No one’s laughing now: some thoughts on banning puns
On November 27th, 2014, the Chinese government’s decision to ban puns and wordplay as part of a wider crackdown on what it deemed ‘offensive’ language garnered a lot of press attention, both within China and abroad. The official reason for this decision was that the proliferation of unauthorised wordplay had the potential to result in ‘cultural and linguistic chaos’, a somewhat hyperbolic excuse for what many would deem to be yet another exertion of ideological control over the sphere of public expression.
The order, which was issued by the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, 国家广播电影电视总局 (otherwise known by their rather prolix acronym SAPPRFT) specifically targeted the misuse of idioms: “idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage and historical resources and great aesthetic, ideological and moral values.” You can find the original text, accompanied by a complete translation here.
The contradictory nature of this edict naturally raised a few eyebrows, especially given that wordplay and idioms are considered an intrinsic part of the Chinese language. The foundations of much Xiangsheng 相声 or “Crosstalk” comedy, for example, widely considered one of China’s most popular performing arts, is rooted in the semantic slippages and punning possibilities inherent in the Chinese language. Yet Xiangsheng and other forms of popular entertainment were not targeted by SAPPRFT, indicating that certain forms of punning remain acceptable while others are clearly not.
So how egregious does a pun have to be for it to incite ‘cultural and linguistic chaos’? The examples listed in the edict appear deceptively innocuous at first glance:
Jìn shàn Jìn měi 晋善晋美 (lit., “Shanxi good Shanxi beautiful”) was used in ads promoting tourism to Shanxi province. The slogan — translated as “Shanxi, a land of splendors” — was a pun on the Chinese saying, jìnshànjìnměi 尽善尽美 (“perfection”).
kèbùrónghuǎn 刻不容緩 (“pressing; acutely urgent”, lit., “acutely may not delay”) was rewritten as kébùrónghuǎn 咳不容緩 (“coughing may not delay / linger”) in an advertisement a for cough remedy. (Both examples provided courtesy of the wonderful language log blog.)
While the government is attempting to legitimise its decision by emphasising the detrimental effects of puns and creative wordplay on standard spoken and written Chinese (thus highlighting its potential corruption of China’s cultural heritage), the rather prosaic examples listed above perhaps represent the opening salvoes in a far more extensive campaign aimed at cracking down on language which criticises or pokes fun at the current leadership and its policies.
While many have decried the Orwellian implications of this act and criticised it for representing yet another tightening of the authoritarian belt notches, the decision would seem to represent a more specific attack on a range of banned online ‘buzzwords’ and terms, many of which have been well documented and discussed, both on sites such as blocked on weibo and on the excellent grass mud horse lexicon. Continue reading