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Game of Fans: China and India’s Reception of the Game of Thrones

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Asia Life

Game of Fans: China and India’s Reception of the Game of Thrones

The popular HBO show left an imprint even on Chinese and Indian pop culture.

Game of Fans: China and India’s Reception of the Game of Thrones
Credit: Flickr / enerva

Game of Thrones, known to Chinese audiences as 权力的游戏 (Quánlì de yóuxì, literally the Game of Power) was first aired in China by CCTV in 2012. Despite the fact that all scenes with violence and nudity were edited to meet censorship requirements, the fantasy drama has quickly – partly thanks to pirated copies – gained lots of devoted fans.

Although it is very hard to measure the scale of GoT’s popularity in China, one cannot underestimate the significance of the fact that the Chinese video-game developer Yoozoo and the game division of Time Warner, Inc. (which is currently the third largest entertainment company in terms of revenue in the world) are working on a mobile-game version of the HBO production. After all, the Chinese games market is the world’s biggest – in 2016 it was valued at over 25 billion dollars and it represented a quarter of the global market. In other words, Chinese players are potentially a very good target, especially if they already dream about being Robb Stark or Jaime Lannister and conquering Westeros – at least virtually.

Another project aimed at attracting Chinese GoT fans was the special exhibition in some high-end shopping centers in Beijing and Shanghai held in summer this year. Game of Thrones fans could see some models and memorabilia from the film set, as well take a photo on the Iron Throne replica for 99 yuan. Despite the fact that many GoT fans seemed a little bit disappointed with its size, the exhibition worked well both ways – it simultaneously attracted GoT fans to shopping malls and promoted the show among those who hadn’t necessarily known about it.

Nevertheless, what seems most intriguing in China’s response to GoT is how Chinese fans blended some of HBO production’s elements with their own culture. A collection of photoshopped pictures with the GoT actors portrayed – in a very convincing way – as Chinese vendors proved to be a real Internet hit. For example, one picture depicts Queen Cersei, sitting on a roadside and selling parsnips, with her typical half-calm, half-pained expression, as if she was contemplating the doom of the Lannister House. There is Arya Stark too – this time she cooks instead of selling oysters, making a very deceiving impression of an innocent girl with her sweet plaits and gentle smile. One can also spot Littlefinger, who, as it has been commented, “looks like he’s still up to no good” even in the Photoshopped reimage. And there’s Night King selling popsicles – he doesn’t seem pleased, but what else could the White Walkers’ leader do if not selling ice cream?

Another interesting Photoshop experiment shows which Chinese actors would fit in the Chinese version of the GoT. In one of the fans’ proposals Jon Snow could be played by Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Peng Yu-yen (known also as Eddie Peng, whom Western viewers could see in a role of Commander Wu in the Chinese-Hollywood super production The Great Wall). Another idea would be to hire Zhao Liying, currently one of the best paid Chinese TV actresses, for the role of Sansa, and Xu Qing (known also as Summer Qing, who appeared in Bruce Willis’s Looper) for the role of charismatic yet terrifying Melisandre, whose photoshopped picture depicts her a moment before putting a fire to a stake with poor princess Shireen.

An equally interesting cultural adjustment of GoT is a graphic representation of the Houses in the form of…. Pokémon. Although Pokémon were created in Japan, this time it is the Chinese fans of GoT who pictured the whole collection of, among others, Targaryen’s three-headed dragon, Baratheon’s stags with golden antlers, and the Night’s Watch’s ravens – all of them presented in their evolution chains, from hatchlings and puppies to fully developed adult versions.

Finally, it is intriguing to observe that the popularity of GoT has actually influenced Chinese tourism. China’s leading online travel agency called Ctrip claims that thanks to GoT the number of bookings to Croatia (where the scenes in King’s Landing were shot) rose 300 percent. A similar rise can be observed in cases of other GoT shooting locations, such as Ireland (148 percent) and Spain (77 percent). Although it is very difficult – if not impossible – to measure the extent to which these destinations owe their recent success to GoT, such claims seem justified if one considers the fact that a similar popularity increase was experienced by New Zealand after the release of The Lord of the Rings films.

GoT terminology has reached far beyond fans’ forums, and into media discourse more broadly. Many journalists and commentators (especially from Western countries) have made eye-catching comparisons between GoT and Chinese politics – a good example might be Sophia Yan’s China’s elite have begun their game of thrones — here are some of the potential winners published on CNBC website, and Helen Raleigh’s While Nobody’s Looking, China And India Are Carrying Out A Real-Life ‘Game Of Thrones’ written for The Federalist. Such references to GoT appear usually in titles only, quite clearly aiming at attracting more readers. An intriguing exception, however, is a presentation entitled Who Will Win China’s Game of Thrones?, uploaded by China Uncensored on YouTube.

In this comedy news show comparisons between Chinese politicians and GoT Houses are made (“A Qishannister always pays his debts,” states the commentator, talking about Wang Qishan, one of the most influential figures in Chinese politics, who has been “as loyal to Xi [Jinping] as a Hand of the King”). However, one has to be careful with using the phrase “Chinese Game of Thrones,” because in China it has completely different associations than in Western media. “Chinese Game of Thrones” is how Chinese fans nicknamed a very popular series, 琅琊榜 (Lángyá bǎng, known as Nirvana in Fire in English), a 54-episodes-long story about a power struggle somewhere in early medieval China.

In India, as in China, the show’s popularity can be measured by the level of pirating and leaks it has faced. Moreover, just like in China, government’s censorship influenced a lot of scenes and dialogues. Yet, the editing of scenes is a requirement faced by cable TV and not VOD, and thus Star TV, an Indian private television, was recently able to avoid censorship by offering the show on its VOD platform, Hotstar.

There are few interesting links between the immensely popular HBO show and India, though it is doubtful these connections played any meaningful role in advertising the series in the country. Indira Varma, the British actress that appears on the screen as the unfortunate Ellaria Sand, is of partially Indian origin. The Indian audience, however, is possibly much more familiar with Mark ‘Conan’ Stevens, the actor who portrayed Gregor Clegane, the cruel knight turned nightmare monster in Game of Thrones. Stevens previously appeared in a few Bollywood movies, such as Drona and Chandni Chowk to China. Moreover, some of the accessories used in the show, such as swords and armors, are actually produced in India – but that is a story for another time.

It can be added here in passing that when Neil Nitin Mukesh, a young Bollywood actor, was rumored to have a role in the show, the news created waves in India. The rumor proved to be false but it serves as one measures of the series’ popularity. Another star, the original and talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui, delivered one more piece of proof of GoT’s popularity — and of his sense of self-irony — when he uploaded a video of his mock audition for the show, pretending that he is not able to pronounce the quotations from the series correctly.

As in China, Game of Thrones vocabulary has become part of popular discourse of Indian politics, albeit as stylistic ornaments only. State-level politics in the states of Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been compared in the Indian media to the “game of thrones” but the comparison usually does not go beyond using the phrase. In Uttar Pradesh, one of the leading parties is the Samajwadi Party, which is mainly led by one family, the Yadavs. When a struggle for power emerged within that party and within the family, it was dubbed by some in India as the “Game of Yadavs” and an appropriately doctored picture circulated on the Internet with the faces of the Samajwadi Party leaders pasted onto a Game of Thrones series poster. A modest conclusion based on Chinese and Indian examples is that the phrase “game of thrones” has become a synonym of a ruthless political struggle.

Apart from the media narrative on politics, a slight trace of Game of  Thrones inspirations is visible in Indian fashion and art. A Game of  Thrones-themed wedding was reported in India, as in other parts of the world. An Indian artist, Parth Kothekar, recently made headlines with his paper-cut figures depicting the heroes of the show in traditional Indian attire. One can also spot Game of  Thrones-related memes on the Indian Internet, some deliberately mixing themes and quotes from the show and from Bollywood movies, or relating the series to Indian social reality.

The most hilarious, however, is a series of mock advertisements prepared by a group of Indian comedians, All India Bakchod. One of them, claiming to promote a textile company, presents  members of the Stark family in warm clothes, with the phrase “Winter is coming.” Another mock advertisement takes aim at racial stereotypes and prejudices associated with skin tone: The Night King’s pale face appears in an advert for skin whitening cream with the phrase, “Instant fairness. Be a real white walker.” And there is Sansa Stark advertising a matrimonial website (“Stuck with the wrong guy? […] We Match Better”), Joffrey Baratheon advertising condoms (“Prevent Natural Disasters”), and Jon Snow promoting coaching classes (“Jon Snow knows nothing, but your child can”).

It would be an overstatement to claim that Game of Thrones has influenced Indian tastes or left a substantial imprint on Indian art. Indian movies or shows haven’t so far revealed such influence (an upcoming series called “Rani Mahal” – “The Queen’s Palace” – was rumored to be based on GoT, but that may be another false assumption). Nor is the Indian video games market big enough to be tapped into using references to GoT. For Indian moviemakers, both G.R.R. Martin’s book series and the HBO show may be inspirational in terms of the plot, but with the current level of Indian censorship the style of the show, with its brutality and obscenity, cannot be followed. It is safe to conclude, however, that Game of Thrones is yet another example of how a part of the Indian middle class – just like the Chinese one – is keen to follow Western trends.

Antonina Luszczykiewicz is a Ph.D. student in the field of Cultural Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Her research interests focus on the history of Chinese-Indian relations, as well as colonial and postcolonial stereotypes and prejudices in the Asian context.