Asian Cinema


Author: Adekola Taylor
June, 2015


Over the years, China has been considered as the most vigorous and world’s largest haven for piracy and copyright offenders. In the late 1990s pirate videos first appeared in China, occasioned by the emergence of a cineaste culture, a piracy culture, that developed and matured with the fast boom of the pirate industry during its golden years from 1998 to 2005 ( 2014, p. 6; Li 2012, p. 545). As a result of widespread of pirate and digital technologies that vehemently widened opportunities for film production and consumption, a new wave of the development of a series of cineaste clubs emerged in urban China. Due to China’s tight quota and strong censorship system there was extreme limitation of film availability in libraries, schools, and theaters. With the widespread of the cyber technologies and the rapid market boom of pirate DVDs and VCDs, various cineaste clubs metamorphosed into different kinds of organizations without the need for semi-public screenings.

VCDs, a low-cost but high-tech digital image product appeared in China around 1995, and it quickly found viable ground for huge development. The boom of the pirate industry was predicated on the huge consumption of VCDs, and later DVDs by the Chinese people. To be candid, the pirate industry, to a certain degree, has not only affected the contemporary image culture in China, but has also had a direct impact of Chinese economy, politics and society. The goal of this essay is to analyze what is meant by Ou Ning by his phrase “unprecedented image democracy ” in his article “Digital Images and Civic Consciousness” (Ou 2004). Moreover, this paper will discuss pirate VCD/DVD culture and its relationship to independent documentary making in contemporary China.

Definitions of Terms

Cineaste culture: This word is used to refer to a piracy culture in China.

Piracy: This simply means using other people’s creations in disregard of copyright.

Digital images: It is used to refer to images produced using advanced technological devices

Image Democracy: This is referred to the phenomenon where people democratize images or video through the use of digital equipment breaking down the monopoly of the mainstream film industry.

Intellectual property right: It is a legal right given to the creator or creators of intellectual work. Copyright: It is a legal right given to creators for their artistic or literary works, which covers a wide range of works, including reference works, films, musical compositions, novels, poems, photographs, technical drawings, computer programs, databases, sculpture, architecture, newspapers, paintings, and choreography (Lu 2009, p.13).

The unprecedented Image Democracy in China in the Digital Era

The effortless capacity in creating multiple identical copies, as a result, of the striking characteristic of the digital age has primary implications on the status of the copyright and a copy (Hobart 2010, p.28). Until recent times, mass reproduction was only limited to owners of high-capital investment industries. With their technological advantage and costly acquired equipment including legal mechanisms such as agreements and copyright, they had control over promotion, distribution, products, and the artists. However, the table turned around, and the industry’s technological advantage was gradually breaking away with the advent of digital technology and the democratization of replication. All over the world because of cheap digital equipment, artists are producing their own recordings by themselves. The arrival of digital technologies such as DVDs and VCDs in the 21st century facilitated a broad independent film culture and ignited an explosion of independent documentary making even before the arrival of cheap digital cameras. These were parts of the factors that led to what Ou Ning called, “The unprecedented Image Democracy in China.”

The most socially influential films in the new wave of independent filmmaking are the documentaries that are directed to document changes and social reality of the times. These documentaries are not only the true reflection of the happenings of the time, but also the true reflection of the power structure, and prevalent hot debates on sophisticated arguments. The scope of independent documentaries has extended across the broader of daily social life and customs in China to deeply seated issues in the Chinese society. Like the waves of democracy that have spread across the world through the use of internet, the independent documentary film making has fostered a civic consciousness, despite the lack of strict organization (Berry 2003, p.2). Undoubtedly, the unprecedented opening of information resources driven by digital technologies and generated by market principles led to unprecedented image democracy in China. This set up a new line of dimensions by leaping over the traditional venues, such as public art centers, museums, and commercial cinemas, to create alternative spaces in different places where discussions, collective viewings and study of films were organized.

A new kind of public life was developed around films bringing the many young people out of the online virtual community into a real life community. The widespread use of digital images in communication, entertainment, marketing, and film gathered together forces that created a new order in the Chinese society, undermining the rules of the game being dictated by the mainstream film industry to establish the process of democratization of images. The dictatorship rules of the mainstream film industry were dethroned, and the democratic rules were enthroned with many people having access to film production. However, the unprecedented image democracy in China was riddled with the scourge of piracy, emergence of well-organized piracy clubs (Tibrand 2008, p. 34), and China became the world’s largest world’s largest haven for piracy and copyright offenders. The consumers of the digital images in China are the most frenzied and enthusiastic in the world because of their decade of long isolation from information.

The Chinese had no option than to go for pirating of VCDs and DVDs, not because they decided not to respect intellectual property rights, but they viewed it as an essential process needed to develop the film industry in China. They believe that the out-of-hand chaos would be reversed in the process of time according to the principles of supply and demand, and market principles. The huge consumption of VCDs and DVDs by the Chinese people kept the business of piracy going and erupted into boom of the pirate industry. The population of China could have been another influential factor driven the pirate industry. Apart from the significant role of changing the contemporary image culture in China, the pirate industry through the mass independent filmmaking had direct impacts on the politics and economy of the Chinese people Esarey and Qiang 2011, p. 15).


In conclusion, the prevalence of piracy also has its evil sides. Hollywood like any other entertainment bodies records billions of money as losses to piracy annually. Nonetheless, the new dimensions of independent film making accentuated by the unruly structure of piracy presented a seemingly impossible public sphere in China and a new kind of organizing public experience. It changed the radical structure hegemonic public sphere to a democratized public sphere.


Berry Chris 2003, ‘The documentary production process as a counter-public: notes on an inter- Asian mode and the example of Kim Dong-Won,’ Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1

Esarey Ashley and Qiang Xiao 2011, ‘Digital communication and political change in China,’ International Journal of Communication, Vol. 5, p. 298–319, viewed 27 June 2015

Horbart Henry 2010, ‘Rampant reproduction and digital democracy: Shifting landscapes of music production and ‘Piracy’ in Bolivia’, Ethnomusicology Forum, Vol.19, No. 1, pp.27-56, viewed 27 June 2015 < 13153528/Shifting-Rampant-Reproduction-and-Digital-Democracy-Shifting-Landscapes -of-Mu

Li Jinying 2012, ‘From D-Buffs to the D-Generation: Piracy, cinema, and an alternative public sphere in urban China.’ International Journal of Communication. Vol. 6, p. 542–563 viewed 27 June 2015

Lu Jia 2009, ‘Software copyright and piracy in China,’ viewed 27 June 2014< http://repository. pdf?sequence=2/> 2014, The viral life of an alternative cinematic public sphere, viewed 27 June 2014< 20Lu.pdf

Ou Ning 2004, ‘Digital Images and Civic Consciousness’, [trans. Yu Hsiao-Hwei] at U-theque Organization website, viewed 27 June 2014< digital%20images.htm/>

Tibrand Andreas 2008, ‘Representations - Practice – Spectatorship: A study of haptic relations between independent cinema and market- led urbanization in contemporary China,’ Working Paper No 23 2008 Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies Lund University, Sweden

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