Netflix’s “3 Body Problem” Sparks Debates About Censorship, History, and Cinematic Adaptations

Film censorship has long plagued China’s creative arts industry and stifled foreign products seeking domestic Chinese audiences. The shrinking space for artistic expression, along with rising nationalism, has exposed artists and their work to greater pressure from the state and criticism from viewers. Some recent works of film and television highlight this dynamic.

On one side of the dynamic are Chinese artists. A recent Foreign Policy series explores how Chinese artists navigate the line between art and propaganda during a time when many “opt for mediocrity for the sake of safety when they’re not making outright, if sometimes entertaining, propaganda.” 

Chinese film director Wang Xiaoshuai has long attempted to toe this line in order to screen his films inside China, but the intensifying censorship atmosphere has forced him to showcase his most recent work outside of China. His latest film, “Above the Dust” 《沃土》(Wòtǔ, “fertile soil”), premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last month. Despite 50 alterations and deletions over 15 months of censorship review, it failed to receive the “Dragon Seal” of approval from China’s National Film Bureau. In an interview with Patrick Frater from Variety, Wang described how state censorship has challenged his artistic aspirations:

So, is it a problem for you to show [the film] in the festival [without the Dragon Seal]?

There’s pressure on the production company and myself. A lot of pressure. It is forbidden to show the film without a Dragon Seal in Berlin. But Berlin selected it. I’m happy about that. This is the film that I wanted to make. About China, about our lives. About Chinese history and reality.

[…] Do you plan to make more films?

I want to do another one about intellectuals [under the Cultural Revolution]. But given the situation with ‘Above the Dust’ I don’t know how to move on. I want to use my films to advocate for freedom of expression.

Is the problem censorship, or self-censorship?

With the long-time suppression that comes from censorship, it is quite difficult to open your mind to create freely. When I have a story to tell, I have to think about censorship first, which kills my own creativity and ability to express things. [Source]

In a profile of Wang for The New York Times on Wednesday, Li Yuan wrote about how China’s tightening censorship in the arts has both shaped and restricted artists’ careers:

Literature and art should “serve the people and socialism,” China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, proclaimed in 2014. “In the core socialist values, the deepest, fundamental and most eternal is patriotism,” he said. “Works imbued with patriotic sentiment are most effective in rallying the Chinese people to unity and struggle.”

Mr. Xi’s dictate has since set the tone for Chinese cinema.

In 2018, the supervision of the film industry was transferred from a government agency to the party’s department of publicity, making it essentially an arm of the state’s propaganda mechanism.

“The choice is clear for a lot of film directors,” said Michael Berry, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. They can get in line and make propagandistic films, which means they could have successful careers commercially, he said. “Or you turn your back on the Chinese market, then become a dissident director and work internationally.” [Source]

The stringent arts censorship so familiar in China has become more commonplace in Hong Kong art circles as well, particularly since the passage of Hong Kong’s National Security Law in 2020 and Article 23 legislation in 2024. Vivienne Chow at Artnet, describing how state censorship pressures have increased in Hong Kong’s art world, highlighted the sensitivity of topics related to the Cultural Revolution: 

“Works dealing with the Cultural Revolution or mocking the faces of Mao [Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China] are no longer taken by auction houses in Hong Kong. Previously, there was not a problem at all,” said [art historian and critic Eric Wear], citing an anonymous source who wanted to place these works for sale but failed.

[…] Other art sectors have already reported incidents of censorship or self-censorship since the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020. Recently, names of Hong Kong artists and crew members involved in the English version of May 35th—a Hong Kong theater production addressing the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing that will have its global premier in London in May—have changed their names to pseudonyms on the production’s billing for fear of political retaliation for themselves and their families.

Other theater groups in Hong Kong have also been facing censorship and funding cuts. Certain political books have been disappearing from Hong Kong libraries and seizures of books deemed “seditious” have been made. Scrutiny of films has increased as the revised film censorship law included national security elements. Most recently, the title of the 1993 film Beijing Bastards by popular Chinese director Zhang Yuan was censored when it was screened at M+ museum. An image of Ai Weiwei’s Tiananmen Square photograph was also removed from the museum’s website. [Source]

Even some Chinese officials have begun to express concern about how this increased censorship has dampened the creativity of China’s film and television industry. Drawing on a Pekinology post by Zichen Wang, Simon Sharwood from The Register described how the founder and chairman of Chinese electronics maker TCL subtly criticized state censorship for contributing to the decline in domestic Chinese television sales:

Li Dongsheng’s exhortation was bold because he voiced it during the recent National People’s Congress – China’s rubberstamp parliament in which he sits as a deputy in recognition of his stewardship of the partially state owned TCL.

[…] Li noted sales are going backwards in China, but growing in the US and other markets. He also cited data that indicates Chinese citizens use their tellies less often than folks in other countries.

Li suggested China’s censors may be to blame because they make it hard to create compelling content.

He put it less bluntly than that, suggesting it might be time to “improve the review system for film and television works, and stimulate the innovative vitality of the cultural film and television industry.” [Source]

While domestic options may be limited, Chinese consumers to some extent continue to gravitate towards foreign films and television series. This was demonstrated by the recent surge of interest in Netflix’s “3 Body Problem,” which was released last week. The series is based on the Hugo Award-winning Chinese-language novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin. The American adaptation caused great trepidation among Chinese netizens in the lead-up to the release. But as the South China Morning Post stated, “A huge spike in online piracy of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem on the day of its release in China, where the streaming service and its original shows are not officially available, reflects an intense interest in the country to see how the US streamer is handling the best known piece of Chinese science fiction globally.”

Sha Hua from The Wall Street Journal described the attention and critical reception that the series is receiving in China:

Hashtags associated with the show have garnered some 2.3 billion views on Weibo, a Chinese social-media platform similar to X, since its release Thursday. The popular film and music review site Douban and question-and-answer site Zhihu were flooded with tens of thousands of user reviews. 

Chinese viewers generally praised the production value and storytelling of the Netflix adaptation. But many also lamented changes Benioff, Weiss and Woo made to the original story, arguing they rendered the country that produced the source material in a one-dimensional, almost entirely negative way. 

[…] “All the male Chinese hero characters have been assigned to actors of other skin colors, while the villain has remained Chinese,” noted one popular review on Douban.

Some Chinese critics argued that, given such changes, it would have been better for Netflix to remove China from the show entirely. For example, a few suggested depicting Ye as a Black woman who grows disillusioned with humanity after witnessing her father’s assassination in the McCarthy Era.

“That would be a truly American opening of 3 Body Problem,” one Douban user wrote, notching more than a thousand likes. [Source]

Some of the negative commentary on Chinese social media revolved around nationalist perceptions of anti-Chinese xenophobia. VOA highlighted two such comments: “When I read [the novel] for the first time a few years ago, after reading the beginning, I immediately knew why this book was praised abroad,” and “In the eyes of foreigners, China is still that repressive, backward and crazy stereotype. All disasters stem from this. The Chinese are not worthy of saving the world and can only wait for the West to save it.” The Economist stated that the main reason for such nationalist ire was the series’ opening scene about the Cultural Revolution:

[T]he main reason nationalists are upset has to do with something that Netflix left in the show. The first episode begins in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution. A young character called Ye Wenjie (pictured) witnesses her father, a physics professor, getting beaten to death by Red Guards (Maoist youth gangs) for refusing to renounce science in favour of Marxism. The experience causes her to lose faith in humanity.

The scene is inspired by grim historical facts—many academics were killed by their students during that period. It is also an important part of the novel. Mr Liu had to bury it in the middle in order to placate Chinese censors. But it comes at the beginning of the English translation. The nationalists do not care. “Why should China’s mistakes be remembered for ever?” complained one online. Netflix “made a batch of dumplings just as an excuse for using this vinegar”, said another, suggesting that the series was produced only to make China look bad. [Source]

Many netizens contrasted the Netflix version with China’s own version, a 30-episode series produced by Tencent in 2023, wherein most of the characters were Chinese, and which received very high ratings on Douban. However, that version did not include the Cultural Revolution struggle session scene. Some online discussions noted that Netflix enjoys more creative and political freedom. As one viewer wrote, “The biggest advantage Netflix’s version of Three-Body Problem has over the domestic version is no censorship, no taboos.” Nectar Gan from CNN highlighted the range of netizen comments about the series, including some that critiqued nationalists and praised both versions:

“Netflix you don’t understand ‘The Three Body Problem’ or Ye Wenjie at all!” read a comment on social media platform Weibo. “You only understand political correctness!”

Others came to the show’s defense, saying the scene closely follows depictions in the book — and is a truthful reenactment of history.

“History is far more absurd than a TV series, but you guys pretend not to see it,” read one comment on Douban, a popular site for reviewing movies, books and music.

[…] “Why do some people always need to make an enemy out of a cultural product?” a user said on Weibo. “Our version can be good, theirs can also be excellent. Why do we always have to fight about it?” [Source]


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.