Culture

This crazy way people watch videos in China is a whole subculture on its own

Jul 27, 2018

This is how people in China watch videos online:

That onslaught of scrolling text is made of comments from other viewers, and pops up while you're watching your video. The comments appear at the time-stamp they were made over the lifetime of the video, so popular videos get covered over fast, as more commenters come and leave their mark.

The scrolling comments are called “danmu,” or “bullet chat,” which comes from the Japanese “danmaku” genre of shooter games. The Danmaku name translates to “bullet hell,” referring to how users are hit by a barrage of bullets in the gameplay.

Yes, it may look very distracting at first sight, but audiences in China are embracing the feature because it's an immersive experience that creates a sense of community. People feel like they’re in a chatroom with other viewers, watching as a group. Think of it as watching a movie with your friends, but without having to share any of your couch space.

One of the first sites to introduce the feature to China was Bilibili, which adopted the bullet chats from the Japanese video site Niconico, the pioneer of this internet phenomenon. Today, most of China's popular video streaming platforms have incorporated the function too.

People feel like they’re in a chatroom with other viewers, watching as a group. Think of it as watching a movie with your friends, but without having to share any of your couch space.

Of course, users can turn off the bullet chat feature if they find it annoying or distracting. But people keep it on because the comments have evolved to become more than visual noise: bullet chats have become content itself, adding commentary to whatever it is you're watching. On sites like Bilibili, users have even developed their own culture and lingo. Here are a few examples of how bullet chats serve their community:

1. Spoilers

Image

These comments aren’t exactly spoilers—they function more like signals. They alert the viewer of sensitive or climactic moments in a video. Comments like “high energy ahead” (前方高能) or “high energy alert” (高能预警) tell the audience that the upcoming scene might be exciting, horrifying, or climactic.

2. Covering scary scenes on your behalf

For those who love watching horror films but hate seeing violent, bloody, or scary scenes, these bullet chats can be super helpful. The comments literally come in a block, and cover the horror scenes.

As an additional joke, the comments often recite China's “core socialist values”—something Chinese citizens have repeatedly studied in school. It's a tongue-in-cheek gesture rather than an actual pledge to the core socialist values.

3. Translations

When a foreign language video is not dubbed, or translations are not available, you can often find translated bullet chats submitted by other viewers, who are aptly nicknamed “translators in the wild.” To make sure the translations don't get covered by other bullet chats, the video owner can opt to prioritize these comments over others.

4. Custom premium effects

For this patriotic Chinese song, viewers have gone all out to create these special effects for their bullet chats. You'll see everything from the hammer and sickle to the five stars of China's flag. To post “premium chats” like these, viewers have to pay with virtual coins on Bilibili, and get permission from the video uploader.

5. Body and facial recognition for dance videos

A lot of viewers want to read bullet chats without missing key parts of the video. Bilibili recently rolled out this smart “block avoider” feature, which uses facial and body recognition to detect people, allowing the text to flow behind them instead of on top of them. So you can still enjoy the dance sequence without turning off the chat stream.

To learn more about bullet chats and see what they look like in action, watch our explainer on bullet chats, the second video in our ongoing series that explains the subcultures of the Chinese internet.