China Beat Archive


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October 16, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright October 16, 2008 Haiyan Lee. Used by permission.


It may come as a surprise that movies about ghosts and monsters are strictly speaking illegal in China, a land that has given us such an enchanting array of supernatural figures as the White Serpent Lady, the Weaving Girl, the three-headed Nuozha, and, of course, the delightful trickster Monkey. Gods and ghosts do show up on the Chinese screen, but they have to be framed as “characters” of folklore or fanciful creations of the “primitive” mind, something of ethnographic interest but no longer relevant to our sense of self and world. However, if they end up unsettling our secular confidence in science and rationality, they have then crossed over into the forbidden terrain of “evil cults” 邪教 or “superstitions” 迷信.

To be sure, spectral or paranormal themes have long invaded written genres and are alive and kicking right under the nose of state censors—consider, e.g., the cult phenomenon of the Ghost Blows out the Light《鬼吹灯》series. The fact that the series could flaunt the word ghost in its very title is an indication of the relative anarchy of the Internet and commercial publishing, though reportedly all traces of the supernatural had to be removed from the printed editions following the title’srunaway online success. The state seems far more vigilant about the visual media and has recently tightened its grip on films with pronounced supernatural contents or unduly spooky mis-en-scenes, lines, and sound effects. So far, only the director A Gan 阿甘has had some success plumbing the nebulous depths of official regulations with a succession of low-tech domestic “haunted house” productions 国产恐怖片. But these would probably be considered small fry by Hong Kong, Hollywood, or J-horror standards.