Field Notes from Shanghai: Fansubbing in China

I had dinner on my last night in Shanghai with Yu Liu, a reporter who covers digital culture for Lifeweek Magazine, which is roughly the equivalent of Time. She shared with me a story she had written about the growing fan culture around Prison Break in China. As she notes, Prison Break‘s focus on strong filial bonds resonate powerfully with Chinese cultural tradition.

(This left me wondering about the popularity of Supernatural in China — which has the strong brotherly affection coupled with ghost stories and would seem ready made for this market, but I didn’t see any signs of it.)

Prison Break had already been mentioned to me several times during the visit as a series which was sparking strong fan response here. Yu Liu’s report describes the elaborate collaborative network which has emerged to allow Chinese fans to translate and recirculate Prison Break episodes within twelve hours of their airing in the United States. As we spoke, she drew strong parallels to the fan subbing practices around anime in the western world, which I have discussed here in the blog in the past.

She said that during the first season, the Chinese fans had discovered the series on dvds sold on street corners as part of the black market in entertainment properties here. By the second season, the fans primarily relied on the internet to access content, impatient with the longer turnaround time of dvd production. Like American anime fans, they took the media in their own hands.

She notes that some of the amateur media fan groups in China can translate as many as twenty television shows a week, suggesting how Prison Break fits within larger patterns of cultural practice. She noted that the technical languages used on contemporary procedurals such as CSI and the slang used on many American programs posed particular difficulties for Chinese translators, who had mastered textbook English but had less exposure to more specialized argots.

The internet distribution of this content had special implications for rural communities, which had enjoyed less access to dvds than their urban counterparts. Web-based fan cultures were allowing rural youths to more actively engage with their urban counterparts and to become more fully integrated into online communities because they could consume the same television and film properties without significant delays.

Such access, however, was also fostering greater dissatisfaction with what many fans saw as the inferior quality of local media content. Chinese programs, produced under a state service model, had less of a focus on entertainment and fewer of the hallmarks of cult media than programs produced from outside the country, including not only American series but also Korean soaps and Japanese anime programs. Such programs, however, gain little airtime on Chinese television given the government’s long standing quotas on how much foreign content can be distributed within the country.

I was reminded of how I first got into Hong Kong Action films in part through a local dealer who had made pirated dubs of films from Japanese dvds, many of which were not available commercially here in the United States. Over time, I watched attendance at local screenings grow and grow because more and more people got access to films which no one imagined we would be interested in seeing in the first place. You started to see websites emerge which offered more information about the filmmakers and stars. All of this proceeded a wave of immigration during which people like Michelle Yeoh, Chow-Yun Fat, and Jackie Chan, began to appear in western films. Here, again, as I suggest in Convergence Culture, piracy becomes promotion.