World-Renowned Author Yan Geling Considers Giving Up Chinese Writing Over Censorship

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If you watch the Chinese movie One Second on a streaming platform, you won’t see credit for the author whose book inspired the movie.

Indeed, Chinese authorities have managed to erase all mention of the world-renowned Chinese-American writer Yan Geling, both in China and abroad.

The film – directed by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou – is available in Australia on platforms including Prime Video, Google Play and Apple TV.

“I can understand if you don’t want to put my name on it because censorship doesn’t allow it in China,” Yan told the ABC from his home in Berlin.

“However, such practices are not acceptable abroad. The initial spirit and life of a work is given by the original author.”

Director Zhang Yimou directed the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and 2022.(Reuters: Christina Charisius)

Born in Shanghai into a family of artists, Yan – a prolific writer and screenwriter who has won more than 30 literary and film awards and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – began her writing career in the 1980s.

She has published over 40 books in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, USA, UK and elsewhere.

But she is now considering giving up writing in Chinese and writing in English instead.

“If it’s a price I have to pay, then I will pay it. There’s no other way,” she said.

A woman, in focus, sits well behind a blurry book cover as she is interviewed.  She has her hands outstretched, palms up
Yan Geling says she will write her next book in English instead of Chinese.(Reuters: Bobby Yip)

The 63-year-old wondered if she was already unknowingly self-censoring due to China’s strict censorship practices.

“I think by being censored for a long time, one will develop a subconscious of self-censorship,” she said.

“And it will dominate you when you make words and sentences.”

Prime Video, Google Play or Apple TV have all been contacted for comment but have yet to respond.

Widespread self-censorship in the Chinese film industry

A movie scene showing a group of girls hanging film reels from railings.
Yan Geling says the movie One Second is inspired by his novel, The Criminal Lu Yanshi.(Weibo: @Dianying Yimiaozhong)

Censorship in China is back in the spotlight after the country’s National Radio and Television Administration ruled this month that artists should produce more “high-quality works” that “adhere to the good political leadership” of China.

It came after President Xi Jinping ordered the arts industry to “tell China’s stories and broadcast Chinese voices to strengthen the country’s international communication capacity”.

Yan Geling’s name has been banned from Chinese social media after he criticized authorities for censoring information during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Later, she also criticized Mr. Xi for women’s rights, after a video of a woman chained up in a shed sparked a debate about human trafficking in China.

After these public comments, Yan said his name was removed from the credits of One Second, the second film based on his novel, The Criminal Lu Yanshi.

Chinese authorities censor any media content that could be considered “disturbing” to China’s stability or “endangering” the nation’s unity and sovereignty.

The artists said Beijing deliberately keeps these definitions vague to instill fear in writers.

In movies, this can mean censoring scenes with sexual content, violence, or references to politically sensitive issues such as the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Along with not crediting her in the One Second movie, audiences said the Chinese filmmakers also removed political references to the Cultural Revolution, essentially self-censoring the script.

This isn’t the first time an adaptation of Yan’s books has been changed.

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She said a 2009 TV series based on her novel Little Aunt Crane was also censored during production.

The ABC contacted China’s General Administration of Press and Publication and One Second’s production company, Huanxi Media Group, for comment, but did not receive a response.

Timmy Chen – who is majoring in Chinese-language filmmaking at Hong Kong Baptist University – said self-censorship in the Chinese film industry is widespread.

Dr. Chen said that if writers don’t censor themselves, their films might not get on the screen.

“They self-censor for the sake of the investment, the audience and their production team,” he said.

“It would kill a movie if they didn’t do that.

“It indeed has a great impact on artists.”

Censorship in China is a two-way street: several Hollywood movies and TV series have been changed in the past so that American content can get on Chinese screens.

The Chinese box office is the second largest box office in the world.

Chinese censors changed the ending of Fight Club and also changed the clothing logos in Top Gun: Maverick, erasing the Taiwanese and Japanese flags from a bomber jacket.

Chinese movies need the famous “dragon code”

People wearing face masks sit in a cinema in China.
In China, 10 censors must watch a film as part of the process to decide if it can be shown to the public.(PA: Mark Schiefelbein)

As Dr. Chen explains, Chinese filmmakers go through a rigorous three-step selection process before a film is released.

“The first part is that your screenplay has to pass a review before you can start shooting,” he said.

Once the script is approved by the National Radio and Television Administration of China, a state agency that issues broadcast licenses, investors, actors and production crews can hop on board and make the film. .

A yellow and red dragon stamp in the middle of a green background.
Before being shown in China, all films must obtain this dragon code, or Film Public Screening Permit.(Source: YouTube)

After the film is shot, there are two post-production reviews by the Film Administration of China, which approves a film’s distribution and screening in cinemas.

Dr. Chen said this second step allows movies to get a “dragon code,” an official seal of approval (literally an animated dragon) that plays on screen before the movie starts.

However, obtaining the famous dragon code does not mean that a film can be successfully shown in theaters.

The third step, called “technical review,” requires 10 censors to sit in an in-house movie theater and decide if that movie can be shown to the public.

Their approval is a collective decision and passing the review means a film gets at least six votes to get the green light.

Dr Chen said the filmmakers were aware that sensitive content could result in the film being removed or edited.

“If your movie doesn’t reflect the positive energy of the nation, you’ll have to cut it and edit it for another review,” he said.

Yan Geling said she had reached a point where the impacts of censorship on film, and the arts industry more broadly, were too great.

“If price is the trade-off, I’d rather not [write] anything,” she said.

After his name was banned on social media, a fan club of 16,000 members disbanded.

“The hardest thing for me is leaving my [Chinese] readers, who love me,” she said.

“I guess they don’t want me to compromise either.”

However, she plans to continue writing and is currently working on an English language book for her daughter, whom she adopted from China.

The book will discuss China’s one-child policy and Yan’s family history.

“I still have other books on the road that I think are all in my destiny,” she said.

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