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'Confucius' v 'Avatar': and the winner is …

By Mary Kay Magistad - posted Tuesday, 2 February 2010

What do you, as a Chinese film board, do, when the Hollywood science fiction film Avatar smashes Chinese box office records in its first three weeks in theatres, when online chat sites are buzzing about the uncanny parallels between the fictional film plot - of developers raping the land and forcibly evicting the people - and real life in China? What if protesters against land grabs in southern China start to use Avatar as a rallying cry, amidst a dispute with Google and disagreement between the US and Chinese governments, about whether information should be allowed to flow freely to the Chinese public?

Apparently, you claim commercial reasons for pulling Avatar from most of the theatres in which it’s showing, and substitute a Chinese-made film about Confucius that contains a message - respect for hierarchy - you consider more appropriate for the mass consumption.

The problem is, the January 22 opening of Confucius proved so anaemic that the Chinese Film Board has already backpedaled. It now says that cinemas without 3D screens can continue to show the 2D version of Avatar. Meanwhile, state enterprises and government offices have been block-booking Confucius tickets for their employees. Some theatres are giving away free Confucius tickets with Avatar tickets. Others are enticing those who buy Confucius tickets with the opportunity to purchase much sought-after Avatar tickets. And through it all, China’s outspoken online community has let it rip.


“Confucius is the enemy of democracy and freedom,” wrote one user of the chatsite Tianya. “He only tells people to become slaves, subject to exploitation and oppression.”

“Confucius is an ***-kisser,” another agreed. “That’s why all these government officials like him.”

Some on the Chinese chat site Tianya called for a boycott of Confucius, the movie, to teach the Chinese Film Board that it can’t shove propaganda films down Chinese viewers’ throats. Others voiced scepticism of the earlier explanation given by the State Administration of Radio, Television and Film (SARFT)’s Vice Director Zhang Hongsen, that pulling Avatar from 2D theatres was strictly a commercial decision, since ticket sales for 2D cinemas were only bringing in one-third of Avatar’s total take.

“While it is extremely hard to get tickets for 3D or IMAX (viewings of Avatar), only 20 per cent of the 2D seats are taken,” he was quoted in the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Daily as saying. “So it is natural to pull the 2D version. That’s how the market works.”

Chinese internet users retorted that there are still long lines and full houses for the 2D version of Avatar, and for good reason. Most Chinese cinemas don’t have 3D capability, and most Chinese movie-goers can’t afford to pay twice as much to see the movie in 3D anyway.

Avatar had been showing on 2,500 screens, one-third of them 3D or IMAX. All told, the movie had taken in US$76 million in China as of January 17, after a three-week run, surpassing last year’s 2012 and Transformers 2.


Speculation has been rife about why Avatar was really pulled. Many suspect it’s because the themes in Avatar were too close to the bone for the Chinese government’s comfort.

“What is Avatar about?” asked one contributor on the website Mop. “It’s about the government’s forced evictions of people, and about them risking their lives to protest.”

Even a commentator for The Global Times, a newspaper under the umbrella of the Communist Party-run People’s Daily said the plot in Avatar was “the spitting image of the violent demolition in our everyday life.”

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

Mary Kay Magistad covers Northeast Asia for The World.

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