This Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to China. I was there. There was a bit of rain and a lot of hoopla. 500 Mainland troops (the PLA) marched across the border before midnight. Actually, they came across at 9PM – three hours earlier than (the public) expected.

It’s seems appropriate to write a blog on Chinese censorship in film. China’s market holds huge potential for Hollywood. But navigating murky Chinese censorship rules is a challenge.  Where do you begin?

Photo by Charles Hope CC BY NC SA 2.0

In the article “How to be Censored in China: A Brief Filmmaking Guide”  author Robert Cain explains the submission process. Taboo topics for film-makers include “…sex, violence, obscenity, religion, superstition, gambling, drinking, drug abuse and criminal activity. Any story element not rooted in scientific fact, like time travel or ghosts, is also likely to fall to the censor’s axe. And of course, any hint of criticism of the Communist party, its leadership or its legitimacy is strictly prohibited.”

Below is Robert Cain’s list of “SARFT’s Ten Commandments of Chinese Film Censorship”. Mr. Cain reminds his readers that his list doesn’t cover it all. “Censors have wide-ranging powers, and the rules seem to keep shifting.”

SARFT’s Ten Commandments of Chinese Film Censorship

Courtesy of Robert Cain

In the article “No ghosts. No gay love stories. No nudity: tales of film-making in China” Hong Kong film Director Johnnie To said “Everyone who makes expensive films will have to make compromises, because China is where the money is. It’s that simple.”

Years ago, when “Infernal Affairs” was released in China – it had three different endings that the censors could choose from. Those days are gone.


Infernal Affairs courtesy of Vincent Yeh 葉 老V CC BY NC 2.0


All five co-directors of the recent Hong Kong film award’s best film “Ten Years” – a film that is critical of the Chinese government – were banned from working in China. In this same article, one of the co-directors, Jevons Au said, “In a mainland China movie, you cannot have a bad guy who gets away with his crimes. Multiple endings to suit the mainland market used to be OK. No more.  Now, if you want to distribute in China you must have only one approved ending worldwide.”

But some film-makers have used their creativity to get their films released.

The Mermaid Fair use

 It’s not supernatural – it’s sci-fi!  

Director Stephen Chow’s film “The Mermaid” was the highest grossing Chinese film of all time. This same article said article that Stephen Chow “…got around the prohibition of films about supernatural by reclassifying itself as a science-fiction movie.”

It was all a dream 

In the film “The Secret” – a love story among ghosts is able to get past the censors since the article explains, “…one of the characters wakes up from a coma, she asks if she dreamed it all.”

Besides avoiding gratuitous sex and violence – there’s another hurdle to jump through – employing Chinese talent that ‘damage China’s national dignity”. In the THR article “China Adopts Film Law, With Mixed Implications for Hollywood”  Xinhua, China’s official news agency listed such murky guidelines as “Overseas organizations or individuals that have been involved in activities that damage the dignity, honor and interest of the country and harm social stability shall not be worked with.”

Misbehaving Actors
Misbehaving actors

Photo by 黒忍者 Hei RenZhe CC BY NC 2.0

Most noteworthy, the THR article quoted the new law as saying that local actors and other film professionals be “…excellent in both moral integrity and film market, maintain self-discipline and build a positive public image.” On several occasions – celebrities caught in drug scandals or broadcasting their sensitive political views have found themselves blacklisted. And directors have had to cut these actors’ scenes from their film causing expensive reshoots.

Short films and Online Freedom   

In the article “Micro Movies Beat China’s Censors  the author pointed out that “Online freedom has created a space for the quirky, the controversial and the artistically bold. For audiences, these micro movies are a welcome relief from the often dull and staid propaganda dished up daily under the guise of entertainment by the Communist Party’s state media.”

Courtesy of faungg’s photos CC BY ND 2.0

Furthermore, China has over 730 million internet users.  Some short films have received over 100 million views. The article went on to say that in major Chinese cities, “Heavy traffic jams, and long commute times mean millions spend hours glued to their smartphone and in need of diversion.”

What about the censors? Due to the vast number of short films uploaded, the censors face a daunting task. The article quoted one user on the micro-blog Sina Weibo who commented “SARFT still want to approve (Micro Movies) one at a time. Apparently, they’re not afraid of dying of exhaustion.”

So here is my short list of how to beat the Chinese censors.

Problem                      Solution
  1. No ghosts  →  the hero dreamt them up.
  2. There are no bad cops in China  →  bad cop ends up in jail.
  3. Avoid time travel / supernatural stuff →  rebrand as “science-fiction”.
  4. No corruption  in China   →  shoot your film in America.

And for irreverent bonus points:

  • Actors air sensitive political views →  cut off their Weibo account.
  • Actors misbehaving →  hire better minders.

But the final solution is this: China adopts a rating system.

Please add any irreverent solutions in the comments.

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