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You can’t have ghosts in a Chinese movie, and other confusing myths about Chinese censorship


Screen-Shot-2016-01-22-at-14.36.45-PMLei David Chen is a Creative Executive for Gwantsi, a leading TVC production company based in Shanghai, China

Lei David Chen是上海领先影像制作观池影视的创意总监

Part of my job is working with overseas filmmakers whose creative tendencies obviously steer toward western sensibilities. Thus a question that frequently comes up is whether their ideas would work under the omnipresent specter of Chinese censorship. The answer is, as it often is in China: Maybe. It depends.


One of the earliest tasks that I asked a colleague to do at our company was to put together a comprehensive list of all the SAPPRFT laws regarding film and television in English. As far as I knew, this was not something you could easily find anywhere, and I wanted to be among the few to have this invaluable resource. However, we quickly ran into a major problem: there was no official list of all SAPPRFT laws even in Chinese.

Instead, what existed was more like a loose collection of articles released over the course of at least a decade that all stacked on top of each other. Aside from some stringent guidelines on depictions of smoking, most of it read vaguely as don’t make the Chinese government, people, and culture look bad. Yet there are specific rules that aren’t officially stated but are very much in place if you talk to anyone who’s been part of a Chinese production. Some are obvious.



Want to portray government or police corruption? Not gonna happen.

Trying to discuss Tibet or Tiananmen Square? Try again.

A sex scene?! Have you thought about just making your movie in Taiwan?

Some rules, however, are less obvious. For instance:

Can I have a ghost in my movie?






The earliest answer I got to this question was no, you cannot depict ghosts. Yet if you watch a few Chinese films, it quickly becomes apparent that isn’t the case. Ghosts are all over Chinese movies.

The next answer I heard was that, okay you can have ghosts, but the ghosts must be illusions. For instance, the character seeing ghosts could be schizophrenic. Or the whole Scooby-Doo “It was Old Man Smithers all along!” ploy would work here as well.


Then I encountered the film Eternal Beloved that had (SPOILER ALERT!) a non-illusion, non-fake, non-hallucinatory ghost. The three reasons I heard that this was allowed were:

     1. The ghost was not malevolent,

     2. Films set in ancient times can get away with more than ones set in the present, and perhaps most importantly

     3. This was a love story, not a horror story. Where you at, Paramount?


     1. 这个鬼不坏;

     2. 剧情设定在古代要比设定在现代更容易侥幸逃脱,这也可能是最重要的一点

     3. 它是一个爱情片而不是恐怖片。

Unfortunately, no matter how many producers I ask, I have yet to receive real clarity on this topic. The cynical answer is that what you can get away with just depends on your relationship with the censorship bureau, but even that isn’t bulletproof.

Take the infamous example of the 2014 television series The Empress of China. At the time, this was the most expensive Chinese series ever produced with a production cost of roughly US$50 million. It cleared all the censorship hurdles, was already airing daily on Hunan TV, and was even the no. 1 rated show in the country. But then, 7-8 episodes in, someone somewhere with some level of influence saw the show and decided there was just too much … cleavage.

So Hunan TV had to pull the whole thing down for four days and edit the entire series so that scenes like these:




Became these 变成了这样:


What has your experience been in terms of Chinese censorship? What rules have you heard about ghosts? And while we’re clarifying that, what have you heard about zombies, vampires, and time travel? As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


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