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This Culture Has Not Yet Been Rated

Could a Ratings System Improve the Chinese Film and Television Industry?

It all started with plunging necklines. After the sudden withdrawal and subsequent sanitizing of a popular Chinese show, viewers in China have renewed longstanding calls to strip government censors of their power, using one simple solution: a ratings system for television and film. Shortly after its December 21 premier, the series Empress of China rose to swift popularity on the shoulders of beautiful women in expensive period costumes featuring abundant décolletage. But the series was yanked from airwaves shortly after its debut, only to return on January 1 with a glaring lack of cleavage; censors had replaced the more revealing scenes with close-ups cropping out any region below women’s necks. The outcry and downright mockery that resulted says much about why Chinese entertainment continues to fall short of its massive potential.

Soon after Empress‘s inglorious return to the small screen, Chinese social media demanded the original’s return. They argued that low-cut garments were true to the history of that period. They complained the revised show comprised so many head-shots that it might as well be called “The Legend of Empress Big Head.” They posted satirical images of other movies, photographs, and works of art similarly cropped to ridiculous effect, including the Mona Lisa, the statue Venus de Milo, and the former Communist strongman Mao Zedong. Media outlet Sina Entertainment reported on January 5 that viewership has slipped since its post-censorship return to the airwaves, jeopardizing the big-budget show’s profitability.

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Chinese authorities issued no statement explaining their rationale, but they likely believed Empress to be too salacious for younger viewers. If that were the case, it would have sufficed to rate the series for mature audiences—except China has no such system. A widely read January 3 blog post on Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media explained official refusal to implement a ratings system this way: Officials believe that “if people are exposed to elegant things, they will become elegant; if they are unable to view vulgar things, they will be cut off from vulgarity.” By contrast, “With a ratings system, there will be both elegant and vulgar things, and ignorant people cannot help but choose what is vulgar.” The author of the post rejected that logic, positing that a “cultural products rating system” was the only way to resolve the contradiction between “creative freedom” and limits to what some might be able to see. On January 5, even state news agency Xinhua chimed in. The incident demonstrated that “China’s television and film management process is insufficient,” the Xinhua article asserted, adding that “experts” recommended the immediate adoption of a ratings system in order to “give television market management a ‘law’ to rely upon”—an invocation of the Communist Party’s recent rhetorical emphasis on rule by law. Some were less circumspect. “This whole thing is one big joke,” commented one user of Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging platform. “The fundamental cause is that our country doesn’t have a television ratings system.”

China’s government has thus far been unwavering. The Xinhua article was later removed, though it can still be viewed on other websites. The adoption of film and television ratings has long been a hot topic in China, so much so that in August 2010, the powerful State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) felt compelled to reject the proposals. And though Chinese netizens have continued to push for a ratings system, no system has yet been adopted. The official argument against a film and television rating system—that it is not “suited” to China because it can not guarantee youth would not be exposed to inappropriate materials—has irked people for years. A popular June 2011 post on discussion forum Zhihu criticized the government’s desire to control even the possibility of young people’s exposure to sexually explicit material. “The Chinese film market is the fastest growing in the world,” the author wrote. “Whether or not to adopt a rating system shouldn’t even be a point of discussion.” Without ratings, and the resulting market segmentation that in turn drives investment and creates a strong business environment, “Chinese movies cannot experience a true artistic and business boom.”

For now, works produced in the West, not to mention the relatively tiny South Korea, continue to outshine Chinese efforts. “Works that are appropriate for everyone are rarely good,” declared Bi Xiaozhe, a prolific editorialist, in a January 5 op-ed syndicated in government mouthpiece People’s Daily. Bi acknowledged that the re-launched Empress of China was “now ‘appropriate for all audiences,’” but said “it has also lost its edge.” If classical Western art had to “avoid sex as well as the female body,” Bi asked, “would they still have become classics that have kept their appeal for hundreds or even thousands of years?” To leave a space for the creation of high-quality works—while also satisfying worried parents—China should “emulate the ratings model of Western countries.” A popular January 6 essay on Weibo titled “Why do Korean Movies Completely Blow Chinese Movies Out of the Water?” partly attributed the success of Korean movies and dramas—hugely popular in China and throughout Asia—to South Korea’s own film and television ratings system. Allowing creators to work “completely without interference,” the author wrote, encourages private investment and drives competition. (For curious readers, a January 4 Sina article estimated what rating the uncut Empress of China might receive elsewhere: TV-PG or perhaps TV-14 in the United States; “15” in South Korea, and an outright ban from Saudi Arabian television.)

However sensible a Chinese ratings system may seem, censors wield the power to pick winners and losers in a massive market, and they are unlikely to part with that authority easily. Until that time, grassroots Chinese will continue to chortle at what they see as SAPPRFT’s prudishness, and imagine a Chinese film and television renaissance that still feels too far away.