China’s First Rating and The Village of Widows

Timelines: All, China Categories: 1980s, China, Classification event, Country, Decade, Event
Date: 1989


In 1989, mainland China made its first and only attempt to implement an age-based rating system. The Ministry of Radio, Film and Television (MRFT) made an announcement in March 1989 promoting the rating category “Not appropriate for children”, which appears to have been established under the State Council of PRC Document No. 14 in 1988 (Zhang 2008, 28). The MRFT’s “Announcement of the Implementation of Film Censorship and Exhibition Rating System” outlined that this age-based category could be applied “if a film has a plot:
1. with rape, theft, drug abuse, drug traffic and prostitution;
2. with violence, murder, or action that can easily cause children to be afraid;
3. depicting sex and sexual behaviour
4. depicting abnormal phenomena in society.” (Zhang 2008, 28)
Zhang Rui describes that subsequently that year, in November, the state-owned Chinese Distribution and Exhibition Company also issued the “Regulation for Exhibiting Films Rated ‘Not Appropriate for Children’”. Together these government regulations sought to limit young people’s access to films with mature content.

In December 1988 The Village of Widows (Guafu Cun) was released in cinemas in the Chinese city of Canton. Produced jointly by Pearl River Movie Studio and the Hong Kong Silver City Organization, The Village of Widows was the first film approved by Chinese officials that contained sex scenes (Wilhelm 1988). The film depicts three couples in a fishing village both before and following the Communist Party of China’s 1949 victory in China’s civil war. Director Wang Jin advised that the film was not suitable for children (Wilhelm 1988). While this claim was repeated on promotional materials, as was required under the new regulations, The Village of Widows had not actually been officially rated as “Not appropriate for children”. Despite this, promoters wilfully claimed that “The film directly touches upon the previously prohibited subject of sex” and that it was the “first film rated ‘Not Appropriate to Children’”, in order to manifest interest from the public (in Zhang 2008, 29; Wang 2014). Zhang (2008, 29) writes that audience disappointment at a rather conventional portrayal of love and sex led to legal disputes between theatres and local governments related to “exaggerated content in advertisement and false promotion that misled the audiences”. The exploitation of the rating by film promoters and the legal dramas that followed meant that the MRFT chose not to apply this “Not appropriate for children” category. Zhang (2008, 30) writes that “In 1997, when China’s first film censorship law, the Film Censorship Regulation (Tentative), was issued by MRFT, the category of ‘Not Appropriate for Children’ was not mentioned.” – Liam Grealy

Further reading:
– Wang, F. (2014). The need for a film rating system in China: The case for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007). New Review of Film and Television Studies. 12(4): 400-411.
– Wilhelm, K. (1988). China screens first censor-approved movie with sex. Associated Press. 27 December.
– Zhang, R. (2008). The cinema of Feng Xiogang: Commercialization and censorship in Chinese cinema after 1989. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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