"The Three Body Problem" as rendered by Netflix: vinegar and dumplings

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Basic background, from Wikipedia:

The Three-Body Problem (Chinese: 三体; lit. 'Three-Body') is a story by Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin which became the first novel in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy—though the series as a whole is often referred to as The Three-Body Problem, or simply as Three-Body. The series portrays a fictional past, present and future wherein Earth encounters an alien civilization from a nearby system of three sun-like stars orbiting one another, a representative example of the three-body problem in orbital mechanics.

Nectar Gan, "Netflix blockbuster ‘3 Body Problem’ divides opinion and sparks nationalist anger in China", CNN 3/22/2024:

A Netflix adaptation of wildly popular Chinese sci-fi novel “The Three-Body Problem has split opinions in China and sparked online nationalist anger over scenes depicting a violent and tumultuous period in the country’s modern history.

Reactions have been mixed on Chinese social media since the Thursday premiere of the eight-part, English-language series “3 Body Problem,” which is based on the Hugo Award-winning novel by Liu Cixin, the country’s most celebrated sci-fi author.

Netflix is not available in China, but viewers can watch its content using virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass strict geo-restrictions — or by consuming pirated versions.

Liu’s novel, part of a trilogy, is one of China’s most successful cultural exports in recent years, boasting legions of fans worldwide including former US President Barack Obama.

Among the country’s more patriotic internet users, discussions on the adaptation turned political, with some accusing the big-budget American production of making China look bad.

The show opens with a harrowing scene depicting Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which consumed China in bloodshed and chaos for a decade from 1966. On the campus of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, a physics professor is brutally beaten to death on stage by his own students and denounced by his colleague and wife, while his daughter Ye Wenjie (played by Zine Tseng) watches in horror.

Such “struggle sessions” were a frequent occurrence during the decade-long period of upheaval, where “class enemies” were publicly humiliated, beaten and tortured by Mao’s frenzied Red Guards.

Midway through her article, Nectar Gan cites some online commentators who accused the show’s producers of “making a whole tray of dumplings just for a saucer of vinegar” ("wèile yī dié cù bāole yī dùn jiǎozi 為了一碟醋包了一頓餃子").  That was a real stumper for me, even after she explained that it is a popular saying used to describe an ulterior motive — in this case, critics of the Netflix version argued that the American producers made a whole TV series just to paint China in a bad light.

It turns out that this "popular saying" is a sort of panacea that you can use to subtly and sarcastically comment on many different types of problematic situations.  China's Zhihu 知乎 platform asked its readers what they thought it meant, and they came up with 109 different answers.

Nectar, or the online commentators whom she cites, most likely got this saying from its usage in Jiāng Wén's 姜文 "Hidden Man" (Xié bù yā zhèng 邪不压正) (2018).  Its occurrence in the film is highly insinuative and conveys the notion that the speaker, the main actor Lan Qingfeng (played by director Jiang Wen) metaphorically makes a relatively large investment (the tray of dumplings) for a saucer of vinegar, but the latter will enable him to establish a valuable social / political connection (not literally the vinegar — that's only a cinematographic prop [at a dumpling stall on the street]) for him to deliver this deathless line.

The article continues:

“Netflix you don’t understand ‘The Three Body Problem’ or Ye Wenjie at all!” read a comment on social media platform Weibo. “You only understand political correctness!”

Others came to the show’s defense, saying the scene closely follows depictions in the book — and is a truthful reenactment of history.

“History is far more absurd than a TV series, but you guys pretend not to see it,” read one comment on Douban, a popular site for reviewing movies, books and music.

Author Liu said in an interview with the New York Times in 2019 that he had originally wanted to open the book with scenes from Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but his Chinese publisher worried they would never make it past government censors and buried them in the middle of the narrative.

The English version of the book, translated by Ken Liu, put the scenes at the novel’s beginning, with the author’s blessing.

“3 Body Problem” was adapted for Netflix by “Game of Thrones” co-creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and the American producer Alexander Woo.

The Netflix adaptation featured an international cast and placed much of the action in present-day London — thus making the story a lot less Chinese. Some Chinese viewers criticized the alteration, saying it construed a plot line that glorifies the West for saving humanity from a disaster planted by China decades ago.

All of this rancorous dissension surrounding the Netflix version of "The Three Body Problem" reminds me of what transpired after the airing of "River Elegy" (Héshāng 河殇), which was written during the latter part of the 80s.  This was a six-part documentary aired by China Central Television on June 16, 1988 that employed the Yellow River as a metaphor for the decline of Chinese civilization.  Because I strongly believe that it was this artistic production created by Premier Zhao Ziyang's (1919-2005) zhìnáng tuán 智囊团 ("think tank") in an inclusive sense that precipitated the Tiananmen protests and massacre one year later, I will give here a synopsis of "River Elegy" (source).

The film asserts that the Ming dynasty's ban on maritime activities is comparable to the building of the Great Wall by China's first emperor Ying Zheng. China's land-based civilization was defeated by maritime civilizations backed by modern sciences, and was further challenged with the problem of life and death ever since the latter half of the 19th century, landmarked by the Opium War. Using the analogy of the Yellow River, China was portrayed as once at the forefront of civilization, but subsequently dried up due to isolation and conservatism. Rather, the revival of China must come from the flowing blue seas which represent the explorative, open cultures of the West and Japan. Authors also cite several narratives to make arguments, including the "oriental despotism" and the "hydraulic empire" from Karl August Wittfogel, "Eurocentrism" from Hegel, as well as the "decline of Chinese civilization and remaining of Western civilization" from Arnold J. Toynbee.

The difference is that "River Elegy" was a documentary created in China by critical, progressive intellectuals, whereas the Netflix version of "Three Body" is a film adaptation of a Chinese sci-fi novel infused with Western ideas and standards by its American producers, making it a much more complicated proposition.

Let's see if the chemistry is there in Netflix's "Three Body" to cause the sort of ramifications that ensued from CNN's "River elegy".

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf; June Dreyer; Violet Zhu; Haining Bao; Diana Zhang; Zhaofei Chen; Annie Wang]


  1. David Moser said,

    March 23, 2024 @ 9:55 pm

    I've been watching the Netflix TV series, a very intriguing mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, physics, religion and social commentary. The series restructures and reframes the Liu Cixin trilogy, but the mixture of elements works. Here is a link to an essay I wrote about "River Elegy", in the pre-Xin Jinping era.


  2. Jerry Packard said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 4:07 pm

    I haven’t yet seen the Netflix version, but I read both the English and Chinese (traditional character) versions a few months ago, and found the English version to be well done and virtually verbatim as a translation, with the only difference being the repositioning of the Cultural Revolution parts to the first three chapters. I liked the CR stuff up front, but can see why that might not be acceptable to the PRC authorities and publishers. I didn’t see the front positioning of CR as prejudicial, but I am not a Chinese reader.

  3. ajay said,

    March 25, 2024 @ 9:21 am

    The Netflix adaptation featured an international cast and placed much of the action in present-day London — thus making the story a lot less Chinese. Some Chinese viewers criticized the alteration

    If they'd left it as it is in the book, it would probably have been the most monoethnic thing Netflix has ever produced (it has one significant character who is not Han Chinese, and he's a villain.) Hardly surprising; Liu is a deeply unpleasant individual and a vocal supporter of the Uighur genocide.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    March 27, 2024 @ 3:09 am

    I've just watched the first few minutes of series 1, episode 1, but killed the player at about 03:30 — I could not take any more.

  5. Jerry Packard said,

    March 27, 2024 @ 1:59 pm

    @ Philip Taylor
    Yes, I’ve started watching it and it’s quite gory (however truly depicted) at the outset. I would give it a chance, though, as the novel(s) is an amazing piece of work.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    March 28, 2024 @ 11:19 am

    Well, normally I can handle violence to humans in films (but not violence to animals) but I found that scene just too horrific (and, I fear, realistic) to be able to cope with it. Maybe I'll try episode two and hope that I can infer what happened in episode one.

  7. Randy Hudson said,

    March 28, 2024 @ 4:55 pm

    The essence of the first scene is that Ye Wenjie's father is beaten to death, and a little thereafter she's arrested. Skip to about 5:40. Then about 8:15 ("I still see it!" on the wall), skip about 30 seconds ahead to avoid a grisly suicide victim. I think those are the only violent images in the first episode. The rest of the episode introduces most of the main cast, along with more flashbacks to Ye Wenjie's story, and is well worth it.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2024 @ 5:09 am

    Thank you those most helpful suggestions, Randy — very much appreciated.

  9. Mark Metcalf said,

    March 29, 2024 @ 9:25 am

    This week's Economist has a story on this topic:

    Chinese nationalists have issues with “3 Body Problem”


  10. Peter Erwin said,

    March 30, 2024 @ 2:52 pm

    One wonders what touchy nationalists thought of the Chinese-language version…

    (Minor pedantic point: the titular setup of 3 stars + 1 planet is actually a version of the four-body problem… but Cixin Liu's grasp of physics and astronomy is a bit wonky.)

    @ ajay
    If they'd left it as it is in the book, it would probably have been the most monoethnic thing Netflix has ever produced

    Netflix has produced tons of "monoethnic" content for various markets, including some English-language series set in India.

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