No Back to the Future Reruns in China This Week

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the course of fact-checking a feature on China’s burgeoning film industry (forthcoming in our Dec. issue), I learned that the list of subjects censored by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television—say that fast once—includes ghosts and time travel. The latter was banned in 2011, when time travel as a theme in Chinese film and TV was becoming very popular (illustrated by the viral ad seen above, from that year).

The questions pile up. Is the ban meant to discourage frivolity or political imagination, and where does the SAPPRFT draw the line? Is the ban on ghosts part of the CCP’s insistence on regulating reincarnation, i.e. the Dalai Lama’s? How might upsetting history, say in a depiction of time travel, upset the status quo? And to that end, so predominated by forward thinking, which parts of history are worth upsetting immediately?

Chris and I were talking about this as we were leaving the office Wednesday. Which was auspicious, he pointed out, because it was Back to the Future Day. At that moment, 200 miles away, unbeknownst to us, our colleague David Sims was wrapping up his piece “China’s No-Ghost Protocol Is Hampering Movie Flops.” In Doc Brown’s words:

It could mean that that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance, almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.