Social media users in China got creative Monday to celebrate Chloé Zhao’s historic Oscars victory after the Chinese government censored mention of her name.
Zhao, who was born in Beijing, won the Academy Award for best director Sunday for “Nomadland,” but searches for her name and for the film were few and far between on Chinese social media platforms. “Nomadland” also won the award for best picture and similarly got the silent treatment.
On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, users bypassed censors by using alternative translations and iterations of the film’s title. “Nomadland,” which roughly translates to “unreliable land” in Chinese, was altered to “reliable sky” — giving it a completely new name.
Zhao was given several new names. Some users gave her the moniker “daughter of the clouds,” and others simply called her “that girl.” Zhao’s acceptance speech, in which she referred to a classic Chinese text about people’s inherently being good at birth, also reverberated with Weibo users.
“Chloe Zhao is great, walking on the red carpet in sneakers, and reciting a line from the Three Character Classic. That’s the wisdom of a literari. Some words can be erased, but these can not,” a user wrote.
Zhao made history Sunday by becoming the first woman of color to win the Oscar for best director. She is also only the second woman to win for best director, but she has yet to be officially praised by her native country.
The Associated Press reported that in an app popular with Chinese film buffs, Douban, searches for “Nomadland” and “Zhao Ting,” Zhao’s name in Chinese, came up with “the search results could not be displayed in accordance to relevant laws and regulations.”
Discussion about Zhao and her film were silenced in China after comments she made appearing to criticize the country were unearthed following her Golden Globes win on March 1. She was initially celebrated; Chinese state news outlets went so far as to call her “the pride of China.” Within days, however, she became the target of online trolls accusing her of smearing China because of comments in an interview from 2013 with Filmmaker magazine, in which she described it as “a place where there are lies everywhere.”
Another, more recent, interview was also dug out, in which Zhao, who spent time studying in the U.S., was quoted as telling an Australian news site, news.com.au, on March 3 that “the U.S. is now my country, ultimately.” The site later clarified that it had misquoted Zhao, saying she had actually said the “U.S. is not my country.”
“Nomadland” immediately came under calls for a boycott. Its promotional materials disappeared online, and there remains no sign of the film’s being released in Chinese theaters in the near future.
This year’s Oscars were not broadcast at all in China and, for the first time in 50 years, in Hong Kong, too.
“Do Not Split,” a documentary about the 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, was also nominated. Neither Chinese authorities nor Hong Kong’s leading broadcaster said the ban was due to “Nomadland” or the documentary; the Hong Kong broadcaster cited what it called “commercial reasons.”
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Reuters reported that a livestream of the ceremony, hosted by alumni of Zhao’s alma mater in Shanghai through a virtual private network service, was also blocked for nearly two hours. NBC News could not confirm the report.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, a Chinese state-backed newspaper, congratulated Zhao on Twitter but said he hoped she would “become more and more mature” in handling troubles the tense China-U.S. ties may cause her.
There have been no statements from Chinese state officials about Zhao’s win or the online response.
Offline, however, some celebrated Zhao’s win, the AP reported.
“Wow, that’s incredible — winning a world’s top award as a Chinese person,” said Zhou Lu, 35, a publisher in Beijing. She said she had not heard of Zhao before her win but plans to watch her film.