DALIAN, China — He delivers rants about unfaithful girlfriends, sky-high housing prices and spoiled young people. He films himself spinning on his head and doing push-ups at the gym. He sings about love and desperation and shouts like a military sergeant.
Not long ago, Li Tianyou was a scrawny junior high school dropout struggling to make a living in China’s dreary industrial northeast.
Now, he is one of China’s best-known internet personalities, commanding a fan base of 22 million people for his live video streams and earning more than $2 million a year in payments from his fans.
With his crude jokes and rat-a-tat riffs on modern life, Mr. Li has become a hero to a generation of disaffected young people in China’s smaller cities and rural areas. Many of them are spiteful toward elites, skeptical of authority and eager for an escape from menial work.
“I understand the hardness of their lives,” Mr. Li, 23, said during a recent visit to Dalian, a seaside northeastern city. “I spent my childhood watching sheep and cows and going to the river to swim.”
Mr. Li’s followers tune in daily to watch him laze on a couch, impersonate characters like rigid teachers and raucous cabdrivers and perform rap-like songs, known as hanmai, or microphone shouting.
Many of his compositions center on love, inequality and the struggles facing young people searching for meaning outside of China’s big cities.
Critics have called his work lowbrow, offensive and sexist. But Mr. Li says he believes the strength of his fan base shows his ideas resonate.
“Most Chinese people come from common families, or even from poor families,” he said. “My work speaks to them.”
Raised in Jinzhou, a northeastern city of three million, Mr. Li struggled as a child to find his footing.
His parents were laid off from a state-owned pharmaceutical company in the late 1990s as the government pushed to privatize China’s economy. He dropped out of school at 15 and worked odd jobs as a street dancer, car salesman and meat griller.
“Our parents’ philosophy was, ‘If you survive, that means you qualify to be part of society. If you starve, that means you’re not trying,’” he said.
Mr. Li said his own life mirrored the experiences of many of his fans: a bitter childhood that gave way to fierce independence and a desire to provoke.
Angry and dejected, Mr. Li turned his tales of misfortune into songs on China’s modern-day obsession with money and his struggles to court women. He began live-streaming them in 2014 on YY.com, a popular online platform.
One of his most famous pieces is titled, “Listen Up, Women!” In it, he argues that young women place too much emphasis on wealth in choosing a mate:
Many people say men turn bad when they get rich,
But I want to ask you today,
Do you want men who are good but have no money?
Mr. Li’s words quickly made him one of China’s best-known wanghong, or internet celebrities.
While many live-streaming stars, such as Papi Jiang, an irreverent comic from Shanghai, are culled from the ranks of China’s top arts schools, Mr. Li is unpolished, raw and agitated. He considers himself a champion of the working class and regularly rails against what he sees as elitism in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
Conscious of his fan base, Mr. Li has taken his image as a man of the people to an extreme.
He eats bananas because “they are easy to get for ordinary people, not some fancy fruit.” He keeps his earnings in the bank account of his mother, a restaurant owner. And he is fond of quoting Mao, another populist figure, often saying, for example, that small villages can band together to rival the influence of big cities.
Mr. Li is particularly popular among young women, who admire his humility, his devotion to his parents and his traditional views on marriage and gender.
“His fans are people born after 1990 who are brave and say whatever we believe without anything to hide,” said Liu Chenfan, a 19-year-old from the northeastern province of Liaoning who will start college this fall. “He’s a real man, ready to protect women.”
Zhang He, 25, a cashier who makes about $450 a month at a spa in Dalian, about half the median income in Beijing, said Mr. Li understood the plight of workers struggling to make a living outside China’s big cities.
“Each time I watch him, I laugh so hard that I forget things that bother me in real life, like work and relationship issues,” she said. “He never spends money wildly, although he is so rich now.”
Mr. Li calls his fans the “Tianyou Army,” and he solicits their help in vanquishing rival internet stars in nightly competitions.
During the contests, Mr. Li and other stars gather in a virtual chat room, where they take turns singing and cracking jokes in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands. They implore fans to show support by sending virtual gifts, which translate into payments for the stars and help determine rankings on live-streaming sites.
Mr. Li’s fans, hungry for the thrill of watching him try to skewer and upstage other stars, shower him with gifts.
Most fans offer small contributions of a dollar or less, in the form of virtual gifts like bottles of Chanel and teddy bears. But some well-off fans, eager to flaunt their wealth, occasionally offer gifts worth thousands of dollars or more for V.I.P. status in Mr. Li’s chat room, which earns them shout-outs from Mr. Li and prominent display of their name during broadcasts.
“Some people want to show their existence and power by money,” Mr. Li said. “Without money, it would be boring.”
During a recent live-streaming session, Mr. Li was perched in front of a webcam in a hotel suite thick with cigarette smoke. As he sat at the keyboard, cycling through comments from fans, he implored an online audience of 150,000 people to send gifts.
The broadcast quickly became a circus. Mr. Li performed his signature hanmai songs, each one faster than the previous and punctuated by his harsh northeastern accent. At one point, he cajoled a friend into performing a back stand to attract more money.
“Consider it poverty relief,” he said, pursing his lips for effect. “I need your help.”
By the end of the night, fans had sent him more than $10,000 worth of gifts.
Mr. Li’s nightly winnings add up to about $4 million each year. Mr. Li would not say how much he keeps for himself, but the Chinese news media has reported that YY.com retains about half of Mr. Li’s earnings as a fee, as it does with other prominent internet stars.
As the influence of stars like Mr. Li has grown, the Chinese government has taken notice. More than 344 million people in China have tried at least one of the country’s estimated 150 live-streaming apps, according to official data. Last year, officials imposed stricter controls on these apps, forbidding sexual content and original reporting during live-streams. The government has also shuttered dozens of live-streaming sites and fined some hosts for obscene language.
Mr. Li understands the government’s power to break stars, and said he had cleaned up his act to avoid trouble. He said he worries that live-streaming has had a negative effect on Chinese society, promoting violence and bad language.
While his critics have compared him to a low-class beggar or street performer, Mr. Li says he is no different from traditional Chinese opera singers, who in ancient times competed vigorously for money and attention. He said he is hoping to bring his work to new media, including movies, and to open a school to train live-streaming stars. He said he plans to live-stream as long as it remains lucrative.
“I’m not used to being rich yet,” he said. “To me, being rich sometimes only means I can have as many bananas as I want.”