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.
What these accounts don’t necessarily discuss, however, is the emergence and circulation of visual puns as a means of circumventing this crackdown on sensitive language. If you can no longer post a comment containing suggestive wordplay then many social media users have taken to substituting an image in its place. This is a move which enables them to evade the usual keyword search mechanisms responsible for sensitive posts being ‘flagged’ in the first place. While the posting of images such as the one above may therefore allow social media users to circumvent the usual censor algorithms responsible for keyword searches, it doesn’t necessarily protect against one of the estimated thousands of human censors currently employed by the state. It does mean, however, that visual posts will not be automatically flagged in the same way that this flowchart from the excellent banned on weibo site demonstrates:
It is important to note that punning and creative wordplay’s long history within China has ensured that it has crossed the linguistic divide and acquired symbolism in many forms of art and material culture. Auspicious motifs such as bats ((biānfú 蝙蝠), for example, figure prominently in many decorations because the second syllable sounds the same as the character for “fortune” (fú 福)). Other edifying images have historically been used to adorn porcelain, painting and many other forms of decorative art. A significant part of visual life in contemporary China still consists of images to be decoded by a culturally and linguistically specific mechanism, the punning rebus (or pictorial pun). A pun rebus is fundamentally designed to cue an underlying expression articulated through images which may be seemingly unrelated to the signified meaning. As Ni Yibin notes, “the basic mechanism of pun rebuses operates through the interaction between imagery, morphology, and phonology. Generally speaking, the interpretation of pun rebuses is based on homophonous links between the words for the names of the images and/or for their interactions and the words for the concepts that partially or fully constitute the intended message.” The names of the objects within a pun rebus design is therefore homophonically similar or even identical to the cued expression and such a design is intended to trigger a process of “image-sound-sound-meaning” translation (as opposed to the more direct, simple-decoding mode of ‘image-meaning’) in the viewer’s mind.
One of the most ubiquitous contemporary punning rebuses revolves around the linguistic and visual interplay between héxié 和谐 “harmony” and its homonym héxiè 河蟹 “river crab.” The discourse of hexie first appeared in an address by former former President Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 in March 2004 at the fourth plenum of the 16th Communist Party of China Central Commitee. Initially introduced as a measure to improve party governance, the concept of hexie shehui 和谐社会, “Harmonious Society” subsequently became the primary rhetoric behind Hu’s leadership, which made “building a socialist harmonious society” a unifying concept of the administration.
Within contemporary China river crab imagery as a punning rebus on the ‘harmony’ discourse first gained prominence in 2009, when the government implemented a crackdown on what it considered the vulgar use of language and inappropriate online content amongst China’s internet users. Labelled the fan disu yundong 反低俗运动, “anti-smut campaign”, the campaign’s implementation was seen as part of the broader drive to build a more ‘harmonious society.’ By February 2010 the campaign had led to the closure of 1911 websites and 269 ‘indecent bloggers,’ with hexie itself becoming a synonym for state censorship after censored bloggers reported that their posts had been hexie diao 和谐掉, “harmonized”. As Geremie Barmé notes, “so much is “harmonized” in the process of creating a quiescent socio-economic environment in which authoritarianism and plutocracy hold sway, that “to harmonise” has become a common verb in colloquial Chinese meaning “to censor,” “elide” or “expunge.”In order to avoid the sensitive language of the hexie discourse itself, internet users therefore began using the river crab homonym as a subtle way of evading online monitoring and thus bypassing a further crackdown.
The punning possibilities and symbolism of river crabs as a commentary on state censorship has been embraced most notably by Ai Weiwei, who has made it a visual leitmotif running throughout his recent body of works- as illustrated here:
and more recently here:
The disparity of colour between the crabs is meant to further symbolise the difference between those who are alive (and therefore perhaps responsive and alert) to the threats of censorship and the curtailing of freedom of speech and those who have become deadened to and perhaps complicit with the system.
The crackdown on inappropriate language as part of the campaign is also credited with the invention of the other punning rebus which became an integral component of Ai’s recent ouput, the alpaca or caonima. Caonima, 草泥马 which literally translates as ‘grass-mud horse’ is also a pun on an often-heard and offensive epithet involving the anglo saxon expletive and the recipient’s mother. However, while caonima sounds like a profane curse, its written characters are completely different, and its meaning taken literally, is benign. Thus it not only dodged censors’ computers, but has also eluded the government’s own ban on so-called offensive or vulgar language.
The grass-mud horse first appeared in January 2009 on an anonymous posting listing 百度十大神兽 ‘ten mythical creatures’ that were inserted into Baidu’s user-editable encyclopedia (Baidu is China’s largest search engine provider.) In a move that signaled both a deep appreciation for the double entendre and an acute sensitivity to wordplay, internet users proceeded to create an elaborate and fictional mythology for the animal, which was described as indigenous to the Male gebi 马勒戈壁, ‘Mahler-Gobi’ desert, a similarly profane pun in Chinese which also involves the anglo saxon expletive, the recipient’s mother and the word c*nt. In addition, the caonima was under threat of extinction, as its natural habitat was under constant attack by hexie river crabs.
The caonima rapidly became an internet phenomenon, its popularity inspired by a song uploaded onto Youku 优酷 (the Chinese equivalent of youtube) which contained a disney-like pastiche of the animal rife with more double-entendres and satirical undertones. The original song in turn inspired a cartoon, a pseudo-nature documentary and countless other memorabilia. In 2011, the aforementioned ‘Grass-mud horse lexicon,’ was even established by Zhongguo shuzi shidai 中国数字时代, “China Digital Times”, an online portal run by the Berkeley Counter-Power Lab, which provides a glossary of terms created by Chinese netizens and frequently encountered in online political discussions.
Ai Weiwei’s appropriation of both the caonima and river crab imagery into his work therefore links these elements into the wider sphere of public discourse and the politics of internet censorship. While some commentators have regarded the appearance and popularity of the caonima imagery and language as a rather impish and juvenile protest against state censorship, other academics have taken its significance much more seriously. Beyond the realm of popular culture, the term also garnered attention from China’s intellectuals and academics. One of whom, Cui Weiping 崔卫平, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, wrote an essay entitled Wo shi yi zhi caonima 我是一只草泥马 ‘I am a grass-mud horse.’ Posted online to her blog, Cui interpreted the song as a lesson that citizens could flout authority even as they appeared to abide by the rules: “Its underlying tone is: I know you do not allow me to say certain things. See, I am completely cooperative, right? I am singing a cute children’s song: I am a grass-mud horse! Even though it is heard by the entire world, you cannot say I’ve broken the law.”
What Cui’s commentary highlights, and what Ai’s works reinforce is that hexie is not necessarily confined to an imposed top-down rhetoric enacted by the government but rather that citizens have recourse to problematise these discourses by suggesting alternative constructions which resist the state’s ‘ownership of meanings.’ These hierarchies also demonstrate that despite the socialist regime’s obsession with creating ‘harmony’ and a ‘civilised internet’ it cannot fully control the meanings attributed to the terms of its own civilising project.
Ai’s incorporation of these visual symbols and linguistic framing devices, however, extends beyond the limits of these prints into the semantics of everyday life. In 2011 before the controversial demolition of his newly built studio in Shanghai, Ai staged a ‘pre-demolition’ party at which over ten thousand river crabs were served to the guests, journalists and other attendants who congregated to mark the occasion.
In a carefully choreographed event, Ai suggested that resistance to hexie could extend beyond visual manipulation to engage fully with its nature as a discourse destined for active ‘consumption’ (see the photographs above). Similarly in 2010, after switching to a new blog server, Ai posted photographs of himself to confirm his identity, in which he was shown semi-nude save for a strategically placed caonima stuffed toy.
It was this image’s caption: Căonímă dăng zhōngyāng 草泥马挡中央, “grass mud horse covering the middle” which sounds almost the same in Chinese as Cào nĭ mā dăng zhōngyāng 肏你妈党中央, “Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee” which was credited as being a contributing factor in Ai’s subsequent detainment and arrest in 2011. Detained at Beijing Capital International Airport on the 3rd April, 2011 while preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong, and held for eighty one days, Ai was subsequently released and placed under house arrest, accused of alleged tax evasion.
While the accusation has been read as yet another attempt to condemn Ai on trumped-up charges, his arrest and detainment in 2011 was also seen as a direct consequence of his increasingly provocative behavior and statements. Since 2008, in what have been described as Internet ‘rants’, Ai recorded his mounting outrage at the glaring clash between his country’s avowed new openness and the party-state’s old repressive, corrupt and mendacious ways. One of the things that forced the artist into open rebellion against the government was his fury at the repression of popular protests over the death of thousands of children in the Wenchuan Earthquake of April 2008 due to shoddy school-building construction. In a blog-post dated 13 April 2009, for instance, he wrote: ‘The truth is always terrible, unfit for presentation, unspeakable, and difficult for the people to handle, just speaking the truth would be “subversion of the state”.
Ai’s previous blog entries from 2006 to 2009 have subsequently been compiled into a book, released in 2011 and dedicated solely to the caonima.
A more recent pun which may have inflamed the censorship police and incited the ire of SAPPRFT officials was created in response to a viral video which pays musical homage to President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan (a People’s Liberation Army officer who is also a prominent performer).
The video, which was created by four musicians from Henan with lyrics crafted by Song Zhigang (“well known for creating the sorts of pop ballads that are inescapable in karaoke halls and long-distance buses“). The video features a rather primitive pastiche of Xi and Peng attending important diplomatic functions, including plenty of images of them emerging onto airport tarmac and rubbing shoulders with other world leaders. As the China Digital Times comments: “In the song, Xi is called “Daddy Xi” (习大大 Xí Dàda), where dada is a term of endearment from Shaanxi, the province of Xi’s father’s birth. State media often refer to the president as “Daddy Xi,” lending intimacy and warmth to Xi’s image. Meanwhile, Peng Liyuan is called “Mama Peng” (彭麻麻 Péng Máma), with the playful use of 麻麻 máma instead of the standard 妈妈 māma.”
While the motivations behind the song’s creation have naturally been questioned, including its potential ties to government propaganda under the guise of an independent artistic production, more cynical commentators have also read it as an opportunistic move by the song’s creators to capitalise on the increased air time which this politically inspired ode inevitably acquired. Garnering over 20 million views online, it wasn’t long before netizens, potentially embittered at being repeatedly bombarded with the song would create their own punning parody on the song’s saccharine message and the “glorious era” of Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan. Verbally hijacking the song’s appellations for President Xi and his wife, netizens heralded the arrival of the 大麻时代 (dàmá shídài): Dama (or marijuana Era). “Marijuana” is blocked from Weibo search results as of November 26, 2014.
While this type of ‘Joke Warfare’ seems surreal enough to have emanated from a Monty Python Sketch there still remains much to be seen as to how the government will enforce this ban- and the potential consequences of contravening it. What remains certain, however, is that taking too much linguistic (or visual) license could result in serious repercussions for China’s internet users. The continued creative appropriation and re-fashioning of language and images invested with cultural and political value illustrates that in a socio-institutional milieu such as that of contemporary China, there still exists considerable need for negotiation between political authority and individual freedom. These often thinly veiled visual puns and profanities have nevertheless become potent political symbols, testifying that satire, humourous resistance and subversive mimicry can and indeed does function as an important strategy to provoke debate and effect social change.