Below is our translation of an interview with Li Yifan about his documentary film We Were Smart (杀马特我爱你), along with a new preface by our friend BG about the film’s significance for China’s emerging movement of “autonomous spaces.” The Chinese interview, conducted by Zhao Jingyi (赵景宜) of NoonStory (正午), was originally published on Jiemian News (界面新闻) in November 2020 as “Li Yifan: The Pressures Facing ‘Smart’ Workers Are Extremely Similar to Those Facing Urban White-Collar Workers” (李一凡:杀马特工人和城市白领,两者的压抑非常类似). BG’s preface has not been published elsewhere. The film is currently available to view online with English subtitles here. (It will probably be removed again soon for reasons explained below, so watch it while you can.)

Preface by BG

In 2020, artist and filmmaker Li Yifan completed the documentary We Were Smart (杀马特,我爱你). The film stirred up a storm across China, returning to public view the “smart” (shamate) subculture that had been seriously misread and denigrated before being nearly forgotten nearly ten years ago. Li, who has followed the situation of migrant workers for many years, also introduced audiences to a new understanding of this subculture that had emerged from the factories of the Pearl River Delta: first and foremost, “smarts” were migrant workers from the countryside, whose labor-power was brutally exploited on the assembly lines.

In the film, Li conducts group interviews with current and former members of the smart subculture, also incorporating their own footage of scenes within factories, such as the repetitive movement of assembly lines, and a supervisor barring workers from using the toilet. The smarts are apprehensive and adrift in the unfamiliar metropolis, being dragged by recruiters from train station to industrial park. Downtown they are intimidated by the skyscrapers and get lost amid the labyrinth of city streets, so are often unable to work in service sector or platform economy jobs such as food delivery. Their only freedom is “aesthetics”: by adopting the styles of smart subculture, they find meaning in themselves and in distinction from others. Li emphasizes that the film is not a “history of smart” but “smarts talking about their own histories.”

Another element that makes the film worthy of discussion is the way in which it was circulated. At first, We Were Smart was meant to be a documentary project, but it ultimately its circulation became an event in and of itself. The filmmaker received investment from Tencent for producing the film, signing a contract that granted exclusive broadcasting rights to the company. After the film was completed, however, Tencent grew concerned that it would be politically sensitive and refused to broadcast it, turning the investment into “hush money” that would prevent the film from ever seeing the light of day. Li therefore began accepting invitations to organize small-scale screenings at various types of spaces throughout China, giving rise to a sort of underground network that soon went viral. The filmmaker visited university campuses, bookstores, bars and “autonomous spaces,” engaging in discussions with the audiences and inviting smarts from the film to participate online.

The network and concept of “autonomous spaces” (自治空间, also known as “alternative spaces” 替代性空间) played a crucial role throughout these underground screenings. As mainstream art spaces have faced increasingly strict censorship, more and more autonomous spaces have sprung up throughout China. Some of these have adopted commercial forms, such as profit-oriented bars, bookshops or even simple corner stores, whereas others utilized art studios or domestic spaces, all to provide an infrastructure for activities that would be impossible for mainstream commercial spaces, including but not limited to film screenings, exhibitions, theater and performance art. These spaces also provide an important site for the circulation of underground publications printed by various groups, including magazines related to art exhibitions as well as a few pamphlets with some degree of political content. The Chinese translation of A Guidebook for the Revolt of the Idiots of the World: How to Create Space with Fun (世界マヌケ反乱の手引書: ふざけた場所の作り方), by Japanese anarchist Hajime Matsumoto, is probably the most commonly seen volume in these spaces, its ideas providing inspiration for the network. Matsumoto’s call to challenge capitalism by gathering together for fun, and to resist oppression through creativity, is probably the only ray of hope that young people with critical consciousness can find in this airtight society, where the risks facing any sort of political activity have become more and more dire. In these spaces you may also find traces of self-published works by migrant workers. For young people in mainland China, barred from the streets or any sort of public demonstration, these spaces have become a rare opportunity for finding like-minded people (同温层) and experiencing political life. It’s also worth noting that the excitement surrounding We Were Smart also led many young people to convert ordinary commercial venues into temporary “autonomous spaces”: when the filmmaker requested that the screenings be free of charge, some profit-oriented venues in smaller cities allowed all types of people to attend without having to spend money. This circulation experience thus became an integral part of the film.

While Li Yifan’s cinematic lens emphasized the smarts’ “aesthetic freedom” as a mode of collective resistance, at some of the screenings, young leftists with experience in labor activism brought up more structural forms of workers’ resistance and self-organization, or more concrete changes in social conditions that workers have been fighting for. In response to these comments, the filmmaker sometimes adopted a cynical attitude. However, We Were Smart had already ceased to be a closed-off work oriented toward passive consumption, so a period could not be inserted after the editing was completed. It had become a movement in which each screening was productive, and each expansion of the underground screening network reproduced the work in a different way. These events created new meanings for understanding the proletarians participating in smart subculture, pushing beyond the filmmaker’s intentions regarding aesthetic freedom. It established an infrastructure outside of mainstream artistic production and consumption. Although the craze surrounding We Were Smart has passed, this infrastructure remains and continues to break open fissures within the system.

A group of smarts poses in a park
“If you’re not a smart, then you don’t have a history. A life spent on the assembly line doesn’t have any value.”

The Oppression of “Smart” Workers Resembles That of Urban White-Collar Workers

Li Yifan’s recent presentations on his documentary We Were Smart went viral in late 2020 –– the first time that many people took notice of the film, or of the obscure “smart” subculture. Behind the exaggerated hairstyles of the “smarts,” however, are teenagers left behind by migrant parents, assembly line workers, and youth who are thirsty for recognition and acceptance.

As Douban user “Looking Left” writes in their review, “No documentary has been as moving to me as We Were Smart. Throughout the film, I kept picking up my phone to take notes. The voice of the smart is a powerful philosophical expression of freedom, joy, and oppression.”

The documentary actually premiered almost a year ago. On December 13, 2019, Li Yifan held an exhibition titled “The Heretical Light” (意外的光芒) at the Guangdong Times Museum. Several hundred used smartphones were installed on a 19th-floor skyscraper balcony, playing over 900 videos shot by workers on a loop. The assembly-line scenes gave the exhibition a mechanical and oppressive feeling. Li invited the workers who had participated in filming to attend the opening, but in the end the only ones to show up were two workers who had just lost their jobs.

Li Yifan started to shoot footage on the topic of the smarts in 2017, interviewing 78 people in all. He started in Shenzhen before traveling all throughout Guangdong and finally going to the “hometown” of the subculture in Guizhou and parts of Yunnan. Li says this documentary doesn’t attempt to record the history of the smarts, but rather allows different smarts to narrate their own individual histories. Li’s documentaries always follow specific people and their specific situations: Previous documentaries Before the Flood (淹没) and Village Archive: Longwangcun 2006 Video Files (乡村档案) recorded the relocation of Taijie village and the empty days of an ordinary Western village, respectively. Li has also shot footage on the Labor Law, pork, and on violent clashes in 1960s Chongqing, but has not yet edited them into full features. Besides being a director, he is an artist and professor of oil painting at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, and has carried out collaborative artistic investigations in Chongqing and Shanghai, including Migrant Youth (外省青年) and The sixth ring is one more than the fifth ring (六环比五环多一环).

The following discussion between NoonStory (NS) and Li Yifan (LY) traverses topics including the “smart” subculture and the pressure for survival facing contemporary youth, the rural-urban divide, diaosi (屌丝) culture and short video apps. As Li states, “when shooting documentaries, I don’t bring an enlightened motive to the project. What’s more important is to let people be seen who haven’t been seen before.”

Three screenshots from the documentary, showing workers in recruiting centers and a young man with orange hair
Screenshots from We Were Smart. Most smarts were born in the 1990s, and went out to work at the age of fifteen or sixteen.

NS: Recently, a lot of cities have hosted screenings of We Were Smart. What has been the most interesting audience response in post-screening discussions?

LYF: In almost every screening, an audience member will say, “Actually, I feel a lot like the smarts, but I’m not that brave, I don’t have the courage to resist this extreme societal discipline—I’m afraid to do anything that stands out.” This piqued my interest. Most of the viewers are members of the post-90s, post-95 generation [those born after 1990 or 1995], working white-collar urban jobs––it seems like their family’s situations are not that bad. 

Still, the feeling of repression that these audience members and smarts both feel is extremely similar. You might say that this is a shared, generational problem: They ask, what is the meaning of the life I see ahead of me? The young smarts don’t feel like earning money is meaningful anymore. Their parents’ generation came into the city to work, and even though they couldn’t earn much, their goals were extremely clear––for example, to earn enough to go home and build a house, get married, and raise a kid. The young smarts, though…. Their family already had a house in their hometown, but they couldn’t earn enough to buy a house in the city. Maybe they didn’t even have enough to pay for a wedding and get married. White-collar youth want to settle down in the city, but it’s hard for them too. In the end, the urban white-collar youth are in a similar position to the smarts. They work hard, but they can’t reach any kind of goal, unless they sell themselves completely.

NS: What’s your opinion on these white-collar workers jokingly calling themselves “laborers” (dagongren)?

LYF: I haven’t considered it too closely. They may have the same feeling of despair around their ability to change their fate, around class mobility. White-collar workers are also workers, their work is difficult, but compared to the smarts, it’s a different kind of difficulty. A lot of white-collar workers want a better car, or aren’t satisfied with a 1,000 yuan bag, they want the one that costs 2,000 yuan––they’ve actually been kidnapped by consumer society. But the smarts really don’t have any money at all. After the [initial phase of the] pandemic [in China from January to April 2020], a lot of smarts couldn’t find jobs, and they relied on loans from mobile apps to survive. By May or June, they were able to start working again to pay off the debt. There was a guy who raises fighting chickens who sold one of his prize birds for meat: a seven-pound chicken sold for 300 yuan. That kind of poverty, we can’t really understand. 

Many young smarts have approached me to borrow money, but it’s all in amounts under 100 yuan. Sometimes they borrow just 20 yuan. They come to Guangzhou and they can’t find a job, they don’t have anything to eat or even have to sleep on the street. The smarts in the film aren’t as desperate, because they’re so young. But the examples they’ve seen, some of the people around them––they really don’t have any possibilities, they’re hopeless. I ask the smarts: Have any of your friends gotten rich? They all say no, nobody has. 

NS: A lot of people are curious why there’s still a lively smart youth culture in Dongguan’s Shipai district. Everybody has this mistaken impression that smarts, QQ Space, and non-mainstream culture are all parts of a kind of disappearing online life or subculture.

LYF: There aren’t many places left that are really open and accepting to smarts. There are only a few final strongholds: Shipai district in Dongguan, Chenghai in Shantou, and a small district in Wenzhou all still have a few active smarts. These places all have similarities: A large number of small factories and workshops, most of which are producing small parts for some large electronics factory, or making spray paint for toy factories, or otherwise producing very small, simple parts. 

Management in this kind of small factory isn’t as strict, and they don’t have very many cultural requirements––they don’t care if you grow your hair out, for example. Of course, the wages are low too. It is precisely these places that let smarts keep existing. Of course, smarts don’t blow out their hair every day––normally they’ll wait until weekends to do it. Good hairspray can only keep your hair up for three days at most, and it normally just lasts for a day before collapsing. In 2018, one hundred smarts came to the meeting in Shipai and the big hair salons couldn’t keep up, they were doing hair from the early morning all through the afternoon. On long weekends it costs 40 yuan to do your hair, and 20 on weekdays. 

Now, there are maybe only a few hundred people in the country involved in smart culture. The internal definition of the culture also differs: Many smarts will use fake hair, because they can’t find jobs if they grow their hair out. When they wear a wig to shoot a video or walk the streets, they feel like the look is just like it was back when they would grow their hair out. In that moment, they feel like they have become a different person. 

NS: You lived in Shipai for over a month. What made the deepest impression on you while you were there?

LYF: There’s still some pretty good public space in Shipai: there are two skating rinks, and Shipai Park. I think the design of the park is especially good––it’s not elitist, it feels like it won’t turn anyone away, that kind of feeling. The park seems like a place where anyone can find a place to sit down and have fun. The park is also close to the factories, and smarts can come to show off and get away from life on the assembly line. 

Once in 2018 I was in Shipai Park and the whole scene was magnificent––it was a long weekend, and workers didn’t have anything to do. Tens of thousands of youth were walking around the park, circulating. They were all normal workers, who make the least amount of money, the lowest level. A lot of them were members of southern ethnic minority groups. The smarts were there too, a very small part of the group. You could see that there were Miao people singing, Zhuang people singing duige (对歌), and people wrestling, very formally, in ethnic wrestling traditions. A lot of people were sitting on the ground, meeting up with people from the same hometown, chatting, and playing on their phones. 

This kind of hustle and bustle is rare in other places. For example, in some big factories, they’re very particular about shift changes: only a few people enter and leave every 15 minutes, so you’ll never see this kind of crowd, just a continuous stream of people entering and leaving in a long line. Most people just hold their phones, scrolling endlessly, waiting to start their shift. At night, when everyone comes out [of the factories], Guangdong gets hot, and people aren’t willing to go back to their dorms, so tired workers sit on the roadside, or lay down and play with their phones. There isn’t anywhere to have fun, so they can’t be like the smarts, almost bursting [with enthusiasm], letting everyone follow them. 

NS: In one talk you gave, you said that there are no smarts with wonderful lives––smarts’ lives are extremely impoverished. Compared to smarts, are normal factory workers even more impoverished?

LYF: Compared with regular workers in small factories, the smarts are only slightly different. Smarts are a bit more sensitive, or a bit more artistic. They pay a bit more attention to their own bodies and emotions, and the reactions of the outside world. This is unlike most other workers, who simply look to social norms and follow them. Smarts generally can’t stand that, and want to do something different. 

When we interview smarts, we normally do the interview in small hotels, after 10:00 PM. In factory districts, we can’t find anywhere else to do it. After working ten or twelve hours, these kids have to go home first, shower, blow out their hair, and change into better-looking clothes before they can come do the interview. They’re a bit more attentive in that way. But they’re under the same hourly or piece wage where they can never keep up. If their hands stop moving, suddenly they don’t have any money. 

When migrating out to work, most workers depend on hometown relationships. But smarts have jumped beyond hometown networks. In Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Hainan, and other places, smarts used shared aesthetic sensibilities and online connections to create their own families. Within this family, they are like brothers and sisters––“if you come over here to work, you can stay with me for a few days while you get set up.” 

A smart was talking with me once, and I didn’t record it, but the way he expressed it was just like a philosopher. He said, “If you’re not a smart, then you don’t have a history. A life spent on the assembly line doesn’t have any value.” 

NS: You commissioned 915 short videos, and selected some to put into your documentary. What was it that moved you about these self-filmed videos from ordinary workers?

LYF: The videos I collected can be separated into three types. Most of them are videos of workstations, or the assembly line. The second type records life inside the factory. The third records everyday life for jobseekers in factory districts. The videos come from Shipai, Dongguan, Shenzhen, and other areas with large concentrations of factories. 

No single video from the workstation collection made a very deep impression on me, but after watching them all, they collectively left a very sharp impression: The work environment, the intensity of the work, the hours––all of these were beyond what I had imagined. I knew people were working overtime, but I didn’t know they worked for that long. A lot of work environments are pretty bad, and the workers look so young. 

Some of the workers recorded conditions in larger factories. This is really quite hard to do, because taking out your phone can get you fined. In one of the videos, the shift manager is leading the workers in saying “Hello, how are you doing, I’m doing very well.” From the video, you can see the position that workers are put into, being cursed or scolded. In another, two kids are unemployed, so they go to apply for jobs, and the video they shot captures the whole job application process, including a blood test. For job applications, they check your hands, they check your body, just like at a slave market, they look to see if you can move your joints. These two videos left a deep impression on me.

Four smarts with colorful hair sit on the grass in a park, while pedestrians in mainstream clothing walk behind them
While diaosi culture longs for mainstream recognition, smart culture is just a way of sticking together to stay warm.

NS: Before you met any smarts, when you only knew about them from the internet, you said that you believed they “represented a resistance to consumerism.” Why did you come to that conclusion? 

LYF: In 2010, I held a “migrant youth” art program with some artists in Chongqing. Our posters advocated “self-definition” and “aesthetic autonomy.” In Wuhan, I developed the Donghu Art Plan with Li Juchuan.1

Both of these were attempts to resist mainstream aesthetics and values. Around that time, I saw smarts on the internet. Based on their pictures and writing, I felt like smarts were some third-tier college students. It was hard for me to understand why some people would take the initiative to defame themselves, humiliate themselves, make themselves ugly, curse themselves as stupid, and make fun of their own “noble” title. But they kept at it for so long, with so many people taking part––isn’t that a kind of cultural resistance? 

It wasn’t until very late that I realized that I had never seen real smarts online––what I had seen were movements to defame the smarts. As for whatever kind of resistance [I saw], that was a mistaken impression that I had gotten from people trying to defame them. 

NS: In a talk, you mentioned how rural-urban divides appeared in non-mainstream culture around 2007. It was around 2010 when smarts started to be stigmatized online. Why did these changes take place at those moments? 

LYF: In the period before and just after the 2008 Olympics, a large divide was created between rural and urban China. Outside information was rushing in, and a lot of people also started to go overseas––society underwent a massive change. But this had much more influence on urbanites: Their salaries increased, and people who had previously engaged in “non-mainstream” (非主流) fashions, even those with “heretical” (异端) hairstyles, began to develop a more sense of sophisticated aesthetics.

But the change in environment for migrant workers wasn’t as big. They continued to work too hard. If you work ten to fifteen hours every day, and just check how many people visit your QQ Space every day, having a few more people visit is enough to give you a sense of accomplishment so you can go to sleep happy. Another hobby was to see what one star or another did with their hair recently and figure out if you can do the same thing. Most people were in just this kind of situation. 

With such a fast pace of work, under extreme pressure and depression, what you need––what workers need, is something particularly strong, like a hairstyle far out of the mainstream. At the time, there was a phrase, “rural counterculture.” Among the non-mainstream, in subcultures, there are a lot of different “families” or “clans” and the smarts are just part of that. For example, the Cruel Snow family, who mostly sell things online to help you set up a really cool-looking QQ Space, or the Buried Love family, who project themselves as being very depressed, saying catchphrases like––“My heart is broken, I can’t love for ten years” or “My love is buried for three years”––this kind of relationship-related stuff. But the term “smart” [shamate, transliterated from the English word “smart”] made it out of that specific circle [of participants in “non-mainstream” fashion], and people on the internet started to apply this term to anyone with that sort of hairstyle. 

Before 2010, nobody knew about smarts, they were just in their own circle. And the smarts didn’t understand the outside world––they thought that they were the most fashionable people in China, and posted pictures all over social media. They saw that the Li Yi forum on Baidu was really popular, so they posted pictures on Li Yi. At the time, overly-sincere accounts like Sister Furong were still really popular––so when people found the smarts, they had found something else to make fun of, and isn’t that a comfortable place to be? 

NS: Starting in roughly 2013, smart culture gradually disappeared. Why was there a sudden upsurge in people roasting smart culture online? From your point of view, what is the context behind this?

LYF: At the time, diaosi (屌丝) culture was popular.2 Actually diaosi is not a very clearly-defined group, and their self-confidence was not too bad: people in the group had the feeling that their talents just haven’t been recognized yet. Diaosi and smart are not the same: diaosi still recognizes and approves of elite culture, it’s just that the elites don’t recognize them. At the time, the diaosi had seen a wave of other cultures worse off than themselves coming up, and wanting to pick on [others] is a very common mentality.

All of society exists within an elite culture or a rational system. Those things that don’t accord with the rules must always be suppressed. Outside of this [suppression] there can be no other form of relationship; we are not even willing to reach a basic understanding of what something that doesn’t accord with the rules actually is. What I think is interesting is that so many of the people who sneak into non-mainstream QQ groups, kicking people out of the group and continually tearing apart people’s [online] families are diaosi.

Diaosi accept elite culture: elite culture says that smarts are ugly, that their aesthetic is problematic. Diaosi absolutely do not understand that aesthetics are a cultural construct. They believe that marginal culture is not a subjective matter. So whenever they see a lonely smart, they see it as an opportunity to vent. That is, in order to prove that they are “elite,” they punch down at smarts. Is that kind of behavior ok?

The whole of society is in an ongoing process of standardization, making it difficult to tolerate people like smarts. Diaosi expected to receive mainstream recognition when their talents were eventually realized, but smarts don’t even know what “elite” is. Actually, the word “diaosi” still had a little connotation of resistance, a pride that no longer exists nowadays when [white-collar youth] say [despondently] that they are [merely] “common laborers” (dagongren) or “996” [working twelve hours a day six days a week].

NS: You said that when you were filming the documentary you found that smarts were frightened of the world, making it difficult to conduct interviews. What can you tell me about the beatings that took place around 2013?

LYF: There were some people who thought that the smart hairstyle and their style of speaking online was too arrogant, so they just wanted to beat them up. When Luo Fuxing was in middle school and had just become internet famous, he had his own [smart] “family” online. Because of this, he was beaten and insulted at school, which was the main reason that he dropped out. Some smarts also mentioned that when they were eating out in Kunming, they were forced to the ground by people from another table and their hair was burned off. 

Prior to that, when smart was still just a kind of fashion, no one thought it was bad. But when public opinion came to believe that smart was bad, smarts became demonized by outsiders. One smart told me that he was working in an industrial district and didn’t know that back home no one took part in smart culture any longer. When he went back home, his friends told him: “Hurry and wash your hair. Whenever people with a smart hairstyle come home, they get beaten.” Another smart told me about another kind of situation: Before, he was also smart, but later he changed sides to beating smarts. When I asked him why, he said, “None of us are involved anymore, we think it’s not serious, but here you are, still playing around with it.” In industrial districts, a lone smart will often be beaten after walking a girl home at night. The root of all of this is a blind allegiance to the aesthetics of mainstream culture.

NS: In the past, smart and other non-mainstream cultures were often the butt of the jokes. Now netizens also like to mock mukbangs [eating shows] and rural-themed videos. Do these two trends have any similarities?

LYF: There is a commonality here. We can see that urban pop culture is a kind of “counterattack” culture: it is opposed to mainstream culture. For example, in the cities some young people say, “We’re so ‘subcultural’(亚).” They think this makes them cool and it makes them feel validated. But they don’t identify with the smarts or livestream hosts on Kuaishou [an online streaming platform oriented toward young migrant workers], so they don’t accept them as countercultural.

In the documentary We Were Smart, a female smart says, “Even if this thing (participating in smart culture) were wrong, I’d still do it anyway.” And Luo Fuxing said, “I made myself into a bad kid.” He didn’t think of himself as impressive, and even thought that he might be wrong. They treated smart as a means of self-protection. Now it’s similar for livestreamers: in their hearts they think, “If you say I’m stupid, then I’m stupid. But I just need to be seen.”

What’s different is that if you shoot “vulgar” videos on Kuaishou, you can benefit from it: it has a commercial angle. If your video is recommended on Kuaishou, the rewards for livestreaming can completely change. This includes one fake smart who became a “big V” [verified users with over 500,000 followers] on Sina Weibo: it’s all a kind of fan culture. But smarts do not benefit, it’s nothing more than blips that show up while scrolling through your QQ wall: yellow diamond “nobility,” purple diamond “nobility,” and so on. These elite statuses (yellow diamond, purple diamond, etc.) do not have anything to do with ranking, they’re just for show (办家家). They don’t indicate that I am a duke, they just mean that I can do more than you, an earl. At the most, you can pay 5 yuan to join a smart QQ group. Within smart culture, it’s more about staying in a group to keep warm, mutually consoling one another.

A young man gives another young man a haircut on an outdoor patio
In-person experience can puncture the bubble of online perceptions about reality.

NS: Some say that on Kuaishou you can see another side of China, another kind of “scenery”: documentaries that realistically depict this generation. As a documentary filmmaker, do you agree with this assessment? 

LYF: When I asked my staff to collect videos, at first it was inspired by the short-video format of Kuaishou. At the time, I didn’t use Kuaishou videos directly. It was primarily an issue of getting publishing rights, but also technically speaking there was no way to use them. The videos that the staff sent had special effects added and they were too short: most were only a few seconds long on a loop. Some videos didn’t even have the original sound and were just overlaid with a song.

Clips that film real life are too rare on Kuaishou. Most of the recordings on Kuaishou have been made into entertainment. Most people who produce videos come from a kind of fan culture, and they post videos because they want to attract people and get likes. Documentaries, on the other hand, are made to reflect the environment. Some Kuaishou videos shy away from real life just when they are at the point of reflecting it, and they use an entertaining style or filters to process the video.

NS: In 2005 you released your first work, Before the Flood (淹没), a documentary shot by yourself and Yan Yu. How did you move from your previous profession to become a documentary filmmaker?

LYF:  I attended university at the Central Academy of Drama. At that time, theatre wasn’t doing well: most people wanted to shoot [fiction] movies or TV shows. I wasn’t suited for collective work, collective creation––you had to manage a lot of people, match courage and wits with the crew, get sponsorships, look for actors, and so on––so I gave up on that kind of thing. I was able to grow up when I got to Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, where artists were more common.

After I graduated in 1992, I went to Guangzhou and was responsible for shooting advertisements at an ad agency. I resigned to shoot ads independently before I had been at the company for two years. In 1994, I went to Beijing to shoot a promotional film about modern-day agriculture. I don’t really understand agriculture, so I just began at the beginning, reading books on agriculture and sociology. I spent forty to fifty days reading books at the All-China Federation of Trade Unions community center (职工之家).

Afterwards I returned to Guangzhou and moved in next to the provincial library, where I read a lot more. At the time I felt conflicted: reading books and earning money were in conflict, and I felt that shooting commercials was meaningless. After two years, I returned to Chongqing. I didn’t do anything; I just stayed at home reading, or wandered through the city, seeing what different artists were doing. This went on for about five years.

In 2000, a classmate came to Chongqing and said he was getting into digital technology. He got someone to lend him a digital video camera, and he had shot a documentary about old-fashioned barbers. I thought this was a good idea, so I bought a camera and shot my own documentary. While filming Before the Flood, I was learning, doing and thinking all at the same time. For those first few years, [while filming] I was actually expressing my desires. After spending so many years reading, I also wanted to know: What the heck was happening to China?

I stayed in Fengjie for 11 months, through all four seasons, returning to Chongqing only twice to get clothes. Every day I left home early and returned late. Many things I experienced have left a deep impression on me to this day. The experience that left the strongest impression didn’t make it into the film. I had filmed a person on a demolition crew who was electrocuted to death: the corpse stayed there for three or four days. His wife was on the side crying, but no one paid her any attention.

What is resettlement compensation (赔偿), and what is resettlement reimbursement (补偿)? Compensation is if someone breaks your bowl, they give you a bowl. Reimbursement is if they break your bowl, they reimburse you with a spoon. Resettlement policy is reimbursement, not compensation. Ordinary people say, “What you say sounds good, but where will I go to live?” I’ve seen many things, including the relationship between the collective and the individual, what happens at the lowest levels and the humble state of individuals in the midst of major events.

NS: When shooting documentaries, you often bring up “in the flesh experiences.” Can you discuss this topic in detail?

LYF: When shooting a documentary, you might be able to use the internet to look for material or interview the people involved. But this isn’t my experience. Even if I get a lot of information [online], I still want to go live in Shipai, I still want to go to the smarts’ hometowns and roam the countryside. This can determine the approach that I chose when editing, the weight that I give to events: emphasizing some touching elements and minimizing others. This is the particularly important element of “in the flesh experience.”

Today, when we see things online, we really can’t know if they are true or false, we have to go and see them for ourselves. Only when you are face-to-face with that person can you see their viewpoint, know their logic and reasoning.

When staying in the hometown of a smart, you realize that their homes are extremely broken down, but they have a very fast internet connection. If you don’t go, there is no way for you to experience this kind of absurdity. If you don’t travel from Shanghai to the mountainous parts of Yunnan and Guizhou, you can’t have a sense for the two-hundred year gap [in development] between China’s various regions. Online, you might get the impression that those places are small and peaceful towns surrounded by beautiful scenery. You can’t tell that these beautiful places cannot support a person, that he must leave them to work. In the flesh experience can puncture the images of reality that you received online, or through propaganda, remaking your impressions of reality.

When we are talking about data––for example, workers work ten hours, eleven hours­­––it doesn’t leave any impression on you. It’s only when you see them get off work and see that kind of exhaustion, see workers sitting on the roadside, with no one speaking––some looking at their phones, some not looking at anything at all––it’s only then that you can grasp this kind of exhaustion.

NS: You often mention how the methods today’s apps use to push content, including algorithms and AI, can make different levels of society become more segmented. Could you speak more specifically about this?

LYF: In the U.S. elections, each [faction] pushes its own [content]; everyone sees only the parts they want to understand. When you are always looking at something, the weight that your brain gives to it will become even stronger. When other information arises, you may ignore it. The information that you receive through your phone has more weight, much more than information from real life. Many people will also trust the information delivered by the phone, which becomes reality.

Before arriving in Shipai, we had not added any smarts on Wechat or Kuaishou, we still had not seen their posts. When they turn on their phone, it is just for job-hunting, using apps for work, checking how much money they have left, that kind of information. For these young people, this is the only kind of topic they can relate to—no one cares about the U.S. election. They don’t go to the cinema to see movies and most can’t go to Guangzhou or Shenzhen, as they can’t get enough money together. When we brought up gossip about entertainment stars, they didn’t care about that either. What they discussed was completely different from us. Cellphones have absolutely not bridged these kinds of gaps.

Phone apps’ algorithms and recommendations have a larger influence on urbanites. They can allow this generation, especially young urbanites, to become especially narrow-minded, because they spend more time on their phones. Workers spend most of their time at work, and the rest of the time sleeping, facing more pressure in everyday life.

A photo of a street in an urban village, filled with men and women in work clothes
He can only stand to live in the factory district; downtown areas and even urban villages make him uncomfortable. 

NS: The protagonist of We Were Smart, Luo Fuxing, provided a lot of help when shooting the documentary. For example, he thought up the slogans for recruiting smarts to help out with the film: “No deposit needed” and “A daily income of 1,000 yuan is within your grasp.” After being in contact with him for such a long time, in what ways has he inspired you?

LYF: I later realized, workers’ logic and our logic are not the same. When Luo Fuxing said “no deposit needed,” that was because many people have been scammed online, with the scam beginning from a deposit. Many kids have been scammed by pyramid schemes. Actually, it’s not because they want to earn money, but because girls tricked them into joining. One girl said: “If you join, I will marry you.” They joined, and then they couldn’t get out until they had been scammed out of all their money.

In the process of collaborating, I was often in conflict with Luo Fuxing. Sometimes I would be talking with Wu Ya, the director of photography, about coffee or something that had happened internationally, and Luo Fuxing would get very angry and the next day he wouldn’t go to work. He believed he had been overlooked; he thought we were just trying to show off.

I also slowly learned how to change my method of talking with workers, understanding their way of thinking. For example, a journalist once came to interview the smarts, but they wanted to be paid. The journalist said that this would violate journalistic ethics. My view is, your ethics might be right, but these ethics of yours take up other people’s time. Workers at the factory measure their time in terms of money: the factory has determined that one hour is worth 20 yuan.

In the process of interacting with Luo Fuxing, this kind of thing happened quite often. You can slowly find that your thoughts are not as clear-cut as those of intellectuals, and some things have changed.

NS: In the documentary, Luo Fuxing says that he is particularly afraid of going to Shenzhen. Is this phenomenon common among smarts and other young workers?

LYF: At the time, Zhejiang’s “Dreams Come True” show found Luo Fuxing and wanted to help him open a hair salon in Shenzhen. I went with him into the city: he looked at rental information and looked at the storefronts in the urban village, but in the end he still went back to the factory district. He felt like that was the only place where he belonged, the only place he could stand. He felt uncomfortable in other parts of the city, even if it was only the urban village. People there were all talking about things that a smart couldn’t understand.

The segmentation of the Pearl River Delta is very obvious. Urban villages, wealthy areas and white-collar districts are different spaces. City people can go to the urban village, but they will never go to the distant factory districts. Smarts’ lives are in the factory districts, so in the same way they don’t understand life in the city: they are cut off [from the rest of the world] and segmented. In the factory district, you could go your whole life without ever buying an Apple charging cable. Urban villages in Shenzhen and Guangzhou all have different characteristics but are very similar to life in the city itself. For example, snacks like double-skinned milk custard (双皮奶) might be a little cheaper in the urban village, but the quality isn’t that different from what you eat in the city. In the factory district, the price is cheaper still, but the quality has completely changed: it doesn’t taste like custard at all. The factory districts are never that different from each other, no matter if they are in Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, or Sichuan. Factory districts consist entirely of enclaves for people from outside the city––they’re more like the countryside.

NS: What else don’t we know about smarts?

LYF: On top of a mountain in Guizhou, I met a smart who made 3500 yuan a month in his hometown. He liked to give donations (打赏) to other smarts online, spending up to 5000 yuan a month doing that. Another smart even borrowed money for that purpose, believing that it showed his smart pride, that it created an atmosphere of belonging. Smarts’ experiences are very similar. For example, the experience of being a left-behind child, or having your bag stolen as soon as you got off the train [into the city]. Or “when I got a lift on a motorcycle taxi, I got scammed: When getting on, the driver told me it would cost ten yuan, but when I arrived the driver said I had to pay 100.” They use a shared aesthetic style, hairstyle and experience to establish a sense of commonality (同温层).

Besides this, people say that the song “Smart Meets Wash, Cut, Dry” (洗剪吹) wasn’t made by them at all, smarts don’t even listen to that song. When we went together to Yunnan and Guizhou to see the smart countryside, we went by car. I brought a bluetooth speaker, and the whole trip I had never heard any of the songs they played. I couldn’t stand them, the rhythm was so repetitive it was like brainwashing. 

NS:  We Were Smart discusses many individual life experiences. What kind of lessons can these experiences give to today’s young people?

LYF: I don’t dare say who it will enlighten. Today, people all like to debate who is right and who is wrong, who can give more enlightenment to whom. But the thing that is needed more is disenchantment (祛魅), to let the things in shadow be seen. Some people might be able to see workers in a new light, some might see themselves. Some people know what “heresy” really is, while others might see that intellectuals lack empiricism. These are all possible, as my attempt [in the film] was not made in the spirit of enlightenment. The most important thing is helping the unseen to be seen.

The creators of the documentary We Were Smart, from left to right: director of photography Wu Ya, director Li Yifan, and smart celebrity Luo Fuxing. 


  1. On the background to the Donghu Art Plan in a struggle against the commercial development of East Lake Ecological Reserve in the outskirts of Wuhan, see “Gleaning the Welfare Fields” in issue 1 of the Chuang journal. This is also mentioned in “When There’s a Fire, We Run” from our book Social Contagion and Other Material on Microbiological Class War in China (forthcoming from Charles H. Kerr in October 2020).
  2. Diaosi (literally “penis hair”) means something like “loser.” Around 2012 the term was embraced by young white-collar workers feeling frustrated about the possibility of succeeding in the goals society had set for them—similar to the recent embrace of “lying flat” (tangping) by young workers frustrated with their experience of “involution” (neijuan). See “’Diaosi’: Understanding China’s Generation X” and “China’s underdog youth find success in ‘diaosi’ – or ‘loser’ – identity.