“The Three-Body Problem

Alex Lew, CFA
2 min readApr 13, 2024


“The Three-Body Problem” isn’t just a science fiction novel; it’s a cultural phenomenon that dives deep into the heart of China’s historical scars and scientific dreams. Written by Liu Cixin, this book kicks off the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy with a story that’s much more than alien civilizations and cosmic dilemmas. It’s a bold exploration of China’s cultural memory, the dark corners of authoritarian regimes, and the double-edged sword of technological advancements.

Liu Cixin uses his narrative to peel back layers of history, examining the implications of the Cultural Revolution — a time marred by intense social and political upheaval. Interestingly, despite its sharp critique of the Communist Revolution and modern-day Chinese politics, the novel sailed past the usual censorship barriers in China, finding a spot on the shelves and in the hearts of many Chinese readers. It became a launchpad, boosting Chinese science fiction onto the world stage and winning prestigious awards along the way.

Then came the adaptations. The Tencent series in 2023 stayed true to the novel’s spirit, earning applause for its loyalty to the original themes. However, the waters got choppy with Netflix’s take on the story. Moving the plot out of China and tweaking key elements sparked a firestorm. This wasn’t just about die-hard fans upset over changes; it was a reflection of deeper, more systemic issues like censorship and the portrayal of China’s historical narrative.

Why the uproar? Much of it hinges on how the Cultural Revolution is depicted. This period remains a sensitive chapter in Chinese history, rarely portrayed in media within China due to its violence and the governmental errors it represents. Liu’s novel doesn’t shy away from depicting this violence — its English translation begins with the harrowing scene of Ye Wenjie witnessing her father’s brutal murder, a sequence adjusted in the Chinese version likely due to censorship.

Netflix’s adaptation mirrors the English novel’s upfront portrayal of this brutality, stirring discomfort. In contrast, Tencent’s version tones down the violence, perhaps to keep the narrative more palatable for its domestic audience. This selective softening of historical atrocities doesn’t just dilute the impact — it shapes the way viewers understand and process their own history.

This whole debate around Netflix’s “The Three-Body Problem” underscores the tightrope walk of censorship in Chinese pop culture. The show’s backlash isn’t just about artistic liberty; it’s about how China’s global image is managed and manipulated through media. It’s about a populace grappling with their understanding of the past, challenging the narrative fed to them, and questioning the boundaries of historical portrayal.