The imperialist problem with ‘3 Body Problem’
A scene depicting the Cultural Revolution in '3 Body Problem.' | Netflix

In his magisterial study Culture and Imperialism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said details how the great works of Western literature are part and parcel of the fabric of imperial domination of the West’s, and in this case particularly Britain’s, exploitation of what is sometimes called the Global South. Said speaks primarily of the 18th through the 20th centuries, from the “menace” of Sherlock Holmes’s Asian villains rematerializing in the imperial center of London to the barely acknowledged Caribbean plantation, the source of the wealth in the Brontë novels.

That mindset endures and is interwoven into the fabric of Western television entertainment, be it in the BBC One series The Driver, recently adapted for American TV as Parish, which highlights the savagery of the gangsters from the former British colony of Zimbabwe, to the supposedly more sophisticated treatment of another former imperial territory, China, in Netflix’s Spring streaming blockbuster 3 Body Problem.

The series was adapted for Netflix by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from the trilogy by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. It opens with a scene, not in the novel, from the Maoist Cultural Revolution, set in 1966, where one of the lead characters, Ye Wenjie (body number 1), watches as her physicist father is murdered on stage by Chinese Red Guards for refusing to propound revolutionary dogma. Ye Wenjie later goes on to become an astrophysicist herself but, in episode two, makes a fatal decision regarding extraterrestrials based on her encounter at a labor camp with the female Red Guard member who refuses to renounce her participation in the death of her father.

From the opening scene of revolutionary carnage, the series then shifts to the present in Oxford and to a group of physicists centered around a particle accelerator seen as the most advanced center of scientific development in the world and whose project manager is body number 2. One of the “Oxford 5” group of alumni scientists and entrepreneurs, Jess Hong, then enters a virtual world (her avatar is body number 3) which returns to the Chinese dynastic period where she observes Emperor Zhou’s territories threatened by a mysterious plague. She is appalled by this menace to the empire and wonders how to prevent it.

We have here then a classic case of Said’s Culture and Imperialism, updated for the popular entertainment medium of the 21st century, streaming TV. The Cultural Revolution, despite its glaring deficiencies, sparked proletarian literacy and was a first step toward the mass scientific breakthrough that has now led China to take on the West in terms of technological advancement, to the point where its internet competitors Huawei and Tik Tok are both in the process of being blockaded by a West that cannot compete.

The entire revolutionary enterprise is presented as simply an exercise in savagery and intolerance and is immediately contrasted with the material and scientific sophistication of “Oxford,” the apotheosis of multicultural openness. Here, even its capitalist “entrepreneurs”—in the form of GOT’s John Bradley as Jack Rooney, a clumsy and likable practitioner of the art of streamlining jobs and work, i.e., firing employees, and the mysterious oil tycoon Thomas Wade—are concerned with “saving humanity.”

Reviving the Dynastic Emperor

In order to find a positive view of China in the series, it is necessary to return to the dynastic period before the 100 years plus of revolutionary struggle, both democratic and socialist, which freed the country from the “century of (Western) humiliation” and the yoke of the emperors, a period which is here presented fondly.

This imperial backbone should not come as a surprise from Benioff and Weiss, who undertook the project after three failures. Left on their own without the George R. R. Martin novels which they had followed through season six, particularly the final 8th season of Game of Thrones amounted to little more than battlefield carnage with a disappointing ending in which “Westeros” does not allow for a progressive leadership.

At that point, the channel HBO, flush from the overall success of the series, was ready to make whatever they proposed. The team came up with Confederacy, an “alternate history” series in which the South wins its “freedom” and re-establishes slavery, an idea so patently regressive that because of the outcry HBO was forced to reject. The pair then went to Disney proposing to apply the GOT combination of imperial blood and sex to the streamer’s key franchise Star Wars, which was also rejected.

And so, they found their way to Netflix, the most commercially successful streamer, which was more than willing not to reinstitute slavery but to refound the imperial myth of the Chinese and Global South “jungle” and the Western “garden.” The more things change…

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.