I grew up in a provincial city in Northeast China, and before the internet age, my main way of exploring the world outside the city was through television. However, most of the time, the television in our living room was occupied by my father broadcasting the central propagandic news. In 1998, my parents bought a VCD player along with ten complementary VCDs of films from Hong Kong. I was captivated by these films and must have watched them dozens of times, eventually memorising every scene by heart. As I grew up in the ‘00s, my desire to explore new films led me to venture into local rental stores and the piracy stalls at electronics markets in the city centre. I distinctly remember stumbling upon my first art film, Les amants du pont-neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge, Leos Carax, 1992), at the market. Intrigued by the offbeat cover —a hazy, ethereal image of the French actor Juliette Binoche’s face—I decided to take it home, and I was utterly blown away by the end of the film. I found it absurd and incomprehensible as a love story, but at the same time, it somehow ushered me into a completely new cinematic world full of adventure and mystery. Soon after, with the ubiquity of computer and internet access, a vast array of opportunities for immediate access and acquisition of knowledge and information opened up. I continued my film journey from viewing pirated VCDs/DVDs to exploring more diversified channels, from online discussion forums, cine-clubs, to video streaming and downloading platforms. 

My experience of discovering an alternative path to the world of cinema is one that is shared by millions of millennial cinephiles in China, where theatrical releases are subject to strict censorship and import quotas for foreign films. With limited arthouse cinema infrastructure and stringent ideological control by the one-party state over the public space, the idea of “going to the cinema” has been primarily associated with popular entertainment imposed by the official political discourse and “correct” cultural values. The introduction of VCD players in 1993 provided Chinese viewers with an opportunity to expand their viewing options beyond the monotonous TV broadcasts of the time and to buy or rent a wider selection of videos at the market.1  Over the past three decades, the accessibility of new digital technologies, from video tape recorders to the internet, has facilitated the proliferation of piracy in China, allowing ordinary viewers to relocate their filmic experience from public space (shaped by the state ideology and professional film industry) to more quotidian, individualised private spheres and experience a vast range of films with minimal restrictions.2 As filmmaker Jia Zhangke writes:

“One afternoon, I purchased two VCDs from a shop near the Dangdai Shopping Mall. The first was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), and the other was Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Initially, I didn’t think much of the purchase. However, as I was walking home through the farmland near Dazhong Temple, I suddenly realised that I had spent only a few coins putting the two masterpieces in my pocket. It warmed my heart to reflect on how times have changed. Films that were once locked away in libraries for internal reference are now accessible to ordinary people in their homes. Even those who are not film professionals can learn about film techniques like montage and deep focus while enjoying their meals.”3

Here, piracy functions as a “pirate film school” and a major underground channel for disseminating a vast range of films that could not be accessed elsewhere due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) film policy and censorship.4 The consumption of global arthouse masterpieces via piracy inspired individuals like Jia Zhangke to take portable digital cameras and tell stories of the lives of ordinary people, collect unofficial memories, and trace unspoken history, resulting in the emergence of the Chinese independent/amateur filmmaking movement (or more precisely, the New Documentary Movement). A couple of years after writing the above text, Jia Zhangke made his second feature, Zhan Tai (Platform, 2000), however, it was not officially released (on DVD) in China until 2006, six years after its debut at the Venice International Film Festival. In 2002, Bandai Visual released the first DVD version of Platform in Japan. Shortly after this, Jia was surprised to learn about an upcoming pirated version of Platform from a vendor he often visited.5 This anecdote about Jia and Platform illustrates that, parallel to the emergence of the Chinese independent/amateur filmmaking practice, there was a significant increase in piracy not only of global arthouse masterpieces but also of domestic works by a new generation of filmmakers inspired by the New Documentary Movement, such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan. By critically engaging with post-socialist realities in urban China, these filmmakers’ works challenged the cultural hegemony enforced by state censorship and commercial film industries. These filmmakers are defined as the “D-generation”, focusing on “the technological materiality of this generation’s collective digital practices in both film consumption (digital piracy) and film production (digital video filmmaking)”.6 Considering these filmmakers’ creative and critical agency as being grounded in the use, or reuse, of piracy, cultural theorist Zhang Yingjin suggests that piracy creates “a space of weak power” that “operates in an array of tactics of access, appropriation, proliferation, subversion, and (self-)empowerment—tactics that emerge in better view from the bottom-up”.7 It fundamentally fosters a form of “visual democracy” that operates outside the official state framework of what visual content should be and how it should be distributed.8 In this way, piracy film culture opened a space for alternative public spheres, channelled by amateur initiatives to counter the hegemony of the state-sanctioned mainstream cinema.9

Piracy has not only fostered new modes of filmmaking practices but has also given rise to new patterns of spectatorship, cultivating a new minjian (grassroots) cinephile culture within the small-screen home setting. As the public space of cinema is predominantly controlled by state ideology, collecting and viewing pirated VCDs/DVDs in the home became a new trend of exploring film as an art form. This ultimately redefined what is called a cinematic space and disrupts pre-existing power dynamics. As Janet Harbord remarks, it presents “a shift away from the confining boundaries of nation states towards a postmodern fluidity of exchange”.10 Through this decentralised/grassroots postmodern channel, one could consume on-demand visual products based on their personal predilection within the home environment, a more liberal and individualised exhibition venue that “routinely transgress(es) the symbolic boundaries around both the private household and the nation state”.11 Piracy hence not only means consuming “illicit” films at an affordable price, but it also generates space “independent” from the dominant cinematic apparatus, concurrently embracing the potency and autonomy of the individual. 

Whilst piracy helped cultivate an aesthetic appreciation of film and allowed individuals to indulge in small screen consumption independently in a home/private environment, the combination of cine-club screenings and piracy formats further enriched the flourishing grassroots cinephile culture. This was achieved by opening up public and semi-public spaces for circulating viewpoints and values that are disregarded in mainstream cinema or excluded from official discourse. The first cine-club in China, 101 Film Studio, was established in 1996 in Shanghai, mainly by a group of cineastes. They held their inaugural screening in a private residence, where they watched François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) without subtitles and Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior, 1980) with French subtitles.12 Since then, many cine-clubs and film societies, like 101 Film Studio, have emerged, growing in size and expanding across the country, such as Yuanying Hui (The U-theque Organisation), Houchuang Kan Dianying (Rear Window Film Appreciation Club), and more recently Piaochong Yingxiang (Pure Movies). Based on careful curation of their (piracy) collections, these cine-clubs employed the idea of cinephilia as a means to provide a “bourgeois-derived form of film appreciation, sociability, and leisure”.13 During the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, as the independent film movement was flourishing, these cine-clubs shifted from showing Western arthouse masterpieces to becoming a crucial platform for domestic independent films and documentaries to gain visibility among the public, below the official radar, showcasing films in unconventional screening spaces such as libraries, cafés, bookshops, galleries, and university campuses.14 Cine-clubs have played a pivotal role in fostering the development of a fresh cohort of cinephiles, filmmakers, screenwriters, critics, and curators, many of whom subsequently emerged as influential figures within the once-prosperous independent film scene.  

Figure 1. A cine-club with a wall of pirated DVDs covers in Shenzhen (photo taken by the author)

If the era of pirated VCDs and DVDs helped cultivate a new grassroots film culture among dedicated cinephiles, today’s fansubbing groups have emerged as a more influential force in enhancing public accessibility to global cinema and fostering a broader civic cultural engagement through the internet. Since 2000, there has been a proliferation of fansubbing groups actively involved in the translation of audiovisual works encompassing a wide range of global screen content, from Japanese anime to the Romanian new wave. One notable example is Renren Yingshi (YYeTs), which was established in 2002 and quickly gained recognition among Chinese viewers as one of the earliest and most widely followed fansubbing groups. It catered to the audience’s interest in American TV series while also engaging in interpretative subtitling practices for a wide range of non-English films, including both commercial and artistic works. Recent years also saw the development of diversified practices by fansubbing groups and individuals that particularly focus on niche arthouse and even avant-garde works (many of the organisers and key members of the fansubbing groups are also former pirated DVD collectors and cine-club organisers). By offering film recommendations and free downloadable resources, fansubbing groups facilitate the dissemination of films and other audiovisual media that may not be readily accessible or permitted for public circulation. This, in turn, encourages individuals to delve into the realm of cinema and explore diverse on-demand filmic experiences via the internet. Individual citizens engaging in such informal film circuits through fansubbing also exemplify a tidal shift from private (home viewing) to public-engaging (translating and disseminating film resources) forms of consumption. 

These fansubbing groups are central to the ideas of amateurism. The majority of individuals involved in fansubbing are not employed within the film and screen industry. Their voluntary efforts to translate and share artistic and multicultural films with a broader audience are driven solely by their personal passion for specific films or foreign (film) culture, with minimal consideration for financial gains. In his renowned essay, Edward Said highlights the distinction between professionalism and amateurism. As he remarks, professionalism emphasises reputation, profit, and a narrow specialisation of knowledge, often leading intellectuals to be subservient to power and authority. On the other hand, amateurism embodies ‘a different set of values and prerogatives’, motivated by love and interest, by care and affection.15 Similarly, within the realm of film theory and history, amateurism holds significance in its deviation from conventional norms and standards.16 In this way, inherent to amateurism, the fansubbing practices demonstrate a contemporary sense of grassroots cinephilia and the potential objective of challenging the common norms coded in the commercialised professional film industry. 

Given the contentious nature of intellectual copyright infringement, piracy as a means of distribution is not always welcomed even within the circle of independent filmmakers and artists. In 2016, filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang issued an open letter condemning Lanying Wang (Blue Shadow), a leading online piracy sharing and downloading site, for illegally distributing a wide range of his works in China. Tsai submitted a formal appeal to the National Copyright Administration in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), leading to the permanent closure of Blue Shadow. Tsai believed that not only does the unlawful distribution and exhibition violate his copyright, but also that viewing films in the context of piracy and small screens inevitably diminished the “cinematic” experience that he highly valued. Tsai’s stance sparked a debate on whether the act of consuming and sharing pirated films could be seen as disparaging the essence of “cinema”, particularly in cases where the so-called legal channels fail to promote the plural and multi-valued properties of cinema necessary to cultivate a more enriching movie-going experience than what is offered by the commercial mainstream. 

What we need to reconsider in the debate is not simply whether the issue of ownership and copyright have been undermined in shaping filmic experiences and habits of Chinese audiences, but rather the complexity of cinema culture in China in which our access to and understanding of film and cinema is inhibited. In this short paper, my intention is not to romanticise piracy, but to provide a perspective on how piracy has constituted the diversity and complexity of a grassroots film culture, and more significantly, how it has shaped our relationship with cinema. 


This short paper synthesises some key insights derived from my ethnographic research on the film piracy industry, independent exhibition, underground distribution, and internet amateur criticism in China. Detailed research findings and analysis will be featured in my forthcoming monograph, Contemporary Art Cinema Culture in China, to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing.  


  1. Darrel William Davis, “Compact Generation: VCD markets in Asia,” Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Issue 23(Vol.2 2003), pp. 165–176.
  2. Francesco Casetti argues that spectators’ filmic experiences are relocated in the transformed media environment and are engaged with more personalised proactive performances rather than simply situated in a moment of theatrical ‘attendance’. See Francesco Casetti, “Filmic experience,” Screen, Issue 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 56–66.
  3. Jia Zhangke, Jia Xiang: Jia Zhangke’s Notes on Film 1998-2008 (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2017), p. 40.
  4. Jinying Li, “’From “D-Buffs’ to the ‘D-Generation’: Piracy, Cinema, and An Alternative Public Sphere in Urban China’,” International Journal of Communication, 6 (2012), pp. 555.
  5. Jia, Jia Xiang, p. 117.
  6. Li, “From “D-Buffs’ to the ‘D-Generation’,” p. 552.
  7. Zhang Yingjin, “Playing with Intertextuality and Contextuality: Film Piracy on and off the Chinese Screen,” in Cinema, Law, and the State in Asia, Corey K. Creekmur and Mark Sidel, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 217.
  8. Ibid, p. 227.
  9. Li, “From “D-Buffs’ to the ‘D-Generation’,” p. 542.
  10. Janet Harbord, Film Cultures (London: Sage Publications, 2000), p. 148.
  11. David Morley, Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 3.
  12. Xu Yuan, Dengdai Dianying de Rizi (The Time of Waiting for Film (Beijing: Central Compilation and Translation Publisher, 2016).
  13. Xiang Fan, “Keyword: Film Festival/Exhibition,” Chinese Independent Cinema Observer, Issue 3 (2022): p. 61.
  14. Seio Nakajima, “Film Clubs in Beijing: The Cultural Consumption of Chinese Independent Films,” in From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China, Paul Pickowicz and Zhang Yingjin, eds. (London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006), p. 161–188.
  15. Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (London: Vintage, 1994): p. 82.
  16. Andre Bazin, What is Cinema? (Vol. 1) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 133.

About The Author

Xiang FAN is a film researcher and teacher, based in University of the Arts London. She received her PhD in media communications and cultural studies from Goldsmiths University of London. Her research focuses on Chinese independent and art cinema, film festivals and exhibition culture, women’s cinema, the archive and unspoken history. She is the dossier editor of “Cinema and Piracy”. She is the also the editor of Chinese Independent Cinema Observer. Her monograph Contemporary Art Cinema Culture in China is forthcoming in 2023 as part of the Bloomsbury’s "Global East Asian Screen Cultures" book series.

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