Zimuzu (字幕組, ZMZ) are Chinese online communities that share subtitled versions of foreign television and movies, often within hours of domestic release. Although unauthorized and unlicensed, the programs are streamed and downloaded on tablets and smartphones, free of charge. ZMZ allow many thousands of Chinese viewers to devour foreign fare (e.g., Prison Break, Desperate Housewives, The Big Bang Theory), sidestepping official channels of circulation. The volunteerism of ZMZ subtitlers is remarkable and distinctive, and it may not be too much to call ZMZ an industry. We propose understanding ZMZ within the spheres of marketization and the regulatory framework of China’s media industry. In scale, organization, and professionalism, ZMZ typify slippage between state regulation and market-driven media consumption.

Keywords: China, Community, Distribution, Regulation


Zimuzu (字幕組, ZMZ) are professional-grade Chinese subtitlers that circulate their work on a volunteer basis. These online communities translate foreign television and film and make them available to all, online. They are made up of college students and young professionals with an ethic of teamwork, commitment, and passion. These communities are self-selecting; members must have the available time, skills, and computer literacy to participate. ZMZ are hierarchical associations consisting of a hundred or so active members, much like any IT company or startup.[2] Members contribute according to their ability—language, copyediting, web design, synchronization, postproduction, management, troubleshooting, and so on. Translation is the prime mover, matching Chinese counterparts to colloquial foreign lines and quips; yet there is much more that ZMZ do, in technical skill, timing, layout, occasional annotations, and streamlined workflows. ZMZ’s mission is to lock on to and keep up with programming flows from America, Britain, Japan, South Korea, and even Thailand, among others. ZMZ groups share a common, collective purpose, competitive drive, and an audience of many thousands, even millions for a product that is shared, not sold. These groups are driven and resolved to produce quality Chinese translations promptly, and outplay other teams. ZMZ members often see foreign media as superior to China Central Television (CCTV, the Communist Party broadcaster), regional channels, and blockbusters showing in China’s multiplexes. Members write of official media’s “stupidity” and “bad taste.”[3] They inveigle major corporations, from state-run distribution circuits, to the foreign commercial providers, to even DVD pirates, whose knock-offs are wrecked by the up-to-date accuracy of free ZMZ titles.

Who do the ZMZ reach? What audiences? People seeking entertainment outside ordinary platforms and circuits want foreign materials, language, and culture; they prefer or tolerate unlicensed, out-of-bounds programs with frisson of the exotic. The unlicensed, foreign entertainment undoubtedly flags attention from trade groups, as well as state regulators, and censors of audiovisual fare. Yet ZMZ are not criminal file-sharing, but gray market, paralegal activities. Kelly Hu writes, “The commercial agenda of Chinese video websites has been based on a context of pirate culture and anarchic impulses. Chinese subtitle groups and online audiences want to transgress national limitations and get in touch with global popular culture.”[4]

With these factors—foreign, unlicensed entertainment—ZMZ audiences share similar characteristics to the ZMZ team members themselves: they are young, technophiles, perhaps questioning or countercultural. How many viewers are there? As unofficial, informal consumption, there are millions. What kind of reward? For audiences, the reward is free entertainment, streamed or downloaded via ZMZ from a variety of foreign sources. For ZMZ members, they receive virtual currency, displayed online in the net, a conspicuous sign of digital affluence.[5] This allows higher level clearance to more restricted caches of material. Like anime fansubbers, ZMZ members seek out exotic foreign material, forms of cosmopolitanism. Anime fansubbers are passionate about their favorites and fanatical about sharing them. But in ZMZ, textual enjoyment, though vital, may not be primary; rather, it is to remain coeval or staying abreast of foreign media flows. Coeval means “same age,” an anthropological term that is leery of comparative judgments of relative advancement between societies.[6] Being coeval with the flow of global media reveals a competitive drive for convergence. The ZMZ discipline is startling, as ZMZ are not businesses seeking revenue or profit. Is it because they are volunteer nonprofit groups that they organize their work so efficiently, and professionally? There are indeed tangible benefits, but the main reward for members seems to be belonging to a tightly bonded “team” (zu, 組).

Their tight organization and discipline mimic a “syndicate,” prompting us to argue that ZMZ operate like an industry, but an informal one, whose activities are enhanced by its unofficial, furtive status. The term “industry” brings expectations about scale, efficiency, standardization, professionalism, and competitiveness. Arguing that ZMZ groups are actually an industry permits upgrading in their status, but extends flexibility to China’s media industry too.

ZMZ emerged from fan sites beginning in 2001, but they really started proliferating around 2005. Between 2009 and 2016, there was a drastic shuffling and consolidation of ZMZ in response to the rise of private commercial web-casters. There was a government edict in late 2009 banning the circulation of unauthorized links, especially BitTorrents.[7] This edict had external and internal reach, and was used to placate charges of copyright infringement, as well as curb unauthorized content purveyors. Yet in May 2014, over 80 ZMZ were still active, the largest of which (YYeTs, 人人影視) had a reported figure of 2.8 million registered users. ZMZ carry a range of content, organized by language and country of origin (English, Chinese, Korea, Japan, Thailand, United States, United Kingdom), genre (anime, comedy, sports), subject matter, and stars (e.g., Jake Gyllenhaal, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, et al.). The largest, most prominent ZMZ are those devoted to English-language television dramas, such as YYeTs, YDY, and 1000fr. One YYeTs investor was the founder of New Oriental English school, a network of private academies with hundreds of branches across China and over fifteen million fee-paying students. The crossover between language schools and ZMZ funding resonates because English learning is motivational and often used as the default justification for alleged copyright infringement.

How does it work? How are foreign broadcasts intercepted, and translated for Chinese viewers online? The source material comes from downloads by BT or FTP of overseas 0-day servers, accessed by ZMZ members studying or working abroad. The 0-day warez are groups who coordinate to share source code to computer storerooms; they rush to capture software (including television, but also music, movies, games, and apps) as soon as they are commercially released—and sometimes before. Closed captions encoded in the program are keys to ZMZ’s quick translations. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules on closed captioning for the hearing impaired are shortcuts used by ZMZ, which permit access to accurate subtitling. Using closed captions, ZMZ make quick translations, re-checking and attaching subtitles to original dialogue.

Group members coordinate their work using instant messaging services such as QQ and MSN.[8] Once uploaded, some ZMZ are open-to-all web portals; some are by subscription only. Accurate, free, 0-day viewing of subtitled programs distinguishes ZMZ material from other mainstream sites such as Sohu, Youku, and so forth; these mainstream sites are private web-casters, large, ad-supported, or subscription-based services that offer licensed content only. ZMZ members have been studied as fans, using consumerist, cultural, and participatory models.[9] These investigations represent successive frameworks for media studies of fan engagements since the early 1990s. With each step (celebratory–identity formation–appropriation), the models become more active, with greater agency, control, and empowerment.

In 2013, we embarked on a study of ZMZ teams in China. We compiled a dossier of ZMZ, which were active between 2013 and 2014, and surveyed sixty PRC students, gauging their familiarity with ZMZ (see the appendix). Finally, we held in-depth interviews with several former and continuing ZMZ members with high levels of responsibility within their teams. What follows is a discussion of the literature, and then an account of ZMZ as part of China’s media marketization. We make the claim that ZMZ are part of the media industry, despite their volunteer, informal status.

Probing the Literature

ZMZ seem like a conundrum, as they operate similarly to businesses, providing reliable products valued highly by customers. Yet they are also like clubs, hobbyists, or evangelists.[10] They want anonymity because their work falls outside China’s state media channels, and outside the commercial trade, selling entertainment to targeted, quantifiable audiences. For commercial media distributors, revenue comes from audiences directly (subscription) or indirectly through advertising or sponsorship. But ZMZ tend to avoid revenue seeking. They straddle distinctions between formal and informal media enterprise, taking cues from both.

The academic literature generally takes ZMZ to be participatory media, intervening in media industry to produce home-made entertainment, tailored to Chinese viewers. This upsets the sender–message–receiver model of communication studies that attracts criticism for consigning viewers to passive recipients. As they take more active programming roles, ZMZ are seen as implicitly challenging corporate regimes of IT, copyright, and regulation. This is viewed positively, in line with cultural studies norms. Most writers applaud ZMZ indifference to international licensing rules, as well as dodging state regulations that may crack down on unauthorized sharing. ZMZ are cast as emancipatory, free-spirited fan cultures, much like anime fansubbers and Japanese dōjinshi (same-people publication).

We can remove Zimu (subtitles) from the Zu (teams), noting first the linguistic and technical operations of subtitling foreign material. There is useful literature on translation, subtitling, and dubbing, the rendering of style and meaning across languages.[11] There are technical issues of audiovisual reproduction/compression, which are accelerated and more efficient via social networks relying on broadband internet. What used to be awkward tasks of recording, timing, translation, and coding, with huge quality drop-offs due to multigeneration copies, have become simpler, more efficient, and more professional. Internet and communication networks aid in the specialization and linearization needed to complete an episode of network television, usually within twenty-four hours of original broadcast.

It is Zu, the people themselves, that most writers privilege in their accounts of Chinese subtitling teams. Donna Chu is articulate and representative in her account of ZMZ communities of practice.[12] Donna Chu describes ZMZ labor as a committed work of passion, serious fun that emphasizes the creative process of subtitling, alongside a team. ZMZ activity is avocation, networking, bonding. Chu writes of a “community of practice,” a lifelong, sustainable activity and new pedagogy in (adult) education. Unlike the indoctrination of tertiary education, where young students are prepared for a life of paid employment, a community of practice is entirely self-elected, like the work roles of ZMZ members.

Chu writes,

Enabled and empowered by web technologies, [ZMZ] fansubbing groups have developed into virtual, online communities that are driven not by work or financial reward, but by shared concerns and passions … these groups take on the characteristics of communities of practice, becoming more tightly knit and cohesive.[13]

Here is a comment submitted by one of Chu’s informants, a ZMZ member who cherishes her time there:

When I have to leave the group one day, I will miss the friendship we share the most. We are tied by a common interest. We have been through tough times and good times. Our friendship is pure, and is not tainted by any material rewards. In a material world like ours, this is the most precious. I hope the fansubbing group can go on and on. For my part, I will try my best to serve the community.[14]

This is like Ian Condry’s account of anime fansubbers in the United States. In his book The Soul of Anime, he claims fansubbers’ collective creativity becomes “dark energy,” and sees anime as a powerful connector, not as just content.[15] Like Condry, Chu has a positive take on ZMZ, studying the experiences of ZMZ community members. Yet she ignores the legal status of their work, and suspends judgment on violations of intellectual property (IP), commercial norms, and encroachment on offline media channels.

Kelly Hu writes of ZMZ as a participatory culture, following a neoliberal work ethic.[16] She means a synthesis of capitalist labor practices with forms of altruism and sharing. Their speed, completeness, professionalism, and discipline appear almost identical to corporate lines of production; but their labor is donated, and so is the product, circulated free.

This dual aspect—altruism plus cutthroat efficiency—may be bipolar or phantasmatic, that is, a chimera mimicking capitalist modes and parading great productivity. Productivity and professionalism are effusive, as if to say “you needn’t be INC to be business class.” But such corporate tenets as profit motive, revenue, and use of paid labor are absent. Hu claims ZMZ internalize neoliberalism through their “enormous capacity to absorb and redistribute images from multiple global sites.”[17] Internalizing surpasses programming, ZMZ repurpose neoliberal principles through consumption, activating processes of labor division and refinement, especially affective and immaterial labor.[18] We recall “affective surplus” via Antonio Negri, who reinterpreted affective and immaterial labor as a subjective production, production of its own will, outside the mechanism (and measurement) of capitalist monetary system.[19]

Neoliberalism bends human will to needs of productivity, efficiency, and competition. Instead of citing Foucault’s society of surveillance, Hu suggests Deleuze’s theories of the society of control, and “self-control.” Affective and immaterial labor is a kind of self-mobilizing on behalf of capitalist aims and means. Neoliberalism, then, is a form of internalized capitalism, a formation of self that aligns with business-class norms of rational networking. Complicity between neoliberal rationality and personal choice[20] is by no means limited to ZMZ or China’s media marketization. It is, however, a result of embedding instrumental rationality in social institutions and everyday life.[21]

Similar critique emerges in a book about China’s so-called iGeneration, a sphere of young, individualist “netizens.”[22] Chiu and Zhang call this a paradigm shift:

China’s iGeneration … projects a bolder vision by announcing a “cinema of dispersion” for the era of “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” and argues that this new cinema calls for … a historical conceptualization beyond that of China’s Sixth or “Urban Generation” and a paradigm shift from “film studies” as we know it to “screen studies” more generally. Representing a younger generation of scholars, the contributors conceive of the “cinema of dispersion” as belonging to an “iGeneration”—with “i” referencing individualization as much as information—whose creative, self-reflexive uses of the digital, especially the internet, have achieved a new level of interactivity and interface. Topics covered by China’s iGeneration include digital activism, NGO aesthetics, female first-person documentary, reckless documentary, quasi-documentary, docu-ani-mentary, video piracy, and unofficial film exhibitions, and taken together the volume illustrates the larger context in which Chinese independent documentary is operating now.[23]

It is tempting to attach iGeneration’s screen dispersion to practices of ZMZ teams. But “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” is a bit arch. The phrase mockingly repeats state leaders’ slogans for China’s economic progress but also equivocates on what neoliberal really means. How can a socialist state in control of the market be neoliberal? Neoliberal priorities on competition, discipline, and ruthlessness equip businesses to survive a fierce economic struggle, and entail hostility to organized labor. All these are consistent with Communist Party plans for economic rationalization, consolidation, and foreign direct investment, aims that normally require privatization.

Neoliberalism assumes that “the market” in its basic form is the ideal, organizing resources, enterprises, and rewards, not just economically but also in the society itself. As Lewis Hyde writes, “A market economy is an emanation of logos.[24] For Hyde, logos is a principle of reason, logic, and especially notions of differentiation.[25] Neoliberalism and market economy are synonyms for market fundamentalism, with “the marketplace” as a figure of almost sacred value.[26] In China, the neoliberalist ideology of open markets and unbounded competition takes unexpected forms because of the socialist context. There is considerable literature in English on this subject: Donald Nonini’s 2008 essay in Critique of Anthropology; Aihwa Ong’s Neoliberalism as Exception (2006); Lisa Rofel’s Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture (2007); and David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). These writings are all by cultural anthropologists and ethnographers.

There are other views of ZMZ, as an activity that is not so much (neo)liberation. Bingchun Meng sees limits on ZMZ’s creative labor and impact.[27] Meng theorizes ZMZ from a post-Althusser model. Her viewpoint is hence more critical, and doubtful. From Althusser’s keyword, she adapts “underdetermined globalization,” not overdetermination, or multicausal forces that subvert linear cause and effect. ZMZ continue their work by dodging official channels and commercial media policies, flying under the radar, so to speak. ZMZ are underdetermined because they are productive, but their production is questionable and possibly devious. Underdetermination, Meng writes, “sheds light on Zimuzu practice, because it opens up multiple sites of inquiry by accounting for the mediating role of digital networks at the micro and macro levels.”[28] Furthermore, ZMZ are culpable on two counts, infringing IP rights and reproducing mainstream foreign taste. As for these, Meng clearly expresses objection to the latter.

ZMZ exemplify dichotomies compromised, especially once-stable distinctions between production and consumption. ZMZ activities and output have upset a number of oppositions:

[D]igital networks do not simply facilitate media flow across borders; they are problematizing and reconfiguring dichotomies: global/local, commodity/commons, consumer/producer in the process. What happens when content circulating via networks circumvents national regulations such as import quotas or censorship? What if media products in their digital format are treated as both commodities and common cultural resources? What is implied when media consumption involves the creation of new content?[29]

Meng argues, “through their voluntary subtitling … ZMZ are simultaneously promoting the popularity of Western media products and undermining the commercial logic of transnational media corporations.”[30] This charge is cogent, and damaging, bringing another contradiction. ZMZ both inflate HBO’s (or BBC or NHK) impact by means of their translated facilitation and undermine its value by sharing it free of charge. The sharing may not undermine value in China, if there is no other way to access it. But is there not something perverse, creatively destructive about this? If Meng takes an economic view, then ZMZ as a creative destruction is valid, as ZMZ unhook the commercial potential in new entertainment commodities. If the work is given away, then so is the commodity function. And without the commodity, what is left?—education, perhaps, or cosmopolitanism, or altruist high-tech hipster, if one takes the ZMZ line.

ZMZ build up audiences via translation, which in turn initiates taste accretion and markets. In China, audiences are not yet the same as markets, as markets depend on accumulation of willing viewers, who may eventually want to purchase. This is why video websites lose money year after year, as they carry a viewing population that may or may not pay off. Meng disapproves of ZMZ’s non- or paralegal status, and censures their popularization of exotic fare that is still formally unavailable but going mainstream, as in Sohutv’s contract to show House of Cards. There is the link between unauthorized and licensed, between market stimulation and its satisfaction, by either the state or commercial vendor. In the absence of that satisfaction, ZMZ are there. ZMZ are unofficial traffickers of foreign media. Yet they work mostly in the light, attached to large-scale services, such as the shopping giants Taobao (run by Alibaba) and Baidu. We contend that ZMZ are part and parcel of China’s media industry. They are enabled by their informal status, as media industry also includes informal media production.

Chu insists on centrality of ZMZ social interaction, though this social energy (with “durable benefits and beneficial outcomes”[31]) has significant industry implications. As they gain experience, ZMZ get better at subtitling; their communication with each other is enhanced, their expertise rises, and their “library” grows to more hours, subjects, and choices. The sheer volume of their output substantiates our claim of ZMZ’s industrial standard and fortitude. Another instance is ZMZ translation work with online courses (massive open online courses [MOOCs]) made available by Ivy League universities. These works are even more labor intensive and time consuming. Although ZMZ legitimize unauthorized subtitling as language learning, their work on American higher education courses directly reflects their educational aims. Some researchers even argue that the coursework subtitling crosses over from entertainment fandom to civic engagement.[32] Considering the efforts to circulate online courses from Harvard and MIT, ZMZ demonstrate their industry ambition and commitment to public service. ZMZ thus straddle entertainment and education, commerce and commons, industry and gift economy. Their contributions shed light on media marketization in China.

ZMZ are provocative, in their activities and in the ideas they draw from researchers. Identifying researchers’ priorities, aims, and problems is enlightening. Our meta-analysis of the ZMZ literature lets us trace the activities of connected communities themselves, like the media ethnographies cited above that outlined structures and behavior of ZMZ “tribes.”

ZMZ in China’s Media Industry and Marketization

The literature on ZMZ flags the importance of China’s media industry, and its marketization. Because of import restrictions, ZMZ have a deep catalog of material to translate. Subtitlers target television and entertainment not just from the United States and Britain, but from Japan, South Korea, and other countries too. Their productivity and professionalism (just about) qualify the ZMZ to be inalienably a part of the media industry. But why marketization? Marketization indicates a media market tethered to China’s state directives, but with leeway and elasticity and permitted to be relatively autonomous. Online media consumption is not unsupervised, only less subject to state control compared with broadcast and theatrical, and this makes it relatively more market based. Yet “less subject” entails some discretion and caution among the teams. The ZMZ acceptance of civic responsibility is to be acknowledged with the refusal to carry sensitive political programs or porn, issuing of legal disclaimers and caveats, and reminding users to delete downloads after use (“for language learning only”). ZMZ work in the orbit of the state, trying to be good citizens and toeing the licensed media line. It is as if ZMZ are positioning themselves to be industry players, ready to be called for duty.

In a special discussion on industry studies, Alisa Perren writes, “Importantly, distribution can be seen as taking place when ‘fan subbers’ (i.e., amateur translators of movies and television series who operate outside sanctioned industrial channels) upload content to torrents… .”[33] She concedes then that ZMZ do qualify as distribution and play industry roles. And ZMZ upload to large, well-designed, searchable sites, not torrents or shady caches. They are not formal media, nor entirely informal. They could be labeled paralegal, in their place within China’s media sphere.

Media industry research looks at legal status, institutional policy, practice and economic performance in film, television, and creative industries. The field previously covered film-TV studios, networks, record companies, journalism, publishing, and industries like comics, advertising, and graphic arts. The focus includes regulators (e.g., FCC), trade associations (e.g., MPAA), and important legal rulings. Since the new millennium, technological factors have accelerated, and all such endeavors are filtered, shaped, and intensified by software that mediates the enterprises, disembedding them from earlier craft practices. How does ZMZ fit in this context? They seize the opportunity presented by contemporary information technology, and they organize themselves along industry lines. Like the corporate-led culture industry, ZMZ operate collectively and make a virtue of efficiency (keeping costs down), tight organization, and professional service. As amateurs, their circulation/distribution is on the fringe of (but not completely outside) formal outlets for audiovisual entertainment. They occupy the interstices of the formal and informal media economy. In relation to connected viewing of films, Aynne Kokas calls it a “blended public sphere.”[34] It is customary (at least in the twenty-first century) to acknowledge informal media activity as no less valid than the formal, in its creativity, innovation, and iconoclasm.[35] Recognition is extended to industry “disrupters” whose interventions hasten emerging, sometimes confounding trends. ZMZ are confounding because of their immense productivity, their legal ambiguity, and their indifference to profit motive.

In a country where the state’s control of media is tight, informal groups like ZMZ play a disproportionate role. Using internet tools, they provide foreign entertainment that broadcasters and film distributors cannot offer. ZMZ capture material from around the world and make it intelligible and accessible to millions of Chinese viewers on the web. In this way, they realign foreign and domestic, forbidden and approved, and facilitate massive consumption of exotic fare. So in whose interest do ZMZ advance, retreat, or compromise? That is the key question as they do not seek material reward. They disrupt media structure, but are not revolutionaries; ZMZ differ from pirate groups that work out of northern Europe and have formed political parties. They are cordial, cooperative, and even symbiotic with mainstream providers. They are self-censoring, sensitive to state regulations, and do not call attention to themselves needlessly. Most important, ZMZ typify China’s media marketization as they work in the slipstream of corporate and state media spheres. State media companies and policy take a preeminent place in China’s mediascape. Yet the state is multifaceted, playing an active role in the emerging media market, as well as maintaining, regulating rules of the road, and this is what we call marketization. Marketization is a fluctuating state between open market-oriented reforms and curbs on the same reforms to promote party aims. ZMZ testify to this dialectical nature of China’s media setting, its intermittent pressure, and release mechanisms that open following repression and censorship. A telling example is an abrupt state intervention, with state broadcaster CCTV noting huge viewer numbers, and taking over Big Bang Theory for itself in 2014, only to drop it because of poor translation and mishandling of episode order.[36]

ZMZ exemplify marketization: though they are in fact nonprofit, they operate in a world of media markets plowing ever-expanding audiences, which in turn attracts attention from advertisers, and regulators/censors. The fact that ZMZ may offer their work to licensed operators such as Sohu, Tencent, or Iqiyi shows a desire for recognition, by corporations and by the state too. If ZMZ become too popular, they will get co-opted; if they become too political, they will be unplugged.

As Darrell Davis argued, marketization in China is unique, different from incipient “market in the making,” and certainly departing from the Western neoliberal market economy.[37] Neoliberal market economies operate as impersonal functional mechanisms, in which access, equity, and fair play are prime conditions (at least in principle). They also tend to displace responsibility for public interest to market mechanisms. With entertainment, markets represent adumbration of audience preferences, where popularity is assumed, encouraged, and rewarded; Chinese marketization, on the contrary, means guidelines, priorities, and stipulations stay in place, even if they are not always activated. In China, market-based activity is “market-as-engine,” with state and party drivers at the wheel.[38]

China’s marketization is its seemingly inevitable trajectory to growth, productivity, and diversity. China’s economic prospects are bright, on course to match or overtake Euro-American capacity. China’s policy directives are to guide and accelerate media output, with assistance from Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Although ZMZ products are often unauthorized, they enhance China’s headlong drive toward more production, consumption, and spending. The momentum is subject to state and party, distinguishing market from marketization. It is the latter—marketization—that ZMZ recognize, even while flooding the internet with free foreign media. And because it is foreign, free, and easily accessible, it advances marketization’s promotion of diversity. As Table 1 demonstrates, some of the same shows are carried on ZMZ and licensed platforms, but older seasons appear on the latter, so duplication is avoided.

Table 1. ZMZ YYeTs and Commercial Web Portal Sohutv: Programs, Popularity, Sponsors, 2014.
Viewing formatYYeTsSohutv
Rank (by millions of streams)1. The Big Bang Theory1. The Big Bang Theory (1419)
2. Vampire Diaries2. Nikita (575)
3. Game of Thrones3. Friends (278)
4. The Walking Dead4. Vampire Diaries (236)
5. Spartacus5. 2 Broke Girls (186)
6. Nikita6. Prison Break (139)
7. Arrow7. House of Cards (126)
8. Modern Family8. Arrow (88)
9. White Collar9. Breaking Bad (87)
10. Homeland10. Masters of Sex (84)
AdsWeb, click-through to online games, travel, shopping (Taobao, Alibaba)

Web, sixty-second preroll advertisements for brand name goods (cosmetics, cars, electronics, perfume, milk powder, diapers)

Ads cannot be skipped

Partner portalsBaidu and AlibabaBaidu and Alibaba

Game of Thrones is indeed racy, but its availability indicates Chinese viewers’ contemporary tastes. HBO has also applauded its popularity there as a sign of global irresistibility, regardless of its unlicensed status.[39]

ZMZ main stock-in-trade is foreign media, and so it subtitles and circulates material that does not obstruct mainstream domestic film and television. ZMZ do not poach on licensed programs provided by Sohu, Tencent, or Iqiyi, nor will they carry programs that are too racy, violent, or political, Game of Thrones notwithstanding. In a tip of the hat to IP, they issue disclaimers and caveats, neatly evading responsibility for circulating unlicensed wares. And so ZMZ play both sides of the court, straddling market and regulations, commerce and commons. In the People’s Republic of China,

marketization mediated between the two poles of state and market; it was and is a state-crafted transition to market reforms that brought economic/cultural reward and benefited the state and the Party. Marketization is a vital structuring operation and enables the growth of Chinese film, and aligns policy, creative industry, and foreign investment. These areas are coordinated to reach specific outcomes: growth, productivity, profits, more diversity and creativity.”[40]

ZMZ must now work in the orbit of huge internet platforms and services, including the so-called BAT, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, giants dominating online commerce in China. Baidu is China’s primary search engine; Alibaba holds a suite of pay portals, shopping, and entertainment; Tencent specializes in social media, communication apps, and games. ZMZ must be seen in the context of marketization, which heralds explosive growth in media consumption within a carefully safeguarded environment.

The Moral Economy of Informal Media Industry

Without doubt, ZMZ members are volunteers, but enjoy immaterial, nonmonetary benefits. Ideals of “common cause” are pronounced, as these hundred plus members work in teams to produce and share material of value to their constituents. That they make it available without charge contradicts capitalist models of labor assembled to produce, add value, and charge fees for services rendered, and products delivered. Volunteerism of ZMZ sidesteps market logic of exchange, revenue, and profit margins. But they conform to the logic of marketization. Marketization pursues industry-scale growth and productivity, while also keeping to party lines of propriety. ZMZ volunteerism is submitting to industry discipline, in deadlines, standards, and consistency. Their effectiveness puts the state broadcasters to shame. Their collective endeavor, the common cause whose individual efforts fuse to forge an inspiring product, is the key to ZMZ industrial strength. They are what Ian Condry calls “collaborative creativity.”[41] ZMZ assemble and organize discrete tasks, but together they achieve disproportionate results. The whole outstrips the accumulation of specialized individual jobs. Individual effort is necessary but not sufficient to the whole aim of keeping up with global television; its orchestration into smooth operational teamwork gives ZMZ the impact.

Admittedly it is awkward to claim ZMZ as both industry and volunteer community. Does the industry label require paid labor? Perhaps, but what “industry” really requires is commitment, ambition, and perseverance. These can be sustained with volunteer labor and disciplined, motivated training. Volunteerism of ZMZ does not obstruct scale, efficiency, or competitiveness. It is possible that ruling out alienated labor and basing the firm on volition (not monetary reward) enhances competitiveness.

ZMZ work is indeed “gifted,” both talented and given away. The sharing economy is activated: voluntary labor, with countless hours of quality subtitled material, available free for anyone with a tablet or smartphone. Rarely does any money change hands. And yet, without remuneration, there is gratification and belonging for those who relish joining a hip, high-tech ensemble processing and sharing foreign media. There is something sexy about the groups, though the deadlines, pressures, and teamwork are very demanding. There is discipline, hierarchy, and upward mobility through the ranks; there are varieties of notoriety, fame, and reputation, earned and maintained through competitive coups and strategy. All this is consistent with industry-grade dedication.

ZMZ evoke “networked subjectivity,” a collective data-self diffused via IT circuits. There is not only YYeTs’ relation with its nearly three million users, which is itself remarkable. In addition, there is real camaraderie available to committed members of the team. Team members are enabled by the work of others, and embark on a mind-meld with people in the group, whether they work across town or on another continent. Jordan Hatcher compares fansubbers with free, open-source software, declaring that

[t]he internet facilitates this community-style form of production by allowing communication and collaboration at great distances. Large projects can be divided into manageable pieces and multiple eyes can help catch mistakes. The end result can be better than if only one or a few people had worked on the project.[42]

Hatcher calls this “distributed production”, a key idea of disseminated, collective creativity.[43] Media projects can be virtualized like an assembly line: segmented, engineered, roles and tasks assigned, centrifugally projected with complex processes simplified, linearized, put into phases. More than global village, ZMZ work as focused process and flow, a distributed task force benefiting from commitments dispersed far and wide. This contrasts with media geographers who offered concepts that explain creative corridors like Hollywood and Silicon Valley in terms of cognitive-cultural capitalism[44] and media capitals.[45] Such theories posit concentration, agglomeration, and cross-fertilization of work within nearby zones of cognate creative enterprise. ZMZ have functional roles and linkages with counterparts on the team, like a crew developing apps, platforms, and portals. But the locale is virtual: they can be, and are anywhere, not just in Hangzhou or Shanghai, and they do it for fun, “serious fun,” in Chu’s phrase. As of late 2014, YYeTs was shut down, indicating an official government intervention into the ZMZ sphere. The group did not take long to restore service, at first directing users to work posted under a different name. Many other ZMZ have been closed, or reposted through weibo accounts, forums, or other channels (see Appendix). This indicates the resilience, and adaptability of these groups and also the vagaries of marketization, the shifting nature of state regulation, oscillating between hard-line and benign state supervision.

Mayfair Yang writes of Chinese guanxi, and its distinct moral economy usually translated as connectedness. To some extent, this conforms to Lewis Hyde’s prescription of three basic obligations in the gift economy: to give, to accept, and to reciprocate.[46] Yang is aware of favoritism, but she presents guanxi as a traditional Chinese practice of relating, a connection that dodges the state’s bureaucratic universalism, its meddling in personal choice. Yang is careful not to make this a dichotomy, nor necessarily oppositional:

The gift economy [is not] a totally independent mode of exchange lying completely outside state distribution. Rather, it “poaches” on the territory of another mode of exchange, seeking the right occasions to strike and divert resources to its own method of circulation. In the process, it alters and weakens in a piecemeal fashion the structural principles and smooth operations of state power.[47]

ZMZ certainly encroach on state controls, and they literally poach broadcasts from the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and many other countries. Recirculating these programs online, with Chinese subtitles, twists the aims of original programming, and subverts state ownership and controls of communication networks. ZMZ mediations differ from state media, especially CCTV, and from unsubtitled broadcasts in their home territories. Not only do ZMZ realign communication circuits, they kindle sparks of recognition and response through their works, found, not lost in translation, where something alien is transformed into a relatable, personable work. ZMZ translate foreign dialogue into written Chinese; in guanxi, there is translating of strangers into relations, kinship made up on the spot:

“You worked in the same office as Ye? Oh, he and I were elementary school classmates. We haven’t seen each other for years, but we used to play together.” No matter how tenuous the social connection asserted, identities have been slightly realigned around a common link and the relationship now begins to assume a different light. The intermediary acts as a connector cable, so to speak, infusing a common current of identity into the two persons and draws them within a single circle of insideness.[48]

The electronic image of connectivity is striking, given the literal networking of individuals, communities, and collective endeavor online. And of course, the same electronic internet works as circuit or pipeline to carry ZMZ-revised foreign entertainment out to appreciative viewers.

Can gift economy and guanxi in its relational network help underline the moral economy of ZMZ industry? Perhaps. Guanxi might be appropriate to describe relations of members in the team, who depend on each other, but their circle of mutual support is a pledge to a cause. It is not a litany of mutual acquaintances in search of a match. ZMZ are definitely a moral economy, provision of valued materials as a “labor of love,” and a dual dodge or evasion, of state rules for electronic information, and of the commercial logic of original producers. Both kinds of subterfuge carry risk.

What is notable is not only the common cause, but the benefits, reward, prestige, and recognition ZMZ members can access, in fact and in principle. The volunteerism and perks, the common cause and benefits will often run together. Recognition (face) is what ZMZ wish for, as their considerable efforts go unpaid. ZMZ are empowered by their informality, agility, and opportunism; they enjoy a “premium on informal local relations and trust networks” that diaspora Chinese utilized in the reorientation of socialist economy by capitalist connectedness.[49]

ZMZ are a robust type of Hatcher’s open-source “distributed production,” gaining clout in numbers, in diffusion, and specialization. It may be a “cinema of dispersion,” in the phrase of iGeneration editors. They are competitive, self-selecting, and agile, taking care to avoid regulatory snares. Given the conditions of online connectivity, they are literally a networked subjectivity extraordinarily productive, disciplined, and focused. The phrase affective labor, to borrow from Michael Hardt, is apposite. Networked subjectivity not only emphasizes kinship formations in China, and East Asia generally, but it also demurs from the radical individualism of the Cartesian thinking subject. Here we can pause on human connectivity in East Asia, where individual identity is not sacrosanct, nor even always central and at times an impediment. ZMZ work can be called a “moral economy” in its mostly principled commitment to co-creating and relaying foreign communication to eager viewers, and consumers in China, free of charge, for educational-cultural reasons and (perhaps) with reservation toward state controls on moving image communication.


Zimuzu List (Compiled March 2014, updated on May 1, 2017)
Zimuzu nameAbbreviationsURLDate of establishmentNumber of Users (March 2014)
1Renren yingshi (人人影视)YYeTshttp://www.yyets.com20042802920
2Yidian yuan (伊甸园)YDYhttp://bbs.sfile2012.com/NILNIL
3Tongzhi yi fanren (同志亦凡人)QAFhttp://www.qafone.co/2004690451
6Polan xiong (破烂熊)ragbearhttp://wang8293878807.xinxifabu.net/NIL324418
7Shengcheng jiayuan (圣城家园)SCGhttp://www.cnscg.com/forum.phpNILNIL
8Youyou niao (悠悠鸟)UU鸟http://bbs.uuniao.com/forum.phpNILNIL
9Tiantian meiju (天天美剧)NAhttp://www.ttmeiju.com/NILNIL
10Jiying (极影)NAhttp://weibo.com/p/1005053808818207NIL555593
11Manyou (漫游)NAhttps://bbs.popgo.org/bbs/NILNIL
13Juexing (觉醒)Awakeninghttp://www.awaker.cn/NILNIL
14Dianbo (电波)NAhttp://dbfansub.comNILNIL
15TLF Zhongwen zimu zhan (TLF中文字幕站)TLFhttp://sub.eastgame.orgNILNIL
16Huanyin (幻樱)hy008http://www.hy008.com;http://weibo.com/hysubNILNIL
17Shenying (深影)ShinYhttp://shinybbs.comNILNIL
18Bingbing (冰冰)Plsubhttp://www.icezmz.com/NIL175093
19Xinling fengruan (謦灵风软)FRTVS/FRMhttp://www.1000fr.netNIL615657
20Daolan (道兰)NAhttp://www.daolan.net2008NIL
21Aojiao (道兰)TNDRhttp://bbs.tsunndere.orgNIL982
22Dianwan bashi ACG (电玩巴士ACG)ACGhttp://zt.tgbus.com/acgzimu/NILNIL
23Tiankong shu (天空树)NAhttp://www.iskytree.net/201116129
25Meng nuer (萌女兒)NAhttp://mengnver.jpoping.netNIL4929
26Shenqi (神奇)NAhttp://www.sqsub.comNIL20590
27Xingguang (星光)Conanshttp://t.qq.com/micokudNIL10870
29Nuanse (暖色)NAhttp://weibo.com/NSzmzNILNIL
30Qianxia ting (千夏町)Airotahttp://www.airota.net/bbs/forum.phpNIL16087
31Guanghe she (光合社)NAhttp://pssclub.com/forum.phpNIL46038
32Xueku (雪酷)NAhttp://bbs.sc-ol.comNIL257960
33Dongman jidi ai no xia (动漫基地愛の夏)NAhttp://www.mangacn.net/index.phpNILNIL
34Lundun zhixin (伦敦之心)NAhttp://weibo.com/p/1005052784997275NIL48144
35Dushe dou M (毒舌抖M)NAhttp://weibo.com/youjihongxingzimuzuNILNIL
36Mengqi (梦奇)NAhttp://weibo.com/yumeki2007NILNIL
37Rijing (日菁)Jpfadhttp://www.jpsub.com/bbs/NILNIL
38Zhushen (诸神)NAhttp://www.kamigami.org/forum.phpNILNIL
40Dihuan (迪幻)deefunhttp://www.deefun.com/forum.phpNIL107401
41Guoran (果然)NAhttp://grzmz.com/201210820
42Qingyi (青翼)NAhttp://www.qingyisub.comNIL5337
43Tianshi dongman (天使动漫)TSDMhttp://www.tsdm.net/forum.phpNIL944213
44Bote hou (波特猴)BTMhttp://bbs.btmonkey.com/forum.phpNIL18439
45Qun mo (群魔)NAhttp://tw.weibo.com/qmgniceNIL31804
46Xiamo qiu (夏末秋)NAhttp://www.xmqzmz.orgNIL62635
47Bianxing jinggang xinshidai (变形金刚新世代)TFSubhttp://www.tfg2.comNIL93447
48Zhuzhu (猪猪)jumpcnhttp://www.suppig.net/NIL543782
49Mengxiang (梦想)NAhttp://www.mxzmz.com/NIL163967
50Pipa xing (琵琶行)PPXhttp://f.ppxclub.com/f-134-1NILNIL
51Bailian (白恋)NAhttp://bbs.youxiri.cn/forum-121-1.htmlNILNIL
52Dongman guo (动漫国)NAhttp://www.dmguo.org/forum.phpNILNIL
53Sukura CaféNAhttp://www.kisssub.org/search.php?keyword=Sakura❀CafeNILNIL
55Duomi nuo (多米诺)NAhttp://www.douban.com/group/288013/NA<500
58Xuanfeng (旋风)XFSUBhttp://www.xfsub.comNIL10167
59Bingtai (病态)NAhttp://page.renren.com/601372109?checked=trueNILNIL
60Jake ba (Jake吧)NAhttp://weibo.com/u/3967178790NILNIL
61TopGear ba (TopGear吧)NAhttp://tieba.baidu.com/f?kw=topgearNILNIL
62Waiwai (歪歪)Yyhttp://tieba.baidu.com/f?kw=yy%D7%D6%C4%BBNILNIL
63Lunhui qianzai (轮回千载)NAhttp://tieba.baidu.com/f?kw=%C2%D6%BB%D8%C7%A7%D4%D8%D7%D6%C4%BB%D7%E9NILNIL
65Qimeng (启萌)NAhttp://www.imoeer.comNIL17935
66Xie erduo (谢耳朵)NAhttp://site.douban.com/171026/NIL32102
67Shen de haizi (神的孩子)NAhttp://weibo.com/pinmsjNILNIL
68Jiongxia (囧夏)NAhttp://bbs.jxzmz.orgNIL488
69Jieting (堺町)NAhttp://weibo.com/masato731018NIL6999
70MC Ouyin (MC欧音)NAhttp://weibo.com/marcstchanNIL408
71Gao maoxian (搞毛线)MF吧WTFhttp://site.douban.com/218778/NIL4403
72Xikong (汐空)NAhttp://bbs.xkacg.com/NILNIL
73Moshui (魔穗)NAhttp://weibo.com/u/2793951445NILNIL
75Sili shengtu hui (私立生徒会)NAhttps://www.douban.com/group/424360/NIL577
    1. Darrell William Davis is Honorary Professor at the Department of Visual Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh is Chair Professor of Visual Studies at Lingnan University and Professor of the Academy of Film at Hong Kong Baptist University. They are authors of East Asian Screen Industries (London: BFI, 2008). The authors acknowledge support from “Connected Viewing Initiative,” Media Industry Project, Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They acknowledge with thanks the help from the project leads, Michael Curtin, Jennifer Holt, Karen Petruska, and Kevin Sanson, and the research partners, Wesley Jacks and Yong Li, as well as the two anonymous readers for their valuable comments and suggestions.return to text

    2. Donna S. C. Chu, “Fanatical Labor and Serious Leisure: A Case of Fansubbing in China,” in Frontiers in New Media Research, ed. Francis Lee et al. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 264–65.return to text

    3. Bingchun Meng, “Underdetermined Globalization: Media Consumption via P2P Networks,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 478; Chu, “Fanatical Labor and Serious Leisure,” 270.return to text

    4. Kelly Hu, “Competition and Collaboration: Chinese Video Websites, Subtitle Groups, State Regulation and Market,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 17, no. 5 (2014): 440.return to text

    5. Meng, “Underdetermined Globalization,” 475; Chu, “Fanatical Labor and Serious Leisure,” 262.return to text

    6. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).return to text

    7. Chu, “Fanatical Labor and Serious Leisure,” 262.return to text

    8. Meng, “Underdetermined Globalization,” 471.return to text

    9. Weiyu Zhang and Chengting Mao, “Fan Activism Sustained and Challenged: Participatory Culture in Chinese Online Translation Communities,” Chinese Journal of Communication 6, no. 1 (2013): 47.return to text

    10. Cf. Sean Leonard’s phrase “proselytization commons,” to refer to fansubbers of anime in the U.S. Leonard, Progress against the Law: Fan Distribution, Copyright, and the Explosive Growth of Japanese Animation, Columnar Version (MIT: 9 September 2004).return to text

    11. Markus Nornes, Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).return to text

    12. Chu, “Fanatical Labor and Serious Leisure.”return to text

    13. Ibid., 271.return to text

    14. Ibid.return to text

    15. Ian Condry, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 14.return to text

    16. Kelly Hu, “Chinese Subtitle Groups and the Neoliberal Work Ethic,” in Popular Culture Collaborations and Co-productions in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Nissim Otmazgin and Eyal Ben Ari (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2012), 207–32.return to text

    17. Ibid., 228.return to text

    18. Chu, “Fanatical Labor and Serious Leisure,” 264–65; Michael Hardt, “Affective Labor,” Boundary 2 26, no. 2 (1999): 89–100.return to text

    19. Antonio Negri, “The Labour of the Multitude and the Fabric of Biopolitics,” trans. Sara Mayo and Peter Graefe with Mark Coté, ed. Mark Coté, Mediations 23, no. 2 (2008): 9.return to text

    20. Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 39–40.return to text

    21. Nick Couldry, Inside Culture: Reimagining the Method of Cultural Studies (London: Sage, 2001), 5.return to text

    22. Matthew D. Johnson et al., eds., China’s iGeneration: Cinema and Moving Image Culture for the Twenty-First Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).return to text

    23. Kuei-fen Chiu and Yingjin Zhang, New Chinese-Language Documentaries: Ethics, Subject and Place (London: Routledge, 2014), 15.return to text

    24. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), xiv.return to text

    25. Ibid.return to text

    26. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3.return to text

    27. Meng, “Underdetermined Globalization.”return to text

    28. Ibid., 469.return to text

    29. Ibid., 468.return to text

    30. Ibid.return to text

    31. Chu, “Fanatical Labor and Serious Leisure,” 264.return to text

    32. Zhang and Mao, “Fan Activism Sustained and Challenged,” 56. They describe an example of a Chinese economics student taking on translation of a Yale University course on astrophysics: “The astrophysics example showed that the skills of learning by oneself, peer-learning, as well as new media literacy, such as crowdsourcing and searching, were transferred into the success of open course translation.”return to text

    33. Alisa Perren, “Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 3 (2003): 170.return to text

    34. Aynne Kokas, “American Media and China’s Blended Public Sphere,” in Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, and Sharing Media in the Digital Era, ed. Jennifer Holt and Kevin Sanson (New York: Routledge, 2014), 144.return to text

    35. Ramon Lobato, Shadow Economies of Cinema: Mapping Informal Film Distribution (London: British Film Institute, 2012); Johnson et al., eds., China’s iGeneration.return to text

    36. Scott Cendrowsky, “Why Chinese Censorship Couldn’t Stop ‘Big Bang Theory’ Fans,” Fortune, July 30, 2015, http://fortune.com/2015/07/30/chinese-censorship-big-bang-theory.return to text

    37. Darrell William Davis, “Marketization, Hollywood, Global China,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 26, no. 1 (2014): 193.return to text

    38. Ibid., 197.return to text

    39. Ramon Lobato and Julian Thomas, The Informal Media Economy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 156. “Our experience is, [unauthorized viewing] all leads to more penetration, more paying subs and more health for HBO,” statement by Game of Thrones writer David Petrarca, echoing the quip by Time Warner CEO that being the “most pirated” show was “better than an Emmy.”return to text

    40. Davis, “Marketization, Hollywood, Global China,” 194.return to text

    41. Condry, The Soul of Anime. Condry takes care to acknowledge both positive and negative connotations of the term “collaboration.”return to text

    42. Jordan S. Hatcher, “Of Otakus and Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online in Light of Current Issues in Copyright Law,” Script-ed 2, no. 4 (2005): 558.return to text

    43. Ibid., 557.return to text

    44. Allen J. Scott, Social Economy of the Metropolis: Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism and the Global Resurgence of Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).return to text

    45. Michael Curtin, “Media Capital: Toward the Study of Spatial Flows,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 202–28.return to text

    46. Hyde, The Gift, xiv.return to text

    47. Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, Gifts, Favors and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 189.return to text

    48. Ibid., 194.return to text

    49. Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 130.return to text


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    • Chiu, Kuei-fen, and Yingjin Zhang. New Chinese-Language Documentaries: Ethics, Subject and Place. London: Routledge, 2014.
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    • Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
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    • ———. “Competition and Collaboration: Chinese Video Websites, Subtitle Groups, State Regulation and Market.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 17, no. 5 (2014): 437–51.
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