China censors behind the curve in TV breasts row

Beijing (AFP) - Chinese censors should pay more attention to public opinion, a state-run newspaper argued Wednesday, after an online backlash over the removal of all cleavage from a TV show about China's only female emperor.

"Empress of China", about the Tang dynasty ruler Wu Zetian, who came to power at the end of the 7th century, was abruptly taken off the air soon after its debut on satellite station Hunan TV late last month, ostensibly for "technical reasons".

When it returned a week later, the show -- which stars actress Fan Bingbing in the title role -- had been conspicuously edited so that shots of female characters in mildly revealing period dresses were instead tightly cropped to remove any sight of the swell of a breast.

The move ignited the fury of China's Internet users, who said censors had gone a step too far and had sought to rewrite the country's fashion history.

The Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, noted in an editorial that while the censorship was "largely done out of moral concerns", the resulting public outcry should serve as a warning for the future.

"When using censorship, more considerations should be given to public opinion to garner support and avoid similar incidents," it said.

Chinese rules governing censorship are opaque and reasons are not provided for why cuts are made, but negative portrayals of contemporary politics are often banned, as are revealing scenes and issues that authorities believe could lead to social unrest.

The Global Times insisted the system of control was necessary, saying: "The reality is that censorship exists in many countries and it is unlikely to be reversed in China."

The strict approval process has been criticised as arbitrary at times, with films and TV series often scuttled at the last moment -- and sometimes, as in the case of "Empress of China", even after they have begun airing.

Last month, the premiere of acclaimed director Jiang Wen's latest film, "Gone with the Bullets", was abruptly delayed due to eleventh-hour demands by censors.

Wu Zetian was originally a concubine to Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong, and then to his son and heir Gaozong.

She is said to have killed their infant daughter and blamed the murder on Gaozong's empress so that she could replace her in the role, and she ruled in her own right after Gaozong suffered a stroke, later assuming the title of emperor after his death.

- Online mockery -

An online survey released by the Sina Weibo microblogging service on Monday found nearly 95 percent of respondents disapproved of the "Empress of China" censorship.

"This drama shows not only the beauty of the human body, but also the beauty of Tang dynasty style; now you're showing only the characters' heads?" wrote one user of China's popular Sina Weibo microblogging service. "It's too unprofessional!"

According to the culture ministry website, Tang dynasty women inherited the traditional Chinese "ruqun" jacket and gown combination "and developed it further, opening up the collar as far as exposing the cleavage between the breasts".

"This was unheard of and unimaginable in the previous dynasties, in which women had to cover their entire body according to the Confucian classics," it says. "But the new style was soon embraced by the open-minded aristocratic women of the Tang Dynasty."

Another weibo poster cast the latest censorship move in line with other measures by Beijing to block popular foreign social media sites and remove some US television series from Chinese video-streaming sites.

"China will soon become another North Korea, a laughing stock of the world," wrote the user. "While others are progressing, we are sealing ourselves off. Facebook, YouTube, Line and Instagram are all blocked; even American TV dramas aren't allowed."

As public anger mounted, some Internet users created memes mocking the show's newly-chaste version.

Tightly-cropped photos of American actress Scarlett Johansson, Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong began making the rounds.

One widely-shared image showed China's evening news anchors with only their heads and hands resting on their desk, their torsos absent.

The incident also appeared to prompt some soul-searching at China's official news agency.

In a piece discussing the controversy, Xinhua said that China "led the world in the production of television series in the past decade", with 15,000 TV episodes produced in 2013.

But it observed: "Sometimes quantity is chosen over quality."