China has a problem with Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’

Nationalists condemn the series based on Liu Cixin’s award-winning novel for belittling the nation

Even before streaming platform Netflix aired 3 Body Problem last week, nationalists were upset about the adaptation of the Chinese science fiction novel series and its international popularity.

On social media sites in China, where Netflix is blocked, some criticized the platform’s cast and changes to the story. Others accused it of deliberately using a tragic moment in the country’s past to belittle the world’s second-largest economy.

The novel The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin was first serialized in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World in 2016. It tells the story of a group of scientists, policemen, and soldiers from China who discover and try to defeat an invasion of aliens from the distant universe.

In 2015, The Three-Body Problem became the first Asian novel to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention.

Former United States President Barack Obama once said, “The scope of it was immense.” Mark Zuckerberg, the president of tech giant Meta, publicly recommended the book.

Major changes

Josh Stenberg, an associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney, attributed the popularity of The Three-Body Problem in the Western world to the universality of the novel’s themes. He told Voice of America via email:

Liu is deeply skeptical about humanity’s worth and pessimistic about its future. That can work for environmental, post-colonial, nationalistic, nihilist or posthuman perspectives.

The Netflix version has made major changes from the novel, moving the location of the story from China to London and erasing the Chinese backgrounds of many of the characters.

Author Liu is one of the show’s consultants. In a recent interview, he said:

Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’ series is for audiences around the world. Most of its characters may no longer be Chinese, which may not be easy for Chinese audiences to accept. But I still have full confidence in them and look forward to the show.

Netflix has come under fire in China. Image: Netflix

But some netizens in China disagree. Before the series aired, some posted videos and comments online criticizing the series and accusing it of being stereotypical. 

Others mocked the series by editing clips from the show and posting them in video commentaries.

Netizens also accused Netflix of intentionally putting China in a bad light by removing Chinese characters’ backstories and making them purely evil.

They complained about simplifying storylines while making the characters portrayed by actors of other ethnic groups heroes in the show.

Jovan Adepo, a Black actor in the series, plays one of the characters critics have been smearing.

Denunciation meeting

The actor who plays the Chinese character Ye Wenjie was also the focus of attacks. A popular article on WeChat criticized Chinese American actor Zine Tseng:

Beaming with her fierce eyes and an evil look on her face, [she gave] the impression that she is the kind of Asian female killer that often appears in Hollywood.

Other criticisms of the show focused on the re-creation of scenes from China’s Cultural Revolution.

Similar to the novel, the series starts with a denunciation meeting in Beijing, with young Ye watching helplessly as her father, a physics professor, is beaten to death by Red Guards.

They were communist zealots who played a key part in the chaos of that tumultuous period. During the Cultural Revolution, tens of millions were persecuted, and historians estimate that up to two million people were killed.

A poster from China’s Cultural Revolution. Image: Wikimedia

Many nationalist netizens accused Netflix of filming the entire series just to show this scene. One wrote:

When I read [the novel] for the first time a few years ago, after reading the beginning, I immediately knew why this book was praised abroad. 

Another said Netflix “made this whole tray of dumplings just for a little bit of vinegar sauce” – a reference to that bitter part of China’s past.

A film review on the website Douban, a community-centered rating site for books and movies, stressed that the West was unwilling to accept today’s developed China. The article said:

In the eyes of foreigners, China is still that repressive, backward and crazy stereotype. All disasters stem from this. The Chinese are not worthy of saving the world and can only wait for the West to save it.

China aired its own version of the show last year, with most of the main characters being Chinese. The series was well-received and became one of the highest-rated TV shows on Douban in 2023. 

Cultural Revolution

That version, however, did not include the Cultural Revolution denunciation meeting. VOA reached out to Netflix for comment and did not receive any response by the time of publication.

Henry Gao, a law professor at Singapore Management University, said it’s no surprise that The Three-Body Problem has found a cult following among nationalists.

He said the theory of the jungle in the novel coincides with the narrative model of cybernationalism and China’s relationship with the world. Gao told VOA:

This narrative consists of two parts. The first part is that ‘imperialism is determined to destroy us,’ and the second part is that in the world, we must rely on strength to speak, and if we fall behind, we will be beaten. 

Nationalism has increased in China. Photo: Xinhua

“And the dark forest hypothesis in The Three-Body Problem clearly reflects this view, so it’s not surprising that nationalists have embraced it,” he added.

The hypothesis states that the universe is a dark forest, and each civilization is a hunter with a gun, posing a threat to all others. Once they meet, it will inevitably be a life-or-death relationship.

Although The Three-Body Problem is not a depiction of the current state of international politics, such interpretations of the novel are not uncommon. Will Peyton, a visiting fellow at Australian National University, told VOA:

When Liu’s trilogy became popular in the English-speaking world a decade ago, it was quickly tethered to talk of China’s geopolitical ascendancy.

Peyton pointed out that the theme of the novel is what kind of help or disaster the rapid development of science and technology will bring to humankind.

Political views

“It is far deeper than a surface-level sociopolitical critique of contemporary China or of China’s role on the world stage,” he said.

Liu has stated many times that he is not trying to express any political views through his novels. In a 2019 interview with The New Yorker, he said:

I’m a writer … I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.”

Wenhao Ma is a producer at Voice of America. Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

This article is republished courtesy of VOA. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.