Entertainment: Globally acclaimed author Yan Geling considering giving up writing in native Chinese over censorship

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

That's because Chinese authorities have successfully erased any mention of globally renowned Chinese-American writer Yan Geling, both in China and overseas.

The movie — directed by celebrated Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou — is available in Australia from 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 her home in Berlin.

"However, practices like this are not acceptable overseas. The initial spirit and life of a work are given by the original author."

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

She has published more than 40 books in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US, the UK and elsewhere.

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

"If this is a price I need to pay, then I will pay it. There is no other way," she said.

The 63-year-old wondered if she had already been subconsciously self-censoring her writing because of China's strict censorship practices.

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

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"And it will dominate you when you are making words and sentences."

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

Self-censorship widespread in China's film industry

Censorship in China is back in the spotlight after the country's National Radio and Television Administration this month decreed artists should produce more "high-quality works" that "adhere to the correct political direction" of China.

It came after President Xi Jinping ordered the arts industry to "tell China's stories and spread Chinese voices to strengthen the country's international communication capacity".

Yan Geling's name was banned on Chinese social media after she criticised the authorities for censoring information during the early phases of COVID-19 pandemic.

She later also criticised Mr Xi over women's rights, after a video of a woman chained in a shed sparked debate about human trafficking in China.

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After those public comments, Yan said her name was removed from the credits on One Second, the second movie to be inspired by her novel, The Criminal Lu Yanshi.

Chinese authorities censor any media content that could be considered "disturbing" to China's stability or to "endanger" the nation's unity and sovereignty.

Artists have said Beijing purposefully keeps those definitions vague to instil fear in writers.

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

Apart from not crediting her in the One Second film, audiences have said the Chinese filmmakers also removed political references to the Cultural Revolution, essentially self-censoring the script.

It's not the first-time an adaptation of Yan's books has been changed.

She said a 2009 television series based on her novel Little Aunt Crane was censored during production as well.

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.

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Timmy Chen — who specialises in Chinese-language cinema at Hong Kong Baptist University — said self-censorship in China's film industry was widespread.

Dr Chen said that, if writers did not self-censor, their films might not make it to the screen.

"They self-censor for the sake of investment, audiences and their production team," he said.

"It would kill a film if they don't do that.

"It indeed has a big impact on artists."

Censorship in China is a two-way street: Several Hollywood movies and television series have been changed in the past so the American content can access China's screens.

China's box office is the second-largest box office in the world.

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

Chinese films need famous 'dragon code'

As Dr Chen explains, filmmakers in China go through a rigorous three-step screening process before a movie makes it to air.

"The first part is your script must pass a review before you can start shooting," he said.

Once the script is approved by China's National Radio and Television Administration, a state agency that issues broadcasting licences, then investors, cast members and production teams can get on board and make the film.

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

Dr Chen said that this second step enabled films to get a "dragon code", an official stamp of approval (literally an animated dragon) that is played on screen before the actual film starts.

However, getting the famous dragon code doesn't mean a film can be successfully screened in theatres.

The third step, called a "technical examination", requires 10 censors to sit in an in-house theatre, and decide if that film can be shown to the public.

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

Dr Chen said filmmakers were aware that sensitive content could lead to film being scrapped or changed.

"If your film doesn't reflect the positive energy of the nation, you will have to cut and amend 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 far-reaching.

"If compromise is the price, I'd rather not [write] anything," she said.

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

"The hardest thing for me is having to leave my [Chinese] readers, who love me," she said.

"I guess they don't want me to compromise either."

However, she plans to keep writing and is currently working on a book in English for her daughter, whom she adopted from China.

The book will be about China's One-Child Policy and Yan's family history.

"I still have some more books down the road that I think are all in my destiny," she said.

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