Is China really scared of ghost films?

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Mia Wasikowska In this image released by Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures, Mia Wasikowska, appears in a scene from the film, "Crimson Peak."Image source, AP

It was reported that the film Crimson Peak didn't get released in China because it had ghosts in it, which goes against the Communist Party's secular principles. But is that the whole story? Artist and horror fan Aowen Jin is not so sure.

One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was when I was eight years old. My uncle took me to the cinema to watch a Chinese film and it turned out to be a horror called Painted Skin.

The film told the story of a scholar seduced by a ghost that wore the skin of a beautiful woman. Instead of consuming the scholar, the ghost fell in love, but the weak spirited scholar was persuaded by a monk to destroy the ghost.

At the pivotal moment of the film, when the heartbroken ghost had lost all faith in her lover, she tore open her skin on her face, letting all of her blood and flesh fall, drip and seep on to the floor as she gave out a heart-rending cry, revealing her true form to her unfaithful lover!

Image source, Golden Sun Film Co
Image caption,
Poster for the 2008 remake of Painted Skin

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How was an eight-year-old exposed to this, you might wonder? Age restrictions in Chinese cinemas were almost non-existent until the '90s, and as children we saw some of the most shocking Eastern and Western horror movies far too young.

I will never forget my first sleepless night, when I shivered and sweated under the blanket, imagining a ghost covered in blood with skin hanging from her face, standing by my bed, watching me with the most tormented and sad eyes.

Even though I spent most of my childhood permanently scared by the horror of Painted Skin, the tragic and sad love story imprinted itself on my mind. It fascinated me even more as I grew older and tried to understand the meaning of love. It turned out to be an induction for me into the world of horror, a passion that would stay with me until this day.

From that point on, I fed on a diet of ghost stories, horror and fantasy in China. These themes were in the films I watched, the TV series we saw each evening, the manga I devoured at any free moment, and the books I read, hiding under the duvet late at night.

Image source, Aowen Jin
Image caption,
Aowen Jin's works i18n: Ultraviolet are inspired by Chinese mythical stories

So when I moved to the West, it came as a surprise to me that there were major ghost films that were released in the UK but banned in China. I knew they couldn't be more visceral or terrifying than the plots I had seen back home, so I was determined to find out why.

Some reasons were obvious of course - sex is still taboo in China, as are extreme religious or spiritual themes, or content that strongly criticises Chinese culture, people or especially its government. But ghosts?

Ghosts play a prominent role in Chinese culture, folklore, mythology and legend, and have done for thousands of years. Every year we have a Ghost Festival to welcome the family dead, and China's most famous classic literature is showered with ghostly themes. For example, Liao Zhai Zhi Yi is regarded as the best example of Chinese short story writing, and combines 491 individual ghost stories, including the inspiration for Painted Skin.

But like many things in China, ghosts are not as simple as they seem. Throughout Chinese literature and history, ghosts have been a metaphor, and evil ghosts often symbolise corrupt government officials. Ghost stories became a political tool anyone could use and that the government found hard to control.

Not surprisingly in China today, under one-party political rule, very little has changed. Banning ghost stories sounds almost absurd and laughable to the West, and yet it carries the deep-rooted, historical fear that the government feels about its own people.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Monks dressed as ghosts take part in the Beating Ghosts ritual in Beijing - the ritual is meant to expel evil spirits

The criteria for which these films get banned has been incredibly inconsistent over the years, but as an artist who often works in China, I've found that the strictness of the censors roughly correlates with the changing leadership of the Communist party.

Leaders will often either liberalise the arts, or make them more conservative at each turn. This ebb and flow will continue as each leader changes, but for now the theme seems to be conservative, as Chinese premier Xi Jinping continues a devoted moral crusade.

As such, the recent banning of Guillermo Del Toro's latest gothic film, Crimson Peak, comes at a time when the government is also re-cutting many classic Chinese TV series to remove any obvious cleavage. And in my opinion, it's far more likely the censors took issue with Crimson Peak's themes of incest and sex than just with the ghosts.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Costume sketch for the character Edith Cushing played by Mia Wasikowska in "Crimson Peak" a gothic romance from director Guillermo del Toro

Soon China's box office is expected to overtake the US, and success in China can make or break a film. More and more frequently, we see films being made in the West featuring prominent Chinese characters, positive reflections on the Chinese government and even having a special edit designed for the Chinese market- such as the final instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

Chinese production companies often fund major Hollywood blockbusters, and this trend will only quicken as the market grows - meaning on one side that the whims of the Chinese censors will have more impact on our own cultural output, but also that we will see so much more cultural cross-pollination and collaboration in future too.

The bigger question for Xi - like in the West - is how effective the censorship can be in the face of internet sharing. More and more of my Chinese friends and colleagues watch and share movies online, via illegal downloads, with little regard for copyright. It is extremely hard to censor channels like this, and on a brief survey of my Chinese friends on the social network WeChat, almost 25% have already seen Crimson Peak.

Most weren't even aware that it had been banned in cinemas at all.

Listen to Aowen Jin on The Cultural Frontline - the topical arts show on the BBC World Service. Listen again via iPlayer.

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