There’s a group of burgeoning new stars on China’s live-streaming scene. They’re painfully photogenic, diverse in age and origin, and offer up vividly different performances as the seasons change.
“For me, it’s a must-watch every day. I can’t not watch it, I’ll feel like I’m missing something,” said Yang Weichun, 39, of Zhejiang province. Before live-streaming drew her into a passion for succulents, or “duorou” in Chinese, her phone used to be filled with pictures of her two sons, 13 and 16. Now, her phone has space only for pictures and videos of her several hundred plants, which she scrolls through daily to feel at peace. Unlike teenage boys, she noted, succulents never throw tantrums.
“My sons say, ‘mom is silly to buy so many succulents, what is it for?’ But when I look at my succulents, these useless things, I feel really happy,” said Yang, a business executive with 14-hour work days. “It’s like unconditional love.”
Yang is a top client at Gumupai Succulents — one of the many succulent nurseries in the mountainous region of southwest China run by 30-somethings fleeing their former lives in cramped cities. Equipped with selfie sticks and ring lights, these online-only merchants are part of what Chinese media calls “new farmers.”
Succulent sellers have found their success through live-streaming, described by Forbes as “the Home Shopping Network, but with charismatic, trendy anchors.” On platforms like Taobao Live, sellers host videos that last 16 hours a day or more, blurring the lines between commerce, entertainment, and social media.
Jialu Shan, an economist who studies China’s digital market at the International Institute for Management Development, said live-streaming caught on because it cut out the middleman between buyer and seller, offering more transparency and intimacy in a country often short of both. Instead of relying on Photoshopped or filtered images, buyers can examine products in real time, pose questions to sellers and swap notes with other users.
“To many Chinese people, shopping [through live-streaming] can evoke joy, comfort and fun,” Shan said. The trend was already gaining steam pre-pandemic, but hit its stride during the height of China’s draconian lockdowns. During February 2020, the total number of live streams on Taobao’s marketplace doubled, said owner Alibaba.
“To me, it’s going to be a new normal channel, a big new channel to drive new sales and create new revenue streams,” Shan said.
Many succulent-lovers, or rouyou, are members of China’s rising middle class, born in the ’80s or the ’90s. They tend to be women, sellers say, and often also pet-owners. They accumulate succulents for some of the same reasons American millennials obsess over fiddle leaf figs and variegated monsteras: The plants are pretty, grow well indoors, and provide some relief for urban lives estranged from the natural world. Succulents have the added draw of being inherently resilient — plucking off a leaf spawns a brand new plant — which offers a handy, life-affirming metaphor for the work-weary professional.
And yet, in China, home to nearly 1 billion Internet users, there are some unique outgrowths to traditional plant-rearing.
Demand is on the rise for “succulent fostering,” merchants say. A growing number of (wealthy) clients want to own succulents but aren’t in a rush to get them right away — or ever, actually. They prefer to outsource the parenting part of plant parenthood, content with watching their wards grow through pictures, videos or maybe the occasional visit.
According to state-run broadcaster CCTV, more than 80 percent of succulent sellers now provide fostering. One seller told local media that when he started fostering mid-pandemic, he only wanted to take care of a few succulents on behalf of friends in hotter places. Now, he has 5 acres of land and 270,000 foster plants. A 37-year-old seller from Yunnan, who asked to be identified by her live-streaming name Queen of the Strange Flower, said she has 600 clients who have left plants under her care — some for as long as four years.
“Sometimes, I also find it hard to understand why they do this,” the seller said, laughing. Some of her clients say they have no space in their homes but still want more succulents; others say they’re worried they aren’t equipped to care for the plants, especially if they’re rare or expensive.
“The most important thing about succulents is that they’re good-looking. So if [buyers] are worried they won’t raise it well, they’re more at ease if we take care of them,” she said.
One recent afternoon, Xie Xin, the 31-year-old co-owner of Gumupai Succulents, strolled through a tent in her Yunnan nursery, wielding, as she often did, a gimbal stabilizer attached to her phone.
“Now, look at this one, this one is too pretty,” Xie said, placing her fingers gently on the underside of a dusty pink, windmill-shaped Echeveria. There were up to 20,000 succulents here, some several feet tall with chunky stems; others small enough to fit on her palm.
“This one, here,” Xie said, gingerly picking up a miniature, treelike Crassula specimen between her thumb and index finger, “you think it’s small, but it’s been growing very diligently for three to four years.”
Gumupai, which hosts live streams on Taobao from 8:30 a.m. to midnight daily, has cultivated 100,000 online fans since starting in 2018, said Xie. Most of the company’s revenue still comes from sales, but in recent months, it has ramped up fostering services in response to growing demand. Requests hit a record this summer, though as the weather cools in China, some clients may start asking for plants to be shipped over.
“If we’ve grown [the succulents] from scratch and fostered them for a long time, we do get sad,” said Xie, a Shanghai transplant. “It’s like giving a daughter away on her wedding day.”
Yang is Gumupai’s biggest foster client, with hundreds of succulents under their care. She wants eventually to retrieve all her dourou — she recently bought a house with a large garden expressly for this purpose, she said — but she’s in no rush. She’s working toward retiring at age 50, at which point, her succulent-rearing skills will be more up-to-mark, she said. And in the meantime, she can see her plants whenever she wants, a collection of pin-sharp pixels on her phone screen.
“In the past, I wanted to travel and see all of China’s grand rivers and mountains. Now, I don’t have any of that desire at all,” Yang said. “I just want to be in my garden, raising my succulents — just that simple.”
“I don’t have other dreams,” she added. “Just this one.”
Lyric Li and Alicia Chen contributed reporting.