User 3 Body Problem: The Chinese Cultural Revolution Explained (Briefly)

Netflix sci-fi series 3 Body Problem begins with the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Here’s what you need to know about it.

A struggle session in 3 Body Problem. Episode 101 of 3 Body Problem.

Netflix has relentlessly promoted its latest big budget series, 3 Body Problem, as a science fiction epic.

Based on a trilogy of sci-fi novels from Cixin Liu, the show is full of speculative ideas and a storytelling canvas of the known universe. Going into episode 1, viewers have been primed to expect aliens at the very most or some outer space at the very least. Imagine their surprise then when episode 1 “Countdown” opens with the text “Beijing, Tsinghua University, 1966.”

As that text promises, the first five minutes of 3 Body Problem take place in Beijing, 1966 at a revolutionary rally known as a “struggle session.” Through the eyes of the young Ye Wenjie (Zine Tsung) we watch as her peers parade several academics onstage and humiliate them.

“Root out the bugs! Sweep away all monsters and demons!” the teenagers cry as they raise their little red books to the heavens.

One man onstage tearfully confesses he is a counterrevolutionary and tearfully begs to be rehabilitated. When he is carried off, Ye Wenjie’s own father is brought out. A professor of physics, Ye Zhetai is challenged to denounce the theory of relativity as American imperialism. He refuses to refute the science even when his wife is summoned onstage to beg for forgiveness. Ye Wenjie can only watch in horror as the rally gets out of hand and her father is beaten to death.

What viewers witness in this moment is an example of what went down during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Taking place from 1966 through 1976, the Cultural Revolution was Chairman Mao Zedong’s final attempt to instill lasting communist fervor into Chinese culture and keep his legacy alive long after his death. In some ways, he was successful – Mao remains an important political and historical figure in the People’s Republic of China today. In other ways, however, he was not. Despite still being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, modern day China is far more capitalist than Mao would have anticipated.

Opening with this historical context not only comes straight from Cixin Liu’s novel but it gives 3 Body Problem a sound narrative foundation upon which to build upon. As some of the show’s characters make destructive decisions in the episodes to come, one must only think back to this prologue for them to all make a little more sense. The show does provide viewers with enough information to appreciate the opening scene as is, but would a better understanding of Chinese history make it even more powerful? We think it would and we’re here to help with that mission.

In the three sections that follow, we will briefly explain the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

But first: a word of warning. This rundown is designed to help you appreciate the historical context of the era and enhance of your enjoyment of 3 Body Problem. It is in no way a scholarly examination of Chinese history. Human history is a big, complex beast that requires years of research and debate to even begin to comprehend. So don’t go telling people that Den of Geek taught you everything you need to know about 20th Century China.

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