Ask-a-Chinese: So No One Told You Life Was…

It has been difficult to find something “light and fluffy” to talk about these days, but the other day when I was reviewing some old hard drives, the files in them triggered some memories. Today, I’d like to show you some fun facts about how American pop culture was consumed in China. Specifically, this would be something that I could remember from the 2000s, as a college student watching tons of (pirated) movies and TV shows.

It was the best of times – well, better, in some sense. The Great Firewall was in its infancy, and exciting things like Youtube were happening before the government realized what to do with it. The leader of the country at the time was, to borrow a nickname of one US politician, quite a maverick. One of the most mavericky things he had done was praising Titanic in a somewhat official capacity, setting off a national craze for that movie, which was allowed to be released uncut and uncensored.

College campuses are more progressive and open by nature. They are also full of tech-savvy people who are quick to navigate around the Internet and find everything it has to offer. With the help of a quite open Internet, (and torrenting), we have limitless and “free” access to almost all movies and TVs that have ever been released on a disk. In my opinion, that was the age when Western/US culture truly became part of the Chinese society – at least among the young and educated.

Another factor that helped further fanning the flame, is the unique structure of the Chinese Internet. Because of their highly centralized status and technical advantage, colleges and universities in China have their own dedicated broadband network, which is topologically separated from residential networks. We call it the “Education Network” (教育网).  It connects all major academic institutions in the country, is incredibly fast regardless of geographical locations, and very, very cheap.

It was probably set up this way for a stronger control by the Party over the demographic *for obvious reasons*. In practice, it becomes a haven for college kids across the country. The students download everything they could get their hands on, and host FTPs and trackers to share with each other all over China. In addition, every university has its own wildly popular internal BBS site, allowing for lively discussions of all things entertainment. Yours truly was once a Mod of such a movie board in college. I eventually got to meet some behind the scene people in Chinese show-biz. It was quite fun.


At this point, I should emphasize that, yes, all of these “cultural appreciations” could only happen thanks to piracy. I recognize this fact, while I’m also unwilling to make a judgement here as it was the reality. Anyway, moving on…

Hollywood was not completely new to China – the first movie that was officially “imported” for commercial showing was The Fugitive. (I might write another piece about the history of “Hollywood in China” in the future – could be a fun one.) Nevertheless, the sudden influx of content was definitely unprecedented, and it brought about some fascinating social phenomena.

Given the campus setting, one of the major impacts these movies and shows has is on education. Specifically, how people learn English. Many colleges, even the best ones, officially incorporate them into the foreign language education. Professors often play movies/TVs in class and have the students study the transcripts to learn grammar and idioms. Compared to how stressful high school in China is, such learning method is obviously a huge hit for college students, and quite successful too.

oscar 1994

When it comes to movies, one of the most influential online resources was IMDb. Most file sharing sites had a dedicated directory for the “IMDb Top 250” movies. The most popular movies among us at the time were basically all on that list: the more artsy ones such as The Godfather Trilogy, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, plus some blockbusters like Titanic/Terminator, The Matrix, LotRs and Harry Potters, etc. I still vividly remember the perpetual fight between supporters of Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption. They would argue over and over again about which one was better, while some Pulp Fiction fans would drop in to say they both sucked. Then we would agree that 1994 was such a magical year.

There were also some peculiar movies that somehow gained a huge following in China, such as Legends of the Fall, and The Legend of 1900 (one of my least favorite). Some people went by the list of Best Pictures winners, and interests in the Oscars exploded after Ang Lee, even though the general public was not as enthusiastic about Crouching Tiger as the American audience.


Among the many TV shows, the most popular one in China is, you guessed it, Friends. It was commonly used in all the English classes, and people would gather in their dorms in front of one computer to watch the show together. Transcripts and screenplays were widely circulated and studied, practically becoming unofficial textbooks for many who were preparing for GRE and TOEFL tests. There were even serious online debates about what exactly Joey’s catchphrase was, because “How you doing” is not grammatically correct. People who finished Friends were often eager to start Joey, and… well, you know how that went. Some would also then discover Will & Grace, which influenced that generation’s attitude towards LGBT quite a lot. Basically what I’m saying is, the NBC golden era happened in China as well, albeit with some delay.


The drama side would feature more contemporary shows. Around 2005, a handful of provincial stations somehow bought the right of 24, and the show aired on actual TV with dubbing. Many caught the bug, and were thirsty for similar shows, hence Prison Break. Fans were quickly divided into these two camps, and Season 1 of PB basically reached the peak of fandom fever. Of course, the 24 people eventually prevailed when PB quickly deteriorated. Other hits like Boston Legal and Lost had their own sizable following as well.

24 also signified the beginning of “binging”, before it was even a word. Most people discovered 24 only seasons after its premiere. Then, as all episodes were readily available throughout the Education Network, and college students had tons of spare time, we would often catch up in the matter of months, even weeks. In extreme cases, there were stories about die hard fans who would block out a day at home, and finish 24 in one day, timing each episode to the clock to get the “real time” experience.

The enthusiastic fans later formed grass root organizations called the “Subtitle Groups” (字幕组). Volunteers, mostly college educated young people, gathered in online forums and devoted their time to translate and produce subtitled media content, and share them with the public. These groups played an important part in further spreading the western pop culture to the public outside of colleges, making them accessible to people who didn’t know much English at all. The translated contents also further diversified to include even popular talk shows – in fact, most talk show hosts were given Chinese nicknames: Jon Stewart is “Uncle Jon” (囧叔); Colbert is “Coco Bear” (扣扣熊); and the best is Seth Meyers, “赛金花”, which literally translated to “prettier than a golden flower”. I don’t know exactly how he got this typically classic Chinese escort name… but hey, it is lovely.

Still, most of these members have not had the chance to experience real America, and all they/we learnt was from a distance. This resulted in hilarious mistakes in translation sometimes, many of them I only noticed years later with the knowledge necessary to understand the jokes. In one episode of Will & Grace about “ex-gay”s, Karen made a comment on if anybody realize “what this (convert gays to ex-gays) would do to the fall line?!” The translator translated this as “how this would affect the waterfall” in Chinese, with a parenthesized note saying: “I’m not sure what she means…” I feel quite amused thinking about that person, sitting in front of a computer, trying to figure out what exactly “fall line” was, all while having no clue of the stereotypes of gays and fashion and New York City.

Finally, here is a personal anecdote from back in the days to conclude this piece. In 2008, the year of Beijing Olympics and Obama’s election, Google, Youtube, Facebook and Wikipedia were all available in mainland China. At that point I had already seen all of Friends and 24, but what happened next would be much more important. One day, a friend of mine, who was studying in the US, posted a Hulu link (which was free back then) of this video on his Live Space blog:

It is not an exaggeration to say that my life changed at that moment. That was my introduction to American politics, as well as Tina Fey. I became so interested in the former and basically fell in love with the latter, which then led me to discover 30 Rock, a show no one I knew in China would be interested in. A year later when I came to America, I accidentally found out that another Chinese grad student here was a fan too. He later recruited me to join a subtitle group he was working for at the time, and of all shows, I helped translated a couple episodes of Cougar Town, starring Monica from Friends.

I suppose it’s not quite full circle, but it’s perhaps as close as life can get.