BEIJING — China’s territorial ambitions and pop culture have clashed — again.

Barely a week after a single tweet detonated a firestorm against the Houston Rockets and the NBA, another international incident has erupted. But this time, China is the country being punished. 

It began over the weekend, when moviegoers in Vietnam noticed something shocking on their screens while they were watching “Abominable,” an animated film about a girl called Yi in a city that looks a lot like Shanghai. She finds a yeti on her roof and embarks on a journey across China — replete with soaring mountains and fields of yellow canola flowers, not a polluted sky in sight — to guide him home to Mount Everest.


The film was the first co-production between DreamWorks Animation, the American production company owned by NBCUniversal, and Shanghai-based Pearl Studio. The heads of the studios wanted to create a film that would appeal equally to American and Chinese audiences, enabling them to capture the two largest movie markets.


But perhaps the Chinese side went too far in appealing to nationalist tendencies in Beijing.

In one scene, Yi repeatedly walks past a map on a wall, which contains the unmistakable dotted U-shape of the nine-dash line, encompassing a swath of the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its own. Other countries — including the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam — claim rights to the resource-rich sea.


The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against China in 2016, declaring that Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea has no legal or historical basis.

Beijing rejected the decision and has continued to patrol and build islands in the sea to extend its de facto control over the waterway 

Tensions have grown in recent months as a Chinese survey ship with a coast guard escort has sailed through an area controlled by Vietnam. Vietnam has licensed Russian energy giant Rosneft to explore for oil in the area, prompting protests from China.


So moviegoers in Vietnam, where the film is called “Everest: Tiny Snowman,” were outraged to see the dotted line on the map over the weekend. Some shared it on social media, and that prompted officials to take action against the film, which opened in Vietnam on Oct. 4.

“We will revoke [the film’s license],” Deputy Culture Minister Ta Quang Dong told the Thanh Nien newspaper, according to Reuters.

Another official, cinema department director Nguyen Thu Ha, confirmed the action. “We will be more alert and cautious in future,” Vietnam Insider quoted her as saying.


Vietnam’s main movie-theater chain, South Korean-owned CGV, stopped selling tickets to the film, said representative Hoang Hai. All information and trailers have been removed from its website and YouTube channel.

DreamWorks could not be reached for comment, and Pearl Studio did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


It was not the dotted line’s first appearance this month on screens outside China. 

ESPN, the U.S. sports channel, was sharply criticized for using a map showing the line — although it had 10 dashes — when reporting on the furor over a tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team. That stemmed from a different territorial sore point: the protests in Hong Kong over Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed governance of the supposedly semiautonomous territory.


The nine-dash line is seldom, if ever, used by anyone outside China, and ESPN was accused of going too far to try to appease Beijing.

Still, the appearance of the nine-dash line — or the friendly themes of “Abominable” — have found a generally approving audience in China. Box-office sales have exceeded $14 million, according to Maoyan, China’s largest online movie-ticketing service provider. 


“Benefiting from the magnificent Chinese scenery and heartwarming Chinese emotions, the movie has broken through cultural differences as the first animated film produced by China and distributed globally,” Maoyan said. “It can be regarded as a new paragon of cultural exports.”


The film has scored 7.5 out of 10 on the Douban review site, China’s equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes.

“A good animation. Classic Hollywood story line with strong Chinese characteristics,” wrote a reviewer using the screen name Sikaodemao. “Displaying the scenery of the beautiful motherland makes it like a tribute film to the country. But it is highly entertaining and all the kids were laughing.”

Another commenter, Tang Xiaowan, was less impressed. “Chinese skin, American core,” Tang wrote.

China is a cutthroat market for Hollywood studios. According to Chinese rules, only 38 foreign films are allowed to be shown in Chinese movie theaters each year, fueling competition among studios to make films that will win Chinese authorities’ approval.


There have been several examples of movie producers altering scripts to please Beijing. 

When “Red Dawn” was rereleased seven years ago, the villains, who were meant to be Chinese, suddenly became North Korean. In the disaster movie “2012,” Hollywood added references to Chinese scientists rescuing civilization.

Yin Hong, professor of film and television studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said political and economic elements needed to be considered when making co-productions.

“Of course China is actively propelling its movies toward world viewers,” he said, “but it’s not always easy to get what they want.”

Wang Yuan contributed to this report.