(CNN)"I don't want to be in this relationship anymore!"
"Why? Give me another chance!"
"I don't like your haircut."
This tense exchange is taking place on a country lane bordered by chili fields in rural Guangxi, a southern province in China.
Wu Nengji, a broad shouldered young man sporting an abundant shock of black hair, is arguing with his ex-girlfriend, an attractive girl wearing tall black boots, and her new boyfriend, whose hair is styled in an improbable bouffant.
It is the opening scene for Wu's latest mini-movie, lasting less than one minute. The 24-year-old videographer publishes his films on the Chinese streaming platform Kuaishou under the nickname Xiao Jiji, which means "Little Lucky" in mandarin.
"I don't really have a message to convey," he says. "I just want to make people smile after a long day at work."
Once a hobby, Wu makes a living from his videos, earning between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan ($1,475 to $2,950) per month, about three to six times as much as a Chinese factory worker.
All his revenue comes from his fans. They send him virtual gifts -- a sticker of a rose or a beer worth 1 or 2 yuan, for example -- which he can convert into real money.
His story is far from unique.
"Some streamers barely earn a living and others have become billionaires," details Jian Xu, a communication specialist from Deakin University, in Australia. "In northeast China, which has been badly hit by industrial decline, whole regions have been revitalized thanks to this new source of revenue."
Liu Mama, a northern granny whose feisty raps and regional dishes have become cult, is said to earn 1 million yuan ($147,000) per month.
China's streaming sensation
In China, the streaming of short videos has become a massive industry. The first platforms, YY and Six Rooms, appeared in around 2008. They were soon joined by a host of competitors, such as Meipai, Huajiao, Yizhibo and Douyin. By the end of 2018, 648 million Chinese netizens regularly watched short videos, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). The market for these was worth 11.8 billion yuan ($17.4 million), up 106% from the previous year.
Most of these videos have showcased pretty young girls with pale skin and long eyelashes lip-synching to popular songs in studios made up to look like bedrooms.
But in recent years, a few streaming platforms have popped up showing a grittier side of China. They host videos by people living in rural areas or in third- and fourth-tier cities. Many are based in the rust belt areas of the northeast. Kuaishou, which was created in 2011 and has 266 million monthly active users, is one of these.
"Young people living in cities like the videos on Kuaishou because they seem exotic to them, whereas migrant workers watch them out of a sense of nostalgia for the rural life they have had to leave behind," explains Zhicong Lu, a researcher from Toronto University who has studied the company.
Millions of followers
Wu Nengji started publishing videos on Kuaishou three years ago. He had just returned from Beijing, where he had spent several years working in dead-end jobs. "I tried everything: waiting on tables, delivering food, but I just couldn't make enough money to live," he explains. Back in Hepu, the village he grew up in, he didn't know what to do with himself. So he decided to broadcast his everyday life.
Since then he has produced more than 2,000 videos and has amassed 5.6 million followers.
"I use a single smartphone to shoot all my videos," he says. "I only do one or two takes for each scene." He uses the small alleys and fields surrounding his father's pig farm as a setting, embellished with an eclectic mix of accessories: a pink motorcycle helmet, a silver-haired wig and a plastic tiara.
Some of his creations are poetic, showcasing his life on the farm and his troubles finding a girlfriend. Others are absurdist vignettes of him and his friends executing random dance moves to trashy techno music.
Kuaishou is full of peasants plucking rice, fishers trying to catch eels and grannies cooking traditional recipes. "Some farmers use these videos to promote and sell their produce directly to customers," says Jun Wen Woo, a video streaming expert for IHS Markit, an intelligence firm with expertise on China.
But it also has its own colorful universe.
Kuaishou is where social shake, a collective street dance, was born. It is also the home of mic-shouting, a strange art form somewhere between a rap and rant. And it is full of unconventional characters who appeal to viewers' more voyeuristic instincts, such as a trio of sisters with brittle bone disease, a couple with dwarfism or a young girl who swallows live goldfish.
Some content also rubs up against state censorship.
During the winter of 2017, when the Beijing authorities started clearing out migrant workers living in tenement style housing, Kuaishou was the only platform to document the evictions.
This didn't last long.