Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 1, “Winterfell.”
Strip Game of Thrones of the sex, violence, and supernatural horror, and what’s left? Chinese fans of the show are finding out, as they’re watching a version of the series that’s been censored by the government. Many say the censored version of Game of Thrones they have ready access to is more like a mundane “medieval documentary” with disjointed plot points.
HBO’s Chinese partner, Tencent, has the rights to distribute Game of Thrones in China, but to respect local laws, it cut nearly six minutes of the season 8 premiere, “Winterfell.” Most of what was cut was pretty standard, including the nudity when Bronn spends time with three women before Qyburn summons him and the violence when Theon rescues his sister Yara.
But one particularly crucial scene was cut from the premiere: when Ned Umber’s body is found pinned to a creepy sigil on the wall that the Night King has left to send a message. There are two potential reasons why the scene was censored: China disapproves of undead creatures being shown on-screen, as they’re considered superstitious, and the dismembered body parts used to make the spiral could be considered too violent and gruesome.
Chinese viewers who watched the censored version of the season 8 premiere became confused when they participated in post-episode discussions. Many fans were angry about the censorship because it kept important plot points hidden from them, including the fall of the Last Hearth, the death of Ned Umber, and the Night King’s message. But others simply suggested that pirating the show was a better solution than watching a bowdlerized version. One user wrote a comment half in English and half in Chinese on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform: “I want my money back, #TencentVideo. I want a refund, I don’t want the censored version of #GameofThrones #EighthSeason.”
Another user noted: “When other people discussed the episode and said a little lord was burned to death, I really had no idea what they were talking about. I’m speechless. In order to censor blood and violence, the entire story has been affected.”
He continued on his rant in a post that was filled with crying emoji and horse emoji. (“Horse” is a homonym for an extremely common Chinese curse word.) “Censoring to the point where the plot is cut down; what’s the point? I was thinking that in the whole episode, I didn’t see a single ghost, and found it so weird. All along it was Tencent that deleted the scene, completely ruining it. So how do I watch the uncensored version?”
Several users responded to his post, looking for the same thing. One user linked to a pirated file, which was subsequently taken down. The user noted that she’d run into a technical issue and couldn’t file-share, but suggested that the first user look around on Weibo. “Everyone is eagerly sharing files, just look around,” she wrote, a day after the season premiere. According to one analytics firm, the season premiere has already been pirated more than 55 million times.
Game of Thrones has long been censored in China. In 2014, one internet user remarked that in the first three seasons, “they’ve cut about a quarter of all the fight scenes, then a quarter of the nude scenes. I guess that’s okay if all you want to watch is a medieval European castle documentary.” Another person said they estimated about 20 minutes were missing from the pilot episode, and the remainder didn’t make much sense. Without all the beheadings, poisonings, and assassinations, Game of Thrones is missing a considerable percentage of its pivotal plot moments.
As Game of Thrones ramps up the action in its final season, viewers are expecting a conclusion to the battles that have been teased in previous seasons, including a final face-off between the two living dragons and the zombie dragon, Cersei Lannister’s army facing off with Daenerys Targaryen’s army, and the Army of the Dead making its bloody descent into the heart of Westeros. But as the bloodshed increases, presumably, so will the censorship in China.