Pangzai, Chinese inventor of "twisted beer" and Twitter star

He is one of those Chinese internet personalities from the countryside who have been able to bypass the great computer wall to make themselves known abroad. In a context of controversy around drinking videos, Liu Shichao aka Pangzai is looking for new ideas for his return on Twitter.

Liu Shichao, alias "Hebei Pangzai", son of Chinese peasants who became famous on Twitter with his videos of "twisted beer" descent. © Stéphane Lagarde / RFI

Text by: Stéphane Lagarde Follow


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From our Beijing correspondent, with Louise May, from the Beijing bureau

It is impossible not to notice this silhouette among the dozens of people waiting for travelers at the exit of Gao Yi station. Face of the moon, red T-shirt with his effigy and smile that we have seen dozens of times on the screen, Liu Shichao aka "Pangzai" or @hebeipangzai on Twitter, took the time to pick us up just before lunchtime. We are in Hebei, literally the province north of the Yellow River, just under an hour and a half by TGV from Beijing. On the concrete forecourt crushed by the midday sun, old men sitting on benches surrounding recently planted trees, watch without conviction the giant screen that distributes road safety instructions. "Let's go!" says Pangzai! Let's go for an hour's drive to the village of Zhengyuansi, where he is from.

Liu Shichao, aka "Pangzai". © Stéphane Lagarde / RFI

Hail storm

His parents' village has 4,000 inhabitants. After a childhood on the farm, high school and odd jobs especially in masonry, Pangzai launched into social networks. "When I was little, I wanted to be a scientist or a civil servant, to become an official with great powers," says the man who has just set up a mobile rotisserie business with nostalgia. But as an adult, I realized that this was not how things worked at all. I regret not having studied more! One does not escape one's roots, or with difficulty. In the countryside that passes through the car windows, the trees are bald and the fields are soggy. The storm has brought down the leaves, the wheat is lying down and the peasants are for their pocket. "A few days ago, hail destroyed everything," he explains. The inhabitants of the surrounding towns have lost their crops. Even those with insurance will barely get back what they have invested. Nothing can be done in the face of natural disasters that unfortunately return. Most farmers are elderly. The young people went to the city. »

The Chinese countryside is emptying and the small villages of Hebei do not escape this exodus. At the end of high school, rural youth are magnetized by large urban centers, where work is scarce. And if you can't leave, you travel via the smartphone screen. It was by coming across videos of guys breaking bricks in their hands or filming themselves drinking on the chain that Liu Shichao decided to start on Kuaishou. The Chinese online video platform hosts all kinds of "performances". "I don't know if it's a talent in the recognized sense, but it's a talent nonetheless," he explains. I can break bricks and I take beers down very quickly. It was by seeing others do that I wanted to try. In 2016, the first videos were posted on Kuaishou. One of them exceeds 2 million views. The number of its subscribers is soaring. "I didn't sleep all night," says the 38-year-old influencer. I spent hours responding to comments. My specialty is the descent of beer in twist, he continues with a burst of laughter. Not everyone can do that. You have to be strong enough and so people are watching."

Simple entertainment, I hope friends can like it, if you like, please like and tweet, thank you, if you want to watch my live broadcast, please go

— Pangzai (@hebeipangzai) September 12, 2020

"Twisted beer"

The "specialty" is claimed by others, as far north as northern Europe it seems. But Liu Shichao says he discovered the "twist" technique on his own. He gladly demonstrates it around a table. The beer at Pangzai uncaps with a baguette. It is then necessary to swing the head back, take the neck full mouth and adjust the bottle vertically that is shaken while turning to create the famous tornado. The spiral effect accelerates the descent. In 6 to 7 seconds, 50 cl of hops are swallowed. On the videos, the ceremonial is accompanied by other beverages of different colors and a cigarette. Liu Shichao dips his finger in a brandy he previously ignited with a lighter. Nothing to do with a magician's trick, just a way to show that he does not drink water, but bajiu -sorghum alcohol-. Sometimes mixed with soda, the whole is accompanied by a raw egg to form a cocktail with a revealing name: "flower in the mist". A recipe that is not necessarily recommended by doctors. Some platforms like Douyin (TikTok in China) have even banned the consumption of alcohol during live streaming.

On May 17, one of these picoleur influencers was found dead after filming himself swallowing delirious amounts of alcohol in front of his subscribers. Nicknamed "Sanqiange", the 34-year-old drank at least seven bottles of brandy the day before. His family found him unresponsive a few hours later. A news item that has caused emotion and consternation on social networks. When it comes to health, Pangzai, 38, becomes cautious. He says he doesn't drink more since he's been on social media, which isn't necessarily reassuring. He also says that he has regular health checks carried out and that his wife limits his consumption. And then, he goes around in circles with the beers in twist. During the Covid years he was seen cooking for his children and filming the daily life of the village. It's probably less views, but it's more relaxing. "I slowed down the posts on the networks a bit," he says, "because I couldn't find better content. I don't want to spend all my time posting videos or drinking dry ass. I would like to evolve. But right now I don't have time to think. I don't have time to work on shooting videos under other themes."

Spring is coming. Everything wakes up. An irrigation will make wheat grow a lot. The farms of green wheat sprouts look like a green sea stretching to the horizon.

— Pangzai (@hebeipangzai) March 16, 2020

Translation via apps

There are not many occupations in the countryside, relativizes the younger brother of his wife who works for the family business. Dinners washed down on weekends are a way to relieve stress. It is only Tuesday, but the conviviality of a good meal is the minimum that we owe to friends from afar suggest our hosts. Acquaintances of Liu Shichao joined us for lunch. Coerced or by choice, it is the walls that isolate the masses in China. We are not talking here about the Great Wall, among the most visited monuments in Hebei. But the walls of farmyards, the walls of residences in the city, the walls of neighborhoods, the walls of the city or the walls of small rooms separated from this restaurant of regional specialties. On the ground floor, the common room where you can swallow a bowl of noodle or a dish of rice sautéed with a slingshot before hitting the road again. Upstairs, private lounges with round tables hosting a large pot in which we throw everything we found in the surrounding countryside: sweet potatoes, pork ribs, cellophane noodles and a whole chicken, head, crest and lugs included.

He has two children Mr. Liu and under the guise of the burly macho, he is a rather introverted person. "Before I started on social media, I didn't know how to speak in front of the camera," he says. To those who find this "miracle of Chinese soft power" a little too smooth, who suspect him of having a studio, a team writing his texts or responding to fans, he shows his two iPhone 12 Pro and swears to do everything himself, relying on the automatic translator of applications to write. "For English, I translate three times from Chinese to English, then from English to Chinese and again from Chinese to English, so that it is as correct as possible, says the one who has never learned a foreign language. " "What these 'ordinary' Chinese Internet celebrities have in common that they also broadcast their content on Western networks censored in China," it wrote before the pandemic began. Are the authorities exerting pressure? Did he have any comments from the public security apparatus regarding the use of VPNs, which are theoretically banned in China? This is the only moment of the interview when Pangzai puts his hands in the cross: "on that," he says, "I prefer not to answer."

Today, I celebrate my birthday. I want to give you a complete drinking video. I don't know why I violated the You Tube rules. I hope you wish me a happy birthday.

— Pangzai (@hebeipangzai) January 28, 2022

Useful soft power

In China, two realities of the world coexist in parallel, without ever crossing each other, or very rarely: that of the Chinese Net and that of foreign networks. Applications, search engines have their Chinese equivalents. Even Chinese applications like TikTok, have a national version, in this case Douyin which does not offer the same content. We wondered a lot before we could meet him, how could Pangzai continue to fly under the censorship radar, making the big difference between his local publications and these videos posted on Twitter? From a certain media surface, it is difficult to go unnoticed by the guardians of the Net. The most probable hypothesis is that, on the contrary, this man from a modest background is well regarded by propaganda. Because Pangzai is also one of the best promoters of Chinese soft power. Marked by official communication, soft power with the characteristics of socialism with Chinese characteristics pales next to the soft power of South Korea, for example, a country whose area does not reach that of Hebei province. Liu Shichao remains in the nails. He sings of happy rurality and does not leave the narrative of his "ordinary" daily life.

The argument is often made to foreigners, when one does not want to venture into the slippery terrain of politics. What could be more ordinary than donkey meat with ginger as a favorite pat to enjoy in front of series in costumes, such as "feathers fly to the sky". At the end of the "zero Covid" in the spring, Pangzai mentioned at one point his desire to go to Munich, for the beer festival. He no longer talks about it today, too busy he says by the mobile rotisserie: a large metal cooking tray, perched on the back of a truck and whose embers are awakened by a leaf blower. Hebei province borders Shandong province. On a Chinese scale, we are not far from the city of Zibo, which has become in less than two months and thanks to influencers, the Chinese capital of barbecue and kebab. His face reddened by the heat, Liu Shichao explains that he went to the sheep barbecue, aware of the fragility of the job of influencer. "Internet fame happens by accident, it disappears as soon as you stop posting content," adds the one who makes videos with fake watches drawn on his arm. He is asked why he has a party and country flag in his car? He replies that being patriotic is the least we can do. And like watches, external signs of wealth, flags are reminiscent of those of officials. The ones we see then especially are these two white gloves and the red T-shirt. In fact, Liu Suichao aka Pangzai seems straight out of a cartoon.

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