China's television audiences may soon have to curb their capacious appetite for ghost stories and dramas based on magic, demons, and the Taoist underworld, according to a leaked set of regulations, which dismiss much of the country's rich mythology as "feudal superstition."
China's State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) recently issued an internal set of guidelines restricting the content of hugely popular costume dramas drawing on Chinese history, religions and mythology.
The leaked document, titled “Regarding Filmed Television Content," tightens regulations around the use of well-known historical figures in TV dramas, calling instead for more television about the lives of ordinary Chinese people.
The document appears keen to avoid treating historical events in a manner that could be seen as sympathetic to claims of Han Chinese colonialism on the part of ethnic minority groups in northwestern China, for example.
"Historical taboos may not be touched upon," the document warns. "The outward expansion into Xinjiang during the Han and Tang dynasties mustn't be mentioned, nor the campaigns in the northwest during the Han Wudi period."
It warns: "Official history may not be changed or edited, although unofficial history may," according to a copy of the rules posted on the entertainment industry website entgroup.cn, state.
"For example, the [historical] Records of the Three Kingdoms may not be changed, but the Romance of the Three Kingdoms may," the document says.
The Records of the Three Kingdoms is an authoritative historical Chinese text that chronicles the history of the late Eastern Han dynasty (c. 184–220 AD) and the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD), while the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th-century historical novel set during the same two periods.
"Decadent historical values may not be promoted," it says, citing an example of the depiction of a harem of concubines.
Meanwhile, fictional histories must take care not to become associated with any point in China's actual history, it says.
"In the case of imaginary histories, the fiction must be complete," the guidelines say. "There should be no obvious stylistic elements linking a story to a particular dynasty."
It cites George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire," televised as "Game of Thrones," as an example of "a completely fictional world."
No romanticization, please
Show producers are also required to avoid too much romanticization of the Republic of China era starting with Sun Yat-sen's 1911 revolution, that preceded Communist Party rule, it said.
"The beautification of the Republic of China era and the Beiyang government must be kept under control," according to the new rules.
The government of the Republic of China has based itself on Taiwan since losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland in 1949, where it presided over a transition to a fully democratic and constitutional government in the 1990s.
Producers must also stick to the party line when treating important matters of state, the system of government and other major topics, it said.
Care should be taken when dealing with the supernatural, too, the rules warn.
"Taoist priests mustn't be allowed to cast spells, and no link must be made between magical practices and religion," it said.
In the 2011 action fantasy movie "The Emperor and the White Snake," a Buddhist priest binds demons with magic in the hope that they will see the error of their ways.
Classical legends and masterpieces cannot be "subversively adapted," the guidelines say.
In Journey to the West, however, the main plot must still center around the monk Tang Sanzang, based on the historical Buddhist monk Xuanzang, and the characters must "retain their humanity," they say, referring to the 16th-century Chinese novel.
But, "demons are allowed to make an appearance," it says, adding that feng shui, the Book of Changes and the principles of yin and yang can also play a part in dramas "depending on the circumstances." The Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese divination text and a source of Confucian and Taoist philosophy.
"Shows can feature a feng shui master, but they mustn't be the focus of the whole story," the rules say, calling on producers to uphold scientific materialism and to steer clear of "feudal superstition."
"If you need to depict superstitions, you can do so in the form of dreams, mental illness, and the imagination instead of showing them as a part of real life," they suggest.
And the guidelines warn producers off dramas depicting ghosts and mediumship, along the lines of the TV smash hit "Soul Ferry, Season 2" which was ordered deleted from websites by government censors in January 2016.
‘End result rendered sterile’
A media graduate who declined to be named told RFA that ever-increasing controls on media output by the ruling Chinese Communist Party was the main reason they had decided not to enter the industry.
"Any job that touches on ideology in any way is a high-risk occupation nowadays," the graduate said. "Media productions require huge collaborative efforts, but the end result is something that has been rendered sterile."
"My friends in the media industry have to suffer this all the time; shooting and reshooting on the same old [government-approved] themes," he said. "They are messed around even when the topic has nothing to do with politics."
Veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said China is increasingly a society that is controlled by the government's manipulation of people's thinking.
"China's social development is hampered at every turn by the political system," Zhu said. "These new rules from the SARFT just show that the government is getting more and more specific about its control of public expression."
"There is less and less freedom of expression, and this will hamper the freedom of those who create, and have a degrading effect ... on Chinese culture," he said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.