Volunteer subtitle groups that translate uncensored American television shows and films are highly popular in China. Yet the future of one of the largest and most popular subtitling sites, Renren Yingshi, is murky after police raided the company’s Shanghai office, arresting 14 people in an ostensible crackdown on video piracy. At SupChina, Jiayun Feng reported on the raid on Renren and the social media outcry that arose as fans feared the loss of a rare source of uncensored international culture:
After the arrests were made public, Renren’s website remained accessible. But there are reasons to believe that Renren is on its last legs. Earlier last month, its mobile app suddenly went out of service, and a person who claimed to be close to the situation wrote in a viral post (in Chinese) that Renren had entered its last days. Although members of Renren later denied rumors that the website was under pressure from authorities to shut down, many users were convinced that the service was in government crosshairs.
[…] Launched in 2006, Renren Yingshi was one of the pioneering Chinese subtitle sites run by a loosely-connected community of passionate volunteers, who translated foreign movies and TV programs and offered pirated video downloads. Over the years, the team’s extraordinary efficiency and professionalism earned it a cult following among Chinese fans of uncensored foreign programming, and the website evolved into a for-profit streaming platform that allowed users to watch and download subtitled content from not only English-speaking countries, but also from other parts of the world. [Source]
At The South China Morning Post, Phoebe Zhang reported that Renren filled a niche left by strict censorship of and limits on foreign films and television in China:
China is one of the fastest-growing film markets in the world and a top destination for Western films. And yet piracy has flourished in part because of quotas set by the authorities limiting how many foreign films can be shown in Chinese theatres each year. In addition, China lacks a movie rating system and state censors exercise tight control over programme content, removing scenes that may be deemed politically sensitive, violent, pornographic or vulgar.
For decades, the subtitling sites have filled the void, providing the public with uncensored shows deemed “sensitive” by authorities, including LGBT shows such as Queer as Folk as well as Western blockbusters such as Game of Thrones and Disney’s Mandalorian.
[…] “I’m willing to spend money on copyrighted shows, but I don’t have the chance to do that,” another wrote. “Can we ever watch shows that are original, uncensored and with reliable captions?” [Source]
A PEN America report last year detailed China’s growing importance as a global film market, and that growth’s role in promoting self-censorship among filmmakers and studios elsewhere.
Many of the translation crews have an almost two-decade long history. Renren Yingshi was founded in 2003 under the name YYeTs.com. Subtitling sites have already weathered multiple rounds of government crackdowns. In 2014, a campaign to end online piracy nearly closed the company. CGTN, a state-owned media company, wrote that this round of arrests is likewise part of an effort to stop copyright infringement.
Subtitling groups have been pivotal in the spread of American popular culture in China. In 2014, Yang Guobin, a professor who specializes in the internet and China, told Foreign Policy that many perceive subtitle groups to have “‘[inaugurated] the most important ‘mental emancipation’ movement’ since the late 1970s, when a wave of translated foreign literature ignited China’s collective imagination and profoundly affected people’s ways of thinking.” In 2006, the New York Times profiled a subtitling group and found that “[to] a person, the translators say they are willing to devote long hours to this effort out of a love for American popular culture.” In 2011, People’s Daily, the chief mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, praised Renren subtitle groups for their translations of American university Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), which allowed “youths who have already left campus to taste the joys of study without pressure or purpose.” Renren’s translations caused Yale professor Shelly Kagan’s course on death to briefly become one of the most popular university courses in China. In an essay posted on CDT Chinese in 2020, a former subtitle translator shared their perception of the importance of subtitling work in China’s cultural sphere:
In 2012, a Sina Weibo post, shared more than 26,000 times, called subtitle groups “China’s greatest teacher of cultural exchange in the past 50 years”. Popular magazine New Weekly’s commentary on the post was also widely shared: “Their contribution is humble, low-key, and selfless. In their patient yet systematic manner, they gently guided us and made their contributions quietly. They’ve taught us more than all of China’s television stations combined.
[…] Some have named the subtitling groups “Fire Thieves,” after Prometheus.
In them, I have seen the internet era’s most precious spirit of cultural equality. Once, cultural production and distribution was controlled in the hands of the elite. Today, culture is more democratized. The subtitle groups have a grip on the technologies and resources behind videos (translating, aligning subtitles with timestamps, embedding) and yet are not monopolistic nor profit-seeking but rather share it with the public for free. It is only because they have no worries and do not work for the sake of being compensated that they are able to enjoy this freedom. [Chinese]
Subtitle groups still play important roles in other marginalized Chinese communities. At Rest of World, Zeyi Yang reported on QAF, an LGBTIQ subtitle group that has become a haven to China’s queer community:
QAF, which resembles a cross between Reddit and an early internet chatroom, started out in 2004 as a message board for Chinese fans of the hit American-Canadian show “Queer as Folk” and grew into a forum for LGBTIQ cinema resources. Four years after its launch, the site pivoted to subtitling. Subtitling a movie requires hours of work by a whole team of people. Right now, there are about 120 volunteers, and two-thirds work in translation. Every time a new movie arrives, QAF volunteers form a one-off group, with each member taking on a specific task. This works like an assembly line: one person will translate, another will synchronize, and others will take on graphic design, subtitle embedding, and uploading. Since 2008, coordinated teams of volunteers have translated more than a thousand movies and TV series for QAF, ranging from major English-language studio productions to short films in Hebrew and Vietnamese. The full films, embedded with colorful subtitles, are available for download in the forum. Today, the site has over 700,000 registered users, 60,000 followers on its public WeChat account, and about 1,000 active daily users.
Over the years, QAF established a reputation as the go-to place for LGBTIQ content in China. It now functions not only as a place to access foreign queer media but also as a hub of exchange and support in a country where LGBTIQ people are still often discriminated against. In the forum, users can freely discuss news, like Thailand’s draft bill that would legalize same-sex unions, and share experiences, like wanting to run away from homophobic parents. “For other communities doing fan subbing, it’s more like a hobby, or a place to share resources,” said Ting Guo, senior lecturer in the department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. But of QAF, she noted, “It’s more like a community.” On average, volunteers spend about a year working on the site, and many stick around to nurture the next generation of subtitlers. [Source]