ON|OFF: art, VPNs and the post ’75 generation

Private_Internet_Access_How_It_Works_WideSeveral headlines this morning featured the news that the authorities in China have begun to block access to overseas based VPN services. VPNs (or virtual private networks) allow internet users within the country to effectively circumvent the usual censorship strictures and access online content using proxy servers- which serve to protect the user’s online identity and location. In effect they are used to vault over what has perhaps misleadingly been labelled “the Great Firewall of China” (more about this in a later post.)

Some of the most popular VPN service providers within China, such as Astrill, StrongVPN and Golden Frog have all been affected by the recent crackdown, with GreatFire.org reporting that Astrill’s site has been 88 percent blocked in the past 90 days. Censorship instructions regarding the restriction of VPNs were recently issued to the media by government authorities, who accused VPN service providers of disregarding China’s cyber sovereignty.

While the move could be read as a reaction against the increased number of domestic users employing VPN services within China, as other commentators have pointed out the actual percentage of China’s estimated 600+ million internet users who want to gain access to blocked overseas sites still remains marginal. So who exactly is going to be affected by this sudden escalation of online control? Continue reading

No one’s laughing now: some thoughts on banning puns

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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.

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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

The genesis of the project

Ai Weiwei, Menshen 门神, ‘Door God,’ 2011, computer graphic. Image taken from Ai Weiwei’s blog

Ai Weiwei, Menshen 门神, ‘Door God,’ 2011, computer graphic. Image taken from Ai Weiwei’s blog

The aim of this website is to serve as a platform for research on China’s internet culture and the defining role that image making is coming to assume within this sphere. In this inaugural post I thought it was important to share my initial research proposal and provide some insight into the genesis of this project. As the project develops the parameters of this proposal will no doubt be revised and expand to accommodate new research avenues that reflect the often unpredictable and protean nature of the Chinese internet itself.

Continue reading