Do religious ghosts dream of supernatural time travel?
Imagine if one day a mainland director made a film about a ghost who travels back in time to—let’s say, 1949—to redeem his living self by finding faith in God and carrying out alchemical experiments on human beings. Now keep imagining because you will never see such a film come out of China.
Stringent rules and regulations over film content are in operation in mainland China, implemented by the China Film Administration (CFA) under the direct supervision of the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party. One of the oldest and primary targets of this censorship has been everything that is seen as superstition by the authorities.
Every aspect of the film plot described above—ghosts, time travel, religions or cults, and the supernatural—falls under the category of superstition and is unlikely to be approved for filming, and all four combined would be enough to make generations of Chinese censors turn in their grave (wait, would that be superstitious?).
A very brief early history
In fact, the prohibition of superstition on the silver screen in China is even older than the current People’s Republic. In 1930, the Nationalist government of the Republic of China passed the first national law on film censorship and forbade the screening of, inter alia, films that spread superstition and slowed China on its road to modernity.1
Film censorship in these earlier periods had modern nation-building as its agenda,2 rather than political or ideological goals of censorship after 1949, and thus was one of the junctions where the Nationalists and the Communists saw eye to eye.
After the Communists moved to Yan’an area in 1935, it didn’t take long for them to notice that peasants who took solace in folk religions were reluctant to actively take part in their socialist collectivist plans. Thus, mass education and campaigns against superstition became priorities for the party.3
In 1950, the first regulation on films in the newly-established PRC stipulated that “whether it is domestic or imported, new or old…licentious, pornographic, superstitious or terrorist messages…should be cut out, or the film could be banned.”4
The spirit of these early policies is still very much alive today.
Shenguai films: the spiritual and the supernatural
Some of the earliest targets of the spiritual purge were shenguai films (神怪电影 shenguai dianying, where shen means “god” and guai means “bizarre, strange”).
For domestic films, this at the time meant the 1920s’ special-effects-laden Chinese martial-arts films featuring ghosts and spirits. As for imported films, those dealing with religious subjects such as The Ten Commandments (1923) and Ben Hur (1925) and “unscientific” and “strange” films such as Frankenstein (1931) and Alice in Wonderland (1931) were all prohibited from screening.5
In more contemporary times, the Oscar-nominated animation Babe: Pig in the City (1998) was barred from China reportedly due to a policy that forbade the depiction of live-action animals with the ability to speak.6
Meanwhile, films with certain religious aspects in their plot seem to be allowed on the condition that the religious or cult practices are depicted in a negative light. A case in point is Ghosts (凶宅幽灵), a 2002 Chinese horror film. It was “an exception in terms of having an excessive representation of horror” thanks to its “ghost” who, it turns out, is a priest who murders those who refuse to follow his faith.7
The Scooby-Dooesque ghosts in mainland horror
While the makers of Ghosts chose to reveal their ghost as a human, the choice of implying that a ghost in a fictional film as real remains absent. In other words, similar to how a Chekhov’s gun should be fired before the story ends, a ghost in a mainland feature must be exposed, before the end of the film, as being—wait for it—not real.
This convention dates back to mass-education campaigns against superstition during the Seventeen Years, a period between the founding of New China in 1949 to the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Cinematic “ghosts” in films of this era were bound to be revealed as either victims of feudal oppression, waiting to be rescued by the party, or enemies of the revolution, hiding to avoid arrest by the party.8
Similarly, ghosts in modern mainland horror flicks inevitably turn out to be human beings in disguise, or a hallucination, or simply a dream, rendering most such films utterly anticlimactic and, in some cases, unintentionally parodic.9
Time travel: is the present the best?
Contrary to popular belief and coverage of publications such as The New Yorker and The Hollywood Reporter,10 the theme of time travel is not banned in China.
Rumors circulated in the mid-1980s that Back to the Future (1985) was banned,11 but no definitive proof can be found.
In April 2011, a high-ranking official in the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television criticized the “frivolity” of and “disrespect towards history” in the production of time-travel dramas then. It was decided that such TV series are “discouraged” since they sometimes even “promote feudal superstition, fatalism, afterlife, confuse social values, and lack positive thinking.”12 Of course, although not an outright ban, such a warning was enough to discourage most stakeholders in the TV industry from taking the risk.
It is a different story for feature films, however. Numerous time-travel films were made in recent years: Suddenly Seventeen (26岁未成年, 2016), How Long Will I Love U (超时空同居, 2018), Over Again (回到过去拥抱你, 2019), just to name a few.
In fact, the second highest-grossing film of this year and the third highest-grossing film of all time in China, Hi, Mom (你好, 李焕英, 2021) tells the story of a young girl who is transported twenty years back to 1981 and who tries to change the family’s past.
From these we can see that the authorities at the time objected to the manner the theme of time travel was handled and not to the theme itself.
Inconsistency as consistency
So, exactly how much or what kind of superstition is allowed on Chinese screens? Yes.
Film censorship in China remains just as bewildering as the incongruent answer to the question above. Restrictions on cinematic content and visual representation are not as dire and drastic as much of Western media tend to portray it as (e.g., the so-called ban on time travel), but it surely is there.
The line between what’s permissible and what’s not has always been kept deliberately blurry, allowing the censors more room to exercise their power. Indeed, perhaps the only constant in film censorship in China is its inconsistency, and the filmmakers have no choice but to “cross the river by touching the stones.”
Sure, the protagonist of Hi, Mom can travel back twenty years in time to 1981 and befriend her mother. But going back just ten years further to 1971, to the middle of the Cultural Revolution, would perhaps not be a wise decision.
References / To go further
Laikwan Pang, “The state against ghosts: a genealogy of China’s film censorship policy,” Screen 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 463.
Zhiwei Xiao, “Prohibition, Politics, and Nation-Building: A History of Film Censorship in China,” in Silencing Cinema: Film Censorship Around the World, eds. Daniel Biltereyst and Roel Vande Winkel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 109-110.
Pang, “The state against ghosts,” 464.
Pang, “The state against ghosts,” 465.
Xiao, “Prohibition, Politics, and Nation-Building,” 118.
Steven Schwankert, “Is Winnie the Pooh Banned in China?,” China Film Insider, July 18, 2017, https://chinafilminsider.com/is-winnie-the-pooh-banned-in-china/.
Li Zeng, “Horror returns to Chinese cinema: an aesthetic of restraint and the space of horror,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 51 (Spring 2009).
Pang, “The state against ghosts,” 466.
Accented Cinema, “Mainland Chinese Horror & Censorship,” YouTube video, 11:10, October 20, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNFkcXrs_sk.
Richard Brody, “China Bans Time Travel,” The New Yorker, April 8, 2011, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/china-bans-time-travel. Jonathan Landreth, “China Bans Time Travel Films and Shows, Citing Disrespect of History,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 13, 2011, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/china-bans-time-travel-films-177801/.
Jon Healey, “Opinion: Beyond ‘The Interview’: A short list of films banned for political reasons,” December 23, 2014, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-north-korea-the-interview-banned-movies-20141222-story.html. 甲骨文研究网, “科幻片《回到未来》被禁播？什么乱七八糟的破电影？,” Zhihu, April 25, 2019, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/63769334.
Yomi Braester, “The Spectral Return of Cinema: Globalization and Cinephilia in Contemporary Chinese Film,” Cinema Journal 55, no, 1 (Fall 2015): 49. 北京晚报, “广电总局泼冷穿越剧：对历史文化不尊重,” Sina Entertainment, April 2, 2011, http://ent.sina.com.cn/c/2011-04-02/15513272140.shtml.