single chug. Along the way he ignites the baijiu with a lighter, sticks his finger into the burning liquid, and uses his finger to light a cigarette.
Liu created a Twitter account a few days after this attention-grabbing video went viral, and it has since become his primary means of interacting with fans outside China. For the first few months, he mostly used the account to repost more drinking videos from Kuaishou, many of which he’d made over the previous few years. Besides his prodigious drinking talent, he endeared himself to many with his usage of short captions in English (run through Google Translate), featuring comments such as “I am a fat man. Thank you for your attention and tweets” and “All my videos are within the scope of my ability. Teenagers are not allowed to imitate.” While the hard-drinking, sunglasses-wearing Pangzai might not initially signal warmth, this came through in his kindly missives.
A distinct turning point came on October 29, when Liu posted a Kuaishou clip of himself irrigating farmland. A handheld video featuring a solitary Liu in an enormous field, it signaled a shift away from drinking videos. Initially, these were also stunts — he’d break bricks bare-handed, smash beer bottles by hitting the top of the cap, and so on. But his interests became increasingly quotidian, usually focusing on cooking (he previously operated a buffet restaurant), often in a tutorial format. He also showed followers his day-to-day, living with his wife and two children and doing maintenance work around the town, such as fixing sewer pipes and installing blackboards.
Liu’s aesthetic approach is fairly consistent. Aside from a handful of YouTube videos, his posts all run under two and a half minutes, in accordance with Twitter’s video length limit, and their pace feels adapted to match that format, filmed almost wholly with handheld phones (or with a selfie stick) in portrait mode by either Liu or his brother. This appears to be as much a holdover from creating for Kuaishou (the logo appears TikTok-style at the end of some videos) as it is due to convenience. The videos frequently feature rapid edits in the form of quick dissolves, capturing the range of a single motion before moving to the next shot. The effect is akin to that of a home movie, capturing intimate moments simply to document them, hoping for but not intrinsically relying on the viewer’s ability to understand the meaning of certain culturally specific elements — electric tricycles, enormous woks, the significance of a visit to Shanghai.
It’d be condescending to call these videos “accidentally” great art. What sets them apart is Liu’s curiosity and sensibility, which manifest in the ways he relates both to his environment and the virtual sphere. Though the camera’s focus naturally rests upon him most of the time, it frequently drifts to incorporate his family and friends, letting their expressions and interests come to the fore. Even the occasional scenes at a market or in a crowd allow us to consider the various vendors and passersby. And Liu’s little descriptions have become even more engaging. One statement in particular seems to sum up his ethos: “Being rich is not life’s goal. Being content is.”