In China, Moviegoers Choose Avatar over Confucius

When the Chinese Film Board announced it would yank the wildly popular Hollywood film Avatar—and replace it with a made-in-China biopic about Confucius, the ancient philosopher whose ethos promotes respect for hierarchy—it seemed like a classic East-West clash of civilizations. After just three days in theaters, Avatar had taken in $76 million in China by Jan. 17, to become the country's all-time top-grossing film. That blowout must have riled the local film industry's bean counters, who hate the fact that first place has been dominated by foreign films such as 2012 and Titanic. So authorities, citing Chinese law—and the film's comparatively paltry take in 2-D theaters, told more than 1,600 2-D cinemas nationwide to pull the plug on Avatar, though they were allowed to keep showing it in more than 800 3-D theaters. The government also urged theater operators to ensure that at least two thirds of the movies they show are domestic productions. (Imports are limited by law to 20 movies shown in theaters annually, typically for just 10 days each.) They didn't think any of that would be a problem.

Film censors also had reason to favor a bearded sage preaching respect for authority over the towering blue Na'vi hominids, who rebelled against human marauders out to destroy their community. At first blush, of course, Chinese officials might have been delighted at the thought of a big-budget Hollywood film where the arrogant, militarily muscular, technologically superior, warlike Americans are outwitted by indigenous aliens using their brains, their mystical beliefs, and their bonds with nature. But there are some uncomfortable analogies for the Communist Party.

First, Americans in the movie unilaterally destroy the Na'vi habitat, which happens to be a giant tree. Not only is forced eviction one of the biggest gripes against Chinese authorities (30 million citizens have been evicted in the course of the nation's three-decade-long helter-skelter construction craze), but there's an even more sensitive subtext here, too: rampant tree-felling is one of the main Tibetan grievances against Han Chinese developers, and in recent years such deforestation has been banned in some Tibetan communities because of the serious unrest it has triggered among citizens. Even an article in the Global Times, published by the Communist-Party mouthpiece People's Daily, called the plot "the spitting image of the violent demolition in our everyday life." One cheeky Netizen wrote that "China's demolition crews must go sue [Director James] Cameron … copyright infringement."

Then there's the Na'vi love of all living beings—to the point where they mutter an incantation asking for redemption whenever they have to kill a beast. Here, that sounds a lot like the Tibetan reverence for all sentient beings—and the fact that they're reluctant to kill small creatures for food. Tibetans do butcher large animals—yaks, especially—because one large beast can feed many humans. Traditional Tibetans prefer when a yak dies accidentally so that they don't have to kill it, and some absolutely recoil when small creatures like shrimp or fish are served as a meal.

But the clincher for government apparatchiks might the Na'vi ability to "resurrect" dying humans as their respective avatars. (The film's title derives from the fact that several Americans, including protagonist and ex-Marine Jake Sully, are genetically bonded with part-human, part-alien avatars that they inhabit temporarily while their human forms sleep in special pods.) The film ends when Jake's spirit is permanently moved to his avatar, allowing him to live happily ever after with his Na'vi lover and to leave his paraplegic corporeal form for good.

Reincarnation is a potent idea in China, and Beijing doesn't want moviegoers to be reminded of the Tibetan belief that no one ever really dies. This faith is partly the reason why many Tibetans remain fiercely loyal to the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, whom Chinese leaders believe to be a dangerous separatist. Even when he is old or frail, irresponsible or doddering, his followers worship him and, when his corporeal form eventually passes away, they eagerly await the discovery of the Dalai's new incarnation. Indeed, the state of the elderly Nobel laureate's health will be on many people's minds during U.S. president Barack Obama's expected meeting with him in Washington—slated for this month—a move that has already triggered gnashing teeth among Chinese authorities.

On so many levels, and despite the designs of Chinese officialdom, Avatar has taken on a life of its own. That's why audiences weren't nearly as interested in the great sage. First, they panned Confucius, which brought in a paltry $5.5 million over five full days—compared to Avatar's record opening-day take of $4.8 million. Chinese movie star Chow Yun-Fat had said, "If you don't cry after watching Confucius, you're not human." (Chow plays the erudite Confucius, which itself stoked controversy because the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does not have a classical Chinese education.) But the attendance numbers were so anemic, popular blogger Han Han wrote that the viewers with the best reason to weep were the filmmakers themselves, realizing "how many middle-school classes and government officials they're going to have to drag into theaters en masse to break even." Global Times called the film "thoughtless and mind-numbing."

Not only was Confucius a box-office disappointment, but officialdom's attempt at instilling respect for hierarchy also backfired. "Confucius is the enemy of democracy and freedom. He only tells people to become slaves, subject to exploitation and oppression," fumed one Netizen on the Tianya Web site, a popular chat forum. Worse, the grassroots demand for Avatar was so strong that the government film board ultimately backpedaled; soon, the movie had returned to many 2-D theaters. There, Avatar appeared never to have disappeared in the first place.

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