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The immediate reason for writing this post is the curiosity of an important Chinese product, Shadowsocks, whose name is known only in English and whose author, clowwindy, has only an English name.

Shadowsocks is an open-source encrypted proxy project, widely used in mainland China to circumvent Internet censorship. It was created in 2012 by a Chinese programmer named "clowwindy", and multiple implementations of the protocol have been made available since. Typically, the client software will open a socks5 proxy on the machine it is run, which internet traffic can then be directed towards, similarly to an SSH tunnel. Unlike an SSH tunnel, shadowsocks can also proxy UDP traffic.


This may all sound highly technical and remote from the common man and woman, but it is actually something of tremendous interest to anyone in China who relies on the internet as a source of unrestricted information.

Most people who know anything about China realize that the Chinese government is determined to prevent its citizens from gaining access to the full resources of the internet.  To that end, it has established the Great Firewall (GFW), which is a formidable assemblage of tools and regulations for blocking and censoring access to the internet (e.g., no Google, no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter, and no to thousands of other sites and apps that the Chinese government deems threatening to its totalitarian control.

To circumvent the GFW, Chinese netizens have long resorted to VPNs (virtual private networks) as a makeshift for gaining access to the full resources of the internet.  The problem is that, already quite some time ago, the government declared it illegal to use a VPN, though most people who were determined to jump the GFW continued to employ them.  Upon occasion, when the government was especially paranoid about certain major events taking place in China, they could choke off VPNs until those crises had passed.

The war against internet access further intensified around half a year ago when the authorities announced that, by the end of February 2018, VPNs would be irrevocably blocked.  Informants in China told me that already around the end of the year they were finding it increasingly difficult to jump the GFW, and others told me that they were finding it harder and harder to use their VPNs well before that time.

The situation for VPNs in China is now essentially hopeless:

"China to Block Overseas VPN Services From End of March" (RFA [1/31/18])

Fortunately for netizens, Shadowsocks is now available, though clowwindy was "contacted by the police" in mid-2015 and told to take it down.  Of course, they did so, but by the time that happened, clones and branches had already spread widely, and the government was unable to bring all of them down.  So the situation now is that the government has not yet figured out a way to block Shadowsocks directly, though it is desperate to do so.  People I know who use Shadowsocks tell me they think it will be a couple of years before the government succeeds in stifling this new means for penetrating the GFW.  Meanwhile, programmers are devising still additional ways to evade the internet police.  Perhaps the next generation of internet heroes and their creations will also have English names only.

Although it may seem strange that "Shadowsocks" and "clowwindy" are known only by their English names, this phenomenon of having no Chinese equivalent for Chinese phenomena and Chinese individuals is increasingly common, especially in the sciences, and above all in the computer sciences.  Me thinketh this is telling us something significant about the constantly increasing role of English in China which we have often touched upon on Language Log, but seldom in such a direct and unmistakable fashion as the forfeiture of Chinese names for Chinese creations and their creators.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    February 9, 2018 @ 3:09 am

    I don't know very much about the so-called "dark web" but I wonder whether TOR ("the onion router") might also enable Chinese residents to gain access to material that would otherwise be imaccessible to them ?

  2. B.Ma said,

    February 9, 2018 @ 4:03 am

    Tor doesn't work in China because the GFW continually tries to use Tor itself, and when it succeeds, it prevents anybody else from connecting to that node.

    Anything that can just be downloaded from a website by a casual user, can also be downloaded by one of the probably thousands of IT-qualified people who are employed and paid to run the GFW, analyzed, and blocked.

    There are ways around it, mainly involving pretending not to be Tor, but how do you determine whether the person requesting access is not just a state censor?

  3. David Marjanović said,

    February 9, 2018 @ 2:00 pm

    it may seem strange that "Shadowsocks" and "clowwindy" are known only by their English names

    Oh, that phenomenon is by no means limited to China. Most languages used on teh intarwebz have imported the word computer and many others that go with it to the extent that programming is felt to be a primarily English-language occupation.

  4. KeithB said,

    February 9, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

    Not to mention that all the keywords are English. (With the possible exception of BrainF***.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

    I'm quite aware that tens of thousands of English words have been incorporated in languages all over the earth. In this post, I was thinking primarily that "Shadowsocks" and "clowwindy" are not written in the Chinese script. That's quite different from writing "computer" or "camera", etc., in kana.

  6. amy said,

    February 10, 2018 @ 12:14 am

    I guess even God can't use VPN anymore. (Context: )

  7. WSM said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

    seems to be referred in Chinese as 影梭, from a five-second Google search… : "…安装影梭…"

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

    yǐngsuō 影梭 ("shadow shuttle") seems to be a lame translation of "Shadowsocks".

    Everybody I know refers to this product as Shadowsocks and they don't know it by any other name.

    Shadowsocks 1,270,000 ghits

    yǐngsuō 影梭 34,300 ghits

    yǐngsuō 影梭 is not catching on

  9. Eidolon said,

    February 15, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    It isn't particularly surprising. It should be remembered that in computer science, the popular programming languages almost exclusively use the English alphabet. To program is, as David Marjanović said above, to program in "English" in most places in the world. Attempts have been made, from time to time, to translate these languages to native orthography, but with how fast the field changes, translators have never been able to keep up very well. As such, programmers from all over the world primarily write their code with the English alphabet, which would then naturally lead them to rendering their own creations through the English alphabet, too.

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