Friendship and nostalgia preserved in copyrighted ‘Friends’ despite edited lines: Chinese fans
Published: Feb 16, 2022 09:32 PM
It has been 28 years since Rachel rushed into Central Perk wearing a wedding dress in the iconic opening scene of the series, and 18 years since the group of friends handed over their keys and closed the door to Monica's apartment in New York City, but Friends could still arouse huge waves easily, even on the other side of the globe.

Recently, the American TV show Friends landed streaming deals with several major Chinese online platforms, including the most popular ones Bilibili, Youku, and iQiyi, declaring an official return of the series in the Chinese mainland.

When the familiar opening theme "I'll be there for you" started, thousands of Chinese netizens sighed sentimentally. "My youth is back!"

Within five days, the first season of Friends has received more than 26 million views on Bilibili, while also topping the viewing charts on other platforms.

Even though the re-airing of the series in China sparked doubt in some after viewers found some content, including lines regarding sexual topics, removed or changed, it did not dampen the enthusiasm of fans to reacquaint themselves with the warmth of the friendship between the ensemble cast coupled with nostalgia.

In the past two decades, Friends, with the increasing ease of access to the internet in China, accompanied millions of young Chinese people, teaching them not only English, but offering lessons on love, tolerance, and how to cherish life's journey.

<em>Friends</em> Photo: VCG

Friends Photo: VCG

Our friends

Central Perk's big logo on the window and its play of words on the New York landmark Central Park, the set's red couch, a TV set in the background forever playing Friends episodes on a loop, the coffee with the latte art "How you doing" on top… all make "Smelly Cat" café in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang, a great place to reminisce on this classic for Chinese fans.

The café's owner, Du Xin, is the first "dreamer" to create a Friends- themed coffee house in China.

In 2004 when Du first watched the the show, he was preparing for the postgraduate entrance examination, when his heart was broken by unrequited love and he was under great stress.

"For me, Friends is a lifesaver when I'm in a tough situation. It's not just a sitcom. The six characters are my best friends who have been with me through my most difficult moments. I feel lucky and grateful to have met them," Du told the Global Times.

A <em>Friends</em>-themed coffeehouse in Shanghai. Photo: VCG

A Friends-themed coffeehouse in Shanghai. Photo: VCG

Du named himself Gunther, after the owner of Central Perk Café in Friends, and his wife, who was a waitress in the store, goes by the English name Rachel.

In the 12 years since the café opened in Beijing, which was then moved to Hangzhou in East China's Zhejiang and Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong, Du has become friends with countless fans of the series, and has witnessed how Friends has influenced generations of young people in China.

"I didn't expect the TV series to continue to be as popular today, and many people say that I have fulfilled their dreams by opening such a cafe," said Du. Giving fans a place to sit, reminisce, and recount the youthful escapades they passionately chased is what has motivated Du to persevere in this endeavor.

Currently, there are more than 110 Friends-themed coffeehouses in China, according to China's Yelp-like APP Dianping.

Friends is a window of sorts for Du's generation born in 1970s and 80s, especially those who were educated, to peer into and learn about themes related to friendship, love, and life. This influence still continues among Chinese young people born in later decades, experts said.

"I first watched Friends online when I was studying abroad a few years ago. It is still my favorite TV series and I have watched each episode at least 5-10 times," 28-year-old Su Huaijin, a scientific worker in Beijing, told the Global Times.

"At different times in my life, Friends gave me different experiences. Several of the protagonists' open attitudes toward sex, career pursuits, female empowerment, and various other lifestyle choices opened my eyes to the fact that 'I can live like this,'" Su said.

"Now a few years on, watching Friends is like a kind of nostalgic experience from my youth while still helping me practice English," she said, adding that her favorite character is Chandler, because he is an "ideal life partner who's not afraid to pursue his passion."

Characters of <em>Friends</em> Photo: VCG

Characters of Friends Photo: VCG

Estelle Qiu, born in the year 2000, is one of many young-generation fans of Friends. She started watching it because of "peer pressure." "Many people around me have watched the show, so I felt I also need to know it."

"I learned many slang words from it that I use when I speak English. From the six of them, I learned how to reflect upon myself and to cherish the friends around me," she said.

Elephant in the room 

Fans hailed the return of the show as promotion promised that Friends would land in streaming websites across the Chinese web days before February 11, when the first season was subsequently released on the platforms.

However, when the day came, the fans, many of whom had even memorized lines from the show, found some lines on sexual topics missing or "fixed" in Chinese subtitles, which made the plot, such as the explanations about Ross' divorce because of his lesbian wife's new relationship to a woman, somewhat incoherent.

Some perplexed fans expressed their disappointment, which became one of the hottest topics on Chinese social media. "We are adults. Do not ruin this classic," some demanded.

<em>Friends</em> Photo: VCG

Friends Photo: VCG

"The sexual content in Friends is 'the elephant in the room,' which cannot be covered up by cutting out the plot and the use of evasive translation," said another.

But this clamor could not overtake fans' enthusiasm, who rushed to streaming sites to celebrate their memories of and enduring love for the show.

"I don't need to know the whole story. I have several versions of Friends set on my cloud drive, in varying quality with various subtitles," a fan said, "The meaning of having Friends on these platforms is different. After so many years, I would like to pay for it and watch it along with other fans."

While China does not have a rating system for shows, the Friends audience on Chinese platforms are also considered, expert said.

The revision of the show is suspected by many people as a change made by the platforms, which is more suitable for underage audiences to watch.

"China does not have a comprehensive and thorough administration concerning a rating system," Shi Wenxue, a film critic based in Beijing, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

"The industry should adhere to the priority of social influence to achieve both social and economic benefits," Shi said. 

"I think the friendship and other positive parts of the show have been preserved," Du, the café owner said. "Hopefully it is more suitable for teenagers and younger people to watch it."

An anonymous insider from one of the platforms told the Global Times that "There is nothing special about reintroducing Friends to China. Maybe the show brought back too many memories, and that's why the doubt was aroused."

"Seeing the emotional bullet comments on the screen and knowing that there are so many people still watching the show makes me happy," Mumuchi, a netizen on Douban, said in response to people's complaints about the revised episodes.

To be or not to be

This was the second time that Friends has been introduced to China "legally." In 2010, Zhang Chaoyang, chairman and CEO of, bought the copyright of Friends, which expired after eight years.

This time, what is shown to the Chinese audience is a remastered version of Friends, which was optimized by Huawei, the Global Times learned.

Before the millennium, Chinese people had access to only a very few American TV programs, which became a window for them to know about the Western way of life. 

In 1990s, people in China saw the hilarious daily life of the Seavers via the sitcom <em>Growing Pains</em>.Photo: VCG

In 1990s, people in China saw the hilarious daily life of the Seavers via the sitcom Growing Pains.Photo: VCG

Garrison's Gorillas was broadcast in 1980 on Chinese TV, a year after China and the US established diplomatic relations. Eleven years later, people in China saw the hilarious daily life of the Seavers via the sitcom Growing Pains. Both shows, dubbed by Chinese voice actors, were a hit at that time and became a significant memory for Chinese people from that period when the ways of cultural communication were limited.

In the early 2000s, with the rise of access to the internet, Friends began to spread in China. It first started with a particular group of people. For instance, it was first introduced by Outlook, a popular English-learning program by CCTV, in which the hosts taught some American slang words with Friends clips as learning aids.

CCTV's import of Band of Brothers to China in 2003 enjoyed huge success. As Friends became more well-known in China, calls demanding that CCTV syndicate the classic sitcom grew. However, CCTV chose Everybody Loves Raymond, which, did not create as much buzz.

When millions of fans bid a tearful goodbye to Friends in 2004, its journey in China was just starting. 

It cannot be avoided that the first decade of Friends in China was a time of "piracy." Video clips of the show with Chinese to English subtitles could be found with not much effort, and CD rips of the show were sold online or on the street at the time.

"The first time I ever shopped on Taobao was to buy a set of Friends DVDs. All 10 seasons are ripped on 24 disks and packed in a beautiful hardcover box. It was in 2005 and I was in junior high school," Xiao Ba, a Friends fan said. "My mom thought it was for learning English."

"Now, the copyright of Friends is very clear," Shi said. In 2020, the right to stream Friends was transferred from Netflix to Warner Media, which owns HBO, in a $500 million deal, media reported.

"China has been emphasizing the importance of copyright adherence. So syndicating Friends is a reflection of the progress of cracking down on piracy in China," Shi noted.


Chronicles of American TV shows popular in China


Garrison's Gorillas


Growing Pains


Friends, Band of Brothers, Everybody Loves Raymond


Prison Break, CSI, Bones


The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family


Game of Thrones