What Chinese Outrage Over ‘3 Body Problem’ Says About China

[ad_1]

The first five minutes of the Netflix series “3 Body Problem” were hard to watch.

I tried not to shut my eyes at the coldblooded beating of a physics professor at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. By the end of it, he was dead, with blood and gruesome wounds all over his head and body. His daughter, also a physicist, watched the public execution. She went on to lose hope in humanity.

I made myself sit through this violent scene. I have never seen what was known as a struggle session depicted blow-by-blow on the screen. I also felt compelled to watch it because of how the series, a Netflix adaptation of China’s most celebrated works of science fiction, has been received in China.

On Chinese social media platforms, commenters objected that the series is not set entirely in China; that the main characters are not all Chinese but instead racially diverse; that one of the main characters has been switched from a man to a woman and, in their eyes, the actress was not pretty enough. They cited many other supposed flaws.

“The Three-Body Problem,” an apocalyptic trilogy about humanity’s reactions to a coming alien invasion that sold millions of copies in Chinese and more than a dozen other languages, is one of the best-known Chinese novels in the world published in the past few decades. Barack Obama is a fan. China doesn’t have many such hugely successful cultural exports.

Instead of pride and celebration, the Netflix series has been met with anger, sneer and suspicion in China. The reactions show how years of censorship and indoctrination have shaped the public perspectives of China’s relations with the outside world. They don’t take pride where it’s due and take offense too easily. They also take entertainment too seriously and history and politics too lightly. The years of Chinese censorship have also muted the people’s grasp of what happened in the Cultural Revolution.

Some commenters said that the series got made mainly because Netflix, or rather the West, wanted to demonize China by showing the political violence during the Cultural Revolution, which was one of the darkest periods in the history of the People’s Republic of China.

“Netflix is just pandering to Western tastes, especially in the opening scene,” said one person on the social media platform Weibo.

The blockbuster books and their author, Liu Cixin, have a cultlike following in China. That’s not surprising because Chinese society, from senior leadership, scientists, entrepreneurs to people on the street, are steeped in techno utopianism.

The English translation of the first volume was published in the United States in 2014. The same year, the e-commerce giant Alibaba pulled off a blockbuster initial public offering in New York, and the world started viewing China as an emerging tech and manufacturing power instead of just a copycat of Western technologies.

The Netflix series portrays China as a scientific giant, speaking to the universe. Mr. Liu’s vast imagination and his probing of the nature of good and evil are key to his books’ success.

He doesn’t seem to view China or even the Earth as exceptional. In a television interview in 2022, he said that the crises described in any science fiction novel are shared “by humanity as a whole.” He added, “From the perspective of the universe, we are all part of a whole.”

The Netflix series adopted a Chinese word “Santi,” or three body, as the alien’s name. The book’s English translation uses “Trisolarian.” When was the last time that a Chinese word made it into the global pop culture? But few people celebrated that on Chinese social media.

Instead, many comments zeroed in on how unflatteringly China is portrayed and how few Chinese elements are included in the series. Netflix isn’t available in China but viewers flocked to see pirated versions of “3 Body Problem.”

The story in the Netflix version takes place mainly in Britain, not Beijing. The actors are racially diverse, including Latino, Black, white, South Asian and Chinese. Some comments call the diverse casting “American-style political correctness,” while others question why the series casts ethnic Chinese only as villains or poor people, which is not true.

If their main complaint about the Netflix adaptation is that the creators took too much liberty with the plot and the main characters, their other major complaint is that the opening scene about the Cultural Revolution is too truthful or too violent.

Some doubted the necessity of mentioning the political event at all. Others accused the show of exaggerating the level of violence in the struggle session.

Scholars believe that 1.5 million to 8 million people died in “abnormal deaths” in the decade from 1966 to 1976, while more than 100 million Chinese were affected by the period’s upheaval.

Any discussion of the Cultural Revolution, a political movement that Mao Zedong started in 1966 to reassert authority by setting radical youths against those in charge, is heavily censored in China. Mr. Liu, the author, had to move the depiction of the struggle session from the beginning of the first volume to the middle because his editor was worried it couldn’t get past the censors. The English translation opened with the scene, with Mr. Liu’s approval.

“The Cultural Revolution appears because it’s essential to the plot,” Mr. Liu told my colleague Alexandra Alter in 2019. “The protagonist needs to have total despair in humanity.”

With the topic increasingly taboo, it’s hard to imagine that Mr. Liu would be able to publish a book with that premise now.

In 2007, the independent filmmaker Hu Jie made a documentary about Bian Zhongyun, a vice principal of a middle school in Beijing who was among the first to be beaten to death by the Red Guards. Her husband took photos of her naked, battered body, and Mr. Hu used them at the start of his documentary. The opening scene of “3 Body Problem” reminded me a great deal of it. Mr. Hu’s movie was never publicly screened in China.

Someone on social media recently reposted an old article about Ye Qisong, one of the founders of the study of physics in modern China. In 1967, around the time that the struggle session of the series took place, Mr. Ye, who shared the same family name of the physicist in the opening scene, was detained, beaten and forced to confess crimes he didn’t commit. He went crazy and wandered the streets in Beijing, begging for food and money. The article was circulated widely online before it was censored.

There’s a cottage industry of making videos on Chinese social media about “The Three Body Problem.” But few dare to address what led the daughter, a physicist, to invite the aliens to invade the Earth. A video with more than 5 million views on the website Baidu referred to the Cultural Revolution as “the red period” without explaining what happened. Another video with more than 8 million views on the video site Bilibili called it “the what you know event.”

It’s not surprising that fans of the book may have heard of the Cultural Revolution, but they don’t have a concrete idea about the atrocities that the Communist Party and some ordinary Chinese committed. That’s why the reactions to the Netflix series are concerning to some Chinese.

A human rights lawyer posted on WeChat that because of his age, he saw some struggle sessions when he was a child. “If I lived a bit longer, I might even get to experience it firsthand,” he wrote. “It’s not called reincarnation. It’s called history.”

[ad_2]

Source link

Leave a Comment