Two fifth-grade girls in Zhangzhou, China, committed suicide on Thursday by drowning themselves in a backyard pool.

The girls, who have been assigned pseudonyms Xiao Mei and Xiao Hua, left notes explaining their decision. Xiao Hua had lost a remote control for a rolling door in her home, and was afraid that her mother would be angry. She added that her older sister must now take care of their parents.

Xiao Mei wrote that she and Xiao Hua were best friends and wanted to die together. She also mentioned that she dreamed of traveling back in time to the Qing dynasty, and that detail has been of particular interest to Chinese media.

An Interesting Angle

The article, reported by the state-owned publication China Daily via People's Daily Online, spends only half its verbiage on the circumstances surrounding the double-suicide. The rest focuses on the role that fanciful television programs might have played in the girls' decision.

Deputy Director of the China Youth and Children Research Center Sun Yunxiao is quoted explaining that tragedies like this happen frequently because children are curious and impressionable. I have heard of children jumping from high buildings after watching an actor flying in a magic show, he said. This kind of imitative behavior is in the nature of young children, but it's very dangerous. So we should give some sort of warning for children on TV programs.

The article goes on to recount a February instance of a 19-year-old woman who was convinced to give 1,800 Yuan (about $285) to someone she'd met online. The stranger had promised to help the woman time travel, but disappeared shortly after the transfer of funds.

Incidents like these, the article concludes, are why China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) is justified in censoring these types of programs.

Back to a Golden Era

The suicide note of Xiao Mei seems to refer specifically to a program called Palace, in which a modern-day young woman travels back in time and becomes romantically involved with a Qing dynasty prince.  

Palace is one of many hit shows broadcast by Hunan Television. According to the New York Times, the popularity of this provincial network rivals that of China Central Television, the country's primary state-run network.

CNN reports that in March of 2011, SARFT released a statement of opinion discouraging all television storylines involving fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots... ambiguous moral lessons, and a lack of positive thinking.

And in December, they released some specific guidelines about exactly what would be allowed at the provincial networks. Those regulations strictly prohibit TV dramas involving characters who travel through time to visit the historical past during primetime hours.

It appears that an incarnation of Palace -- called Heartlock Jade -- is still being aired on Hunan TV but has been banned from the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. time slot.

Time Travel Strictly Prohibited

It may seem strange that the Chinese government is targeting such a niche subject, but experts have suggested that time-travel fantasies offend the government by encouraging escapism. The implication that things were better in the past undermines state propaganda about present and future prosperity.

Analysts Daniel Wagner and Michael Doyle of Country Risk Solutions wrote a column postulating that this is all part of an effort to reshape the cultural role of Chinese television. They argue that this tough approach to innocuous programming is indicative of a generational divide between a modernizing younger generation and a traditional older generation. The older generation -- which largely controls the Chinese Communist Party -- is worried that it is losing control of the media and is trying to bring television back to its traditional socialist roots. Under this paradigm, the function of the media is not to entertain the masses, but to educate the people, build social solidarity, and bolster state power.

The case of the girls who drowned in Zhangzhou is an odd one since time travel seems such a trivial topic -- not worthy of state media efforts to spin tragedy into propaganda.  As Jezebel columnist Anna North noted, What exactly the government has against time travel remains somewhat vague, but a number of people seem to be taking the girls' deaths as an opportunity to emphasize its dangers.