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While watching the 2023 Chinese tv adaptation of Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem with English subtitles, I noticed a peculiarity:

Instead of using actual place names, the show appears to use placeholders - generic-sounding city names for places in China, and obvious placeholders for any international locations. To illustrate what I mean, here is a brief excerpt from the subtitles of episode 1x01 (highlight by myself):

General Chang Weisi: Comrades, let me introduce our guests before the meeting. This is ...
[camera focuses on Colonel Stanton]
... a marines colonel of Country M in the North American Combat Zone, Mr. Stanton. This is ...
[camera pans to Mr. Mike]
... an army colonel of Country T, Mr. Mike.
(...)
[we see excerpts from (in-universe) public TV news broadcasts]
Hart, the astrophysicist of Country A, committed suicide 13 days ago. Country T is the disaster zone of scientists' suicides.

This is not an artifact of the translation. The original Chinese audio (and the Chinese subtitles) actually says "M国" and "T国", which literally means "M-Land" and "T-Land". It is also not a matter of this being a joint military-like meeting where code names are used, as evidenced by the consistent use of those placeholders even in the fictitious public news sections.

After asking Chinese friends of mine about this peculiarity, I learned that apparently, this is by far not unusual and frequently done in Chinese shows. This makes me assume it must be a peculiarity of Chinese TV/film industry as a whole.

Why, and to what extent (e.g. the Wandering Earth movies didn't do this, as far as I can remember), is this done? Is there a legal reason behind it, or is it simply customary in Chinese TV industry?

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    One would imagine for the same reason Marvel Comics invinted Canaan, Oklahoma and Redfield, Oklahoma, and The Simpsons never tell you which state their Springfield is in.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 21:50
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    @T.E.D. In those cases you cite, I think the reason is more for allowing flexibility in the storyline, rather than because of fear of offense. I highly doubt the creators of The Simpsons were fearful of offending Ohio, any state, or anyone.
    – user101687
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 2:12
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    'changing say "China" to "Country C" would be far more jarring; it would also be a bit less obvious what "Country C" refers to' - that's still an understatement; as I had pointed out in another comment, I didn't even realize these place names were supposed to mean any country in particular. Note that this is also because the English text did not use e.g. "C-Land", which might sound like a country name, but "Country C", which looks explicitly like a mere placeholder (no different from "Country 1", "Country 2", ...). Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 4:40
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    @RobertColumbia: I think that is something quite different. For one, you have to consider how much made-up geography is bearable for the audience without breaking suspention of disbelief. If the show mentions and plausibly depicts a small village in a given approximate locale, of the kind that has dozens or hundreds in real life, that's fine. Even if it's a small relatively insignificant country - especially if it supposedly belongs to a cluster of multiple small slightly similar countries - that may work, as well, without breaking the impression the work is set in the real world. The same ... Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 10:41
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    ... holds for fictional universities and other entities that could plausibly exist. If, on the other hand, the work discusses global issues that are tackled by the world's most influential countries, having fantasy countries show up there is immediately noticeable and is IMHO fully sufficient as a signal that this work is set in a fantasy world. Second, note that in the example I describe, the work does not even attempt to pretend these are actual place names. Designations like "Country T" or "Country M" read to me like "placeholder, to be replaced with actual country" more than anything else. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 10:41

1 Answer 1

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I can't find a definitive source, so this is a partial answer, but the short version is:

Censorship. (well, that, and a combination of complications from translation/language)

Yes, it is very common, and even some Chinese are confused by it. And it is not restricted to television, it exists in other forms of media, and also, confusingly, doesn't as well, which adds to the confusion.

(Part of that is, whilst there is a lot of censorship, where there is less, it is on the author to self-censor, should they fall foul of someone who takes offence to having a region or place actually named. With strong online algorithms checking for keywords to trigger the authorities, many find it better to be safe rather than sorry)

The way to get around the censorship, is to read between the lines - the article or author might indicate the language spoken, some cultural specifics, landmarks, etc, then you can work out what they mean.

(Note, however, that with The Three-Body Problem, Chinese sources have said the countries are implicitly labelled in the novel, it's just that when they went to production, they censored it. This leads me on to another issue - when the novel was written, the censorship level was quite a bit different. With the current regime, censorship has skyrocketed, so anything pre-2011 is likely to have 'less' censorship (beyond the usual), and post-2012 is likely to be very heavily censored)

Also, part of the issue of whether to censor is the background or source of the story: Generally, if it is factual - and is not state sensitive - you would get the country name; but if the source story is fiction, then any names/places have to also be fictional.

(Aside from state sensitivity, there is also a cultural aspect, US citizens might not think much of a story having Washington D.C. nuked, but to have Beijing named as being nuked is a major insult, so it becomes 'City B' in 'Country Z' that got zapped)


Random examples:


(From Novel Updates Forum - Why do chinese novels make up other names for certain countries?, a forum for novels being translated):

Post #21

[...], in a lot of modern day novels, any mentions of major people/places are censored. There's multiple ways for an author to censor. They can shorten the city name or literally call it J Province.

For example: 苏城. It's the Chinese name for Sioux City but it's also Suzhou censored. Would you translate it as Suzhou, leave it as Sucheng? It'll be weird to use Su City. Therefore, I have it as S City. Abbrievated censoring is common in these type of novels. [...]

Post #44

The letters are generally based on the Chinese pronunciations of the country, not the way it's spelled in English. And then there are still tons of exceptions because of the use of nicknames and the like. Generally it's easier to decipher by how the author describes the country rather than going by the letter used.

Post #7

[...] it's because the writer is trying to avoid getting censored. This applies to China as well, and authors will often avoid mentioning the name of the city or province or even country even when all the readers know what's being referred to. Generally it's a nonissue to name different countries but they're just acting on the safe side. [...]

Country example:

  • 'United States' (Chinese) '美国' (pinyin) 'mei3 guo2' - becomes 'country M'

And from Reddit - What is Country T?

Dry_Artichoke5189's comment:

As a chinese,i'd like to say it's normal in chinese literature works nowadays.

True country name is forbidden to exist in novels or tv series.

If the novel is published today,you definitely will not find true country name.

-dontlookatme's comment

China's film and television industry has some rules and regulations, they can not refer to existing regime's name. Even in some patriotic films and based on true story, for example, Operation Mekong, where Thailand was associated in this incident, they were also censored as "Country T". For historical dramas, if the story is fictional not real history, the characters' names must also be fictional, for example, the drama "The Longest Day in Chang'an", which is a fictional history drama based on Tang dynasty inspired by the video game Assasin's Creed, the characters inside truly existed in history but it is not allowed to use their real name, avoiding confusion with historical facts.

(Emphasis added)


More:

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    Very interesting - and actually, very englightening in that the abbreviations actually have a meaning rather than being randomly assigned, as I had assumed. It appears to mean that shows like German tv series Tatort or a whole sub-genre of "regional" fictional novels, whose main appeal is that they play in actual places that readers know and relate to, would be unthinkable in China. I'm going to wait a bit before accepting this answer in case some more answers turn up, but +1 for now, this is very insightful. Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 22:09
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    To add for the rest of the letters: M => měiguó (USA); E => éluósī (Russia); Y => yīngguó (UK); F => fǎguó (France); D => déguó (Germany); R => rìběn (Japan).
    – Schism
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 7:23
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    You quote a Reddit comment: China's film and television industry has some rules and regulations, they can not refer to existing regime's name. I somewhat doubt that there are any such written rules and regulations. More likely this is just one of an unlimited number of unwritten rules (as is part of the playbook of an authoritarian regime to keep everyone fearful and constantly on their toes).
    – user101687
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 1:37
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    @user103496: "I somewhat doubt that there are any such written rules and regulations." - Chinese bureaucracy is not reluctant to write down legal proclamations. You're right that their effective scope may often be unclear, which has the effect of encouraging further self-censorship etc., but my impression is that there often still is an actual, written rule at the core, and something like "do not spread, or appear to be spreading, statements that may mislead the public about historical facts" seems to me like just the kind of rule that can serve as a basis for fear of citing actual toponyms. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 4:36
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    @O.R.Mapper: Sure I don't disagree with you. I was just casting doubt on the suggestion that there might be some written rule somewhere saying "they can not refer to existing regime's name".
    – user101687
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 4:38

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