The Myths and Truths about Chinese Censorship

As I mentioned in the previous post, my final submission will be based around finding out all about online censorship in China, specifically regarding ideas and myths regarding the banning of skeletons, blood and gore from video games. I’m curious to see whether my terribly vague guesses about why these things are taboo in Chinese games, based on my un-extensive knowledge from random online articles I’ve been exposed to throughout the years is anywhere near the fact, or if most of it is just made up by Western culture because of our lack of knowledge about Chinese censorship as a whole.

The main topic of research was why the images are banned in Chinese games.

Original theory based on my exposure to the subject:

  • Not wishing to subject younger generations of the Chinese public to strong imagery
  • Banned purely because of the strong imagery, not any other reason
  • I suppose in a Western view, the online censorship in China has always been a bit extreme, from our point of view, where we have a relatively free-for-all internet culture.

After a bit of further research:

  • While my original idea is based on some of the fact, it is definitely not the full picture.
  • There’s an area of further research that I’ll definitely look into, which is down the lines of what exactly the cultural superstitions are regarding skeletons and their likenesses, as apparently that plays a role in the extent of censorship they need to have observed before allowing the game to be sold to the Chinese public.
  • While the whole ‘skeletons are banned in Chinese video games’ seems to be a very general rule, it doesn’t seem to be true. The ‘blanket ban’ on skeletons in Chinese games is not absolute, as detailed in this article that provides plenty of Chinese-developed games where skeletons are present, and completely uncensored.
  • It seems to be more strongly imposed on foreign games that are being imported to the country to be sold.
  • This could be because many Chinese game developers will ‘err on the side of caution’ as they know the general guidelines that will be imposed on their games.

    Since the rules are broad and open to interpretation, game publishers will often choose to err on the side of caution and cut or edit anything that might be perceived as objectionable before the Ministry of Culture’s review process. That gives the game a better chance of getting approved, which means it can be released in China. –

  • While blood, gore and skeletons are definitely not a widely accepted image in Chinese video games, there are definitely exceptions, and definitely some very obvious examples of this ban in action.
Screen Shot 2016-09-29 at 7.55.02 pm.png

Examples of DotA2 icons before and after Chinese censorship. On the left is the original ability icon, and the right is the icon after alteration so that it could be allowed in China. The removal of skulls and blood is extremely obvious, even going as far as to remove the ghostly faces on the Spectre Desolate icon.

  • Another obvious example can be found in the comparisons between the pre-censored  version of World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King (WoW: WOTLK), as mentioned multiple times in my previous blog post.
  • Wrath of the Lich King is one of the more interesting examples of Chinese censorship, purely because of the varying levels of actual censorship within the game. In some zones, skeletons are completely removed and replaced with scarecrows, gored bodies are replaced with loaves of bread, of all things, and bones are often just replaced with rocks of the same shape and size.

Top is the a screenshot from the Chinese version of Icecrown Citadel, a raid in WoW: Wrath of the Lich King, compared to the bottom screenshot which is from the US version of the game.

  • The reason WoW: WOTLK is an interesting reference of comparison regarding censorship is because in some places, skulls and skeletons and the like have been meticulously edited out, and in other places, they haven’t been touched. Still not sure if this is because there’s some sort of ‘standard’ which the imagery has to adhere to in order to be left in the game, or if it’s simply because WoW is such an immensely large game that it’s just too gigantic of an effort to edit out every single one of them, considering how common they appear in the game.
  • No expansion since WOTLK has had that much of an issue getting through the Chinese censorship barrier as much as this one did, quite likely because of the extreme amount of skull and skeleton imagery present in an expansion about the undead scourge army and their leader who wears armour adorned with about 30 skull shapes forged into it. I also think a lesson was learned with the WOTLK censorship kerfuffle, and Blizzard has been more cautious in future years about preparing for the edits to the game in order to meet censorship laws in China.

The Techinasia article (that has already been linked multiple times in this post, because it’s just immensely helpful with exactly what I’m looking into) translates the guidelines for online censorship shown on this page.

Specifically, the Ministry of Culture forbids:

  • Gambling-related content or game features
  • Anything that violates China’s constitution
  • Anything that threatens China’s national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.
  • Anything that harms the nation’s reputation, security, or interests.
  • Anything that instigates racial/ethnic hatred, or harms ethnic traditions and cultures.
  • Anything that violates China’s policy on religion by promoting cults or superstitions.
  • Anything that promotes or incites obscenity, drug use, violence, or gambling.
  • Anything that harms public ethics or China’s culture and traditions.
  • Anything that insults, slanders, or violates the rights of others.
  • Other content that violates the law

It’s a somewhat broad list that, at the end of the day, comes down to interpretation. Could a skeleton in a game be interpreted as “promoting superstition,” for example? Possibly. Likely, it would depend on who—and when—you ask.

It’s a long, convoluted path to the truth, that will be even harder to figure out because of the fact that most of the truthful information is probably on the Chinese internet itself, which is immensely hard to navigate as a non-Chinese speaking Australian.

One comment

  1. Hi there Ktjassy,
    This is a really interesting topic your working on, this reminded me that the bans on this sort of imagery lead to Japanese anime titles such as Death Note and Attack on Titan being banned in China.( )
    The thought occurs that Chinese officials may be assuming a Media Effects model in their policy making for censorship, when one assumes that violent imagery incites violence, the obvious solution becomes banning violent imagery. Perhap the skulls and such being left in certain places in WoW are due to the fact that the locations made them appear either that they didn’t come to be there through violence? As for whether or not this is the case, or whether the reasons are purely entrenched in Chinese socio-political or historical culture, I’ll leave up to your investigation, best of luck!


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