Franco-Croatian Squid in pepper sauce

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It's really hard to write a story about an obscene pun in a foreign language, when your publication won't let you say anything about the pun except to give the English translation of its innocuous side. That's the unenviable task attempted by Michael Wines in today's NYT ("A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors", 3/12/2009):

Since its first unheralded appearance in January on a Chinese Web page, the grass-mud horse has become nothing less than a phenomenon. A YouTube children’s song about the beast has drawn nearly 1.4 million viewers. A grass-mud horse cartoon has logged a quarter million more views. A nature documentary on its habits attracted 180,000 more. Stores are selling grass-mud horse dolls. Chinese intellectuals are writing treatises on the grass-mud horse’s social importance. The story of the grass-mud horse’s struggle against the evil river crab has spread far and wide across the Chinese online community.

Not bad for a mythical creature whose name, in Chinese, sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity. Which is precisely the point.

The fact that the story is about evading censorship adds additional semiotic layers to an article constrained by editorial policy not to explain the pun at its center. In Wines' own words:

The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.

Luckily, any reader with access to web search can find less fastidious explanations, for example one by Joel Martinsen at Danwei ("Hoax dictionary entries about legendary obscene beasts", 2/11/2009):

Meet the Grass Mud Horse (草泥马), a rare animal that has become phenomenally popular in the past month.

The animal, whose name sounds like a common curse (操你妈), is the most famous of the Ten Legendary Beasts of Baidu, non-existent animals that were inserted into Baidu's user-editable encyclopedia.

Joel also explains both sides of the pun, in pinyin and in English translation:

草泥马 = CAO3NI2MA3 = "grass mud horse"
操你妈 = CAO1NI2MA1 = "fuck your mother"

And he lists the other "ten legendary beasts" as well. My personal favorite is "The Franco-Croatian Squid (法克鱿, scientific name 'Vai-te Foder'): A fierce species of squid originally inhabiting Europe and the Americas."

That one is a cross-lingual pun, 法克鱿 = FA3KE4YOU2. I'm not sure whether the odd-seeming French-to-pinyin transliteration in the "scientific name" is standard Chinese practice, or a mistake due to imperfect knowledge of French on the part of the original contributor to Baidu. [Update: maire-lucie observes in the comments that it's Portuguese, not French. The "Franco-" part confused me...]

The (by now numerous) YouTube results include the original (translation here):

…and this cartoon rap version

Plush toy grass-mud horses are available here.

This reminds me of the Vietnamese tradition of subversive spoonerisms, "nói lái". Except that Ho Xuan Huong was unfortunately born too soon for YouTube videos or toy spin-offs.

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55 Comments »

  1. Andrew West said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 5:19 am

    操你妈 = CAO1NI2MA1 = "fuck your mother"

    Wrong character and wrong tone for "fuck" (also wrong tome for "your"). Should be:

    肏你妈 = CAO4NI3MA1 = "fuck your mother"

    I guess that you can find 操你妈 on the internet because not all Chinese IME's give you the character 肏 CAO4, and so people substitute the homophone 操 CAO1/CAO4.

  2. Andrew West said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 5:35 am

    And to my ears the pun of CAO3NI2MA3 on CAO4NI3MA1 is not that close, as the word "fuck" 肏 CAO4 is usually uttered with an emphatic falling tone which makes it sound very different from the languid third tone in the word "grass" 草 CAO3. The difference in pronunciation between these two words is further emphasized by the peculiar Beijing pronunciation of the word 肏 CAO4 — something like [tθao] rather than the standard Mandarin [tsao].

  3. marie-lucie said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:34 am

    "Vai-te foder" is Portuguese, not French.

  4. Thursday throes | And Still I Persist said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:04 am

    [...] Heh. Calling Simon Jester! Calling Simon Jester! And if you want to know what the foul name actually is, check with the experts at Language Log. [...]

  5. zhwj said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:19 am

    Oops. Thanks for the correction, Andrew. I copied the wrong pinyin syllable for 操 in my mouse-over in the original post.

    操 is indeed dominant on the Internet, with 操你妈 generating 454,000 Baidu results, as opposed to just 8,290 for 肏你妈. In my impression, it seems to dominate in print too, probably because of taboo avoidance as well as typeface-related issues (which are related to taboo avoidance, too).

  6. bocaj said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:33 am

    the character 肏 does not really exist in mainland china. it – along with a couple other unsavory words – were eliminated, but people have used homophones or near homophones to replace the characters. cf. B, X, etc. and stories of BBS posts of gymnastics 体操 being censored, etc etc.

  7. language hat said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 8:15 am

    Wines is a legendarily bad reporter. From the Wikipedia entry on him:

    In 1990, Wines was criticized by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for his coverage of US involvement in the killing of suspected communists in Indonesia. In 2001 he had a pie thrown into his face by Matt Taibbi as a protest for Wines' reporting on Russia ("for his Putin apologism and ignorance of Russian culture").

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    @ marie-lucie — Indeed it is Portuguese. I wonder if it got there via Macau. It's interesting to see how Portuguese ended up in niche creole and pidgin languages all over the world. (Take a bow, Dr. McWhorter!) It's also interesting that lingua francas (or should it be linguas francas are often excellent vehicles for curses and insults.

  9. davidn said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Why write pinyin like "CAO3NI2MA3"? Isn't "cǎonímǎ" much more readable, and standard? I read a fair amount of English content that includes pinyin and characters, and I've only seen this capital-letters-plus-numbers style on LL.

  10. 28481k said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    You guys thought it too hard, Franco-Croatian Squid (法克鱿) is just a euphemised version of f**k you. They used other terms to cover it up with a more respectable facade.

    The exercise is more pwned when you realised at one stages, these mythical animals all have pages in Baidu Encyclopedia, the one web-pedia that has the Chinese government's support, unlike Wikipedia.

    [(myl) Yes, that's the whole point of the story: ALL of the ten legendary animals added to Baidu were euphemized versions of obscene expressions. Sorry not to have made this point clearer. (Or, as my junior-high-school acquaintainces would put it, "duh!")]

  11. Andrew West said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    the character 肏 does not really exist in mainland china

    That's not really true. The character 肏 exists in PRC character encodings such as GBK (where it is at C348), and is found in PRC dictionaries such as Hanyu Da Cidian 汉语大词典. And you can even find it in modern editions of Hong Lou Meng 红楼梦 (e.g. the popular 人民文学出版社 edition). Even Baidu is quite happy to give the character an entry.

    What you perhaps mean is that the character is often replaced by the character 操, either as taboo avoidance or simply because people have difficulty entering the character 肏. But even so, Google finds plenty of mainland Chinese websites which use the offending character.

  12. Chris Davis said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    I think the French connection might be explained by the first character of 法克鱿, which in addition to other things, is the first character of 法國 FA3GUO2 "France".

  13. parvomagnus said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    hmmm, I always thought New York Times writers were required to spend at least two (2) paragraphs in an awkward, belabored reach-around to the obscene meaning. I'm not sure if just dropping the attempt is worse or better – this guy's explanation stops at pointing out that 'bare' and 'bear' sound alike (which I learned in high school after repeatedly talking about someone 'bearing' their soul in an essay).

  14. Chris Davis said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    Ah, and I see that the Chinese for Croatia is 克羅埃西亞, whose first character is 克. Thus we get 法 "France" + 克 "Croatia" + 鱿 "squid".

  15. 28481k said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    @Chris Davis,

    In Mainland China, Croatia is 克羅地亞, the -tia is not affricated. Still, no difference of meaning.

  16. French Ecommerce, Japanese Contextual Ads & A Chinese Grass Mud Horse | International SEO said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    [...] Mud Horse [草泥马] sounds like 操你妈, a common curse ['F*uck your mother' if you're the editors of Language Log and not afraid to use profanity online - as opposed to the NY Times]).  There's also the [...]

  17. Jesse Tseng said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    I think it's worth following up on Andrew West's comment, that cao3ni2ma3 and cao4ni3ma1 don't actually sound that similar. I would agree with that. People may get the wrong idea from stories like this (i.e., Chinese people do/say/eat X because the word for "X" sounds similar to the word for "Y"). In fact, it takes some effort to abstract away from the tones, especially if you are looking at the written characters. (Another argument for romanization… ?) So these "puns" usually have to be explicitly pointed out and explained, or heavily primed. Chinese speakers are not constantly sniggering at everything they hear (or sighing in appreciation of the exponentially complex layers of interpretation).

    That being said, tonal information is lost in music, and an unlikely string of words in the lyrics with insufficient (or intentionally misleading) context can easily lead to baffling or amusing misinterpretations.

  18. Jim said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    "And to my ears the pun of CAO3NI2MA3 on CAO4NI3MA1 is not that close, as the word "fuck" 肏 CAO4 is usually uttered with an emphatic falling tone which makes it sound very different from the languid third tone in the word "grass" 草 CAO3. "

    Adam and Jesse are right about these two words, but on the other hand si4 'four' and si3 'die' are similar enough for all sorts of customs to have arisen about avoiding the number four with food and so on.

    "Franco-Croatian Squid (法克鱿) is just a euphemised version of f**k you. "

    It's obviously a transliterated version too. And I think 鱿 refers to a cuttlefish, not a squid.

  19. dr pepper said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    Is there a chinese equivalent of "Louie Louie"? Or "Puff the Magic Dragon"?

  20. bocaj said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    @Andrew West A Baidu search for 肏你 results in 16,400 pages and for 操你, 904,000. "Doesn't really exist" was perhaps a poorly worded sentence or at least not specific enough language for Language Log, but you can't possibly be making the argument that 肏 is commonly used in Mainland China. In my first post I also mentioned B or X being used in place of 屄, and a Baidu search reveals 33,100 results for 傻屄 , 1,360,000 for 傻B, and 435,00 for 傻X. I've read and heard that this is not so much a result of taboo avoidance as it is the influence of a concerted effort by authorities to rid Chinese of undesirable characters, but I don't know if there ever was such an effort.

  21. dl said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Chris Davis:
    Ah, and I see that the Chinese for Croatia is 克羅埃西亞, whose first character is 克. Thus we get 法 "France" + 克 "Croatia" + 鱿 "squid".

    Indeed, it is the usual practise in Chinese for the names of countries to be abbreviated by using the first character of the name, so "新马关系" is "Singapore–Malaysia relations", where the character 新 (xin1) is from 新加坡 (xin1jia1po1; Singapore), and 马 from 马来西亚 (ma3lai2xi1ya3; Malaysia; aka 马国). It so happens that 新 xin1 and 马 ma3 are the characters for 'new' and 'horse' respectively, but such is the nature of Chinese transliteration.

    Reply to davidn: in my experience the use of numerals to indicate tones is rather common in informal text communication (email, sms, etc.). It's just more convenient to input quickly.

    Also agree with Jesse Tseng; I initially didn't get the pun because the tones make a whole lot of difference. Since tones are contrastive, it's rather like making a pun by substituting phonemes. E.g. in English, would "shit" and "sit" be close enough for someone to pun on?

  22. mollymooly said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    On the subject of macaronic obscenity: there was a dreadful song in Ireland about ten years ago called "Aon focal eile" (broken Irish for "one more word"), ostensibly about the singer's trouble in Irish class as a schoolboy. I have sufficiently good Irish not to have noticed straight off that the sole point of the song was that the stressed syllable of "focal" sounds like "fuck". The song had no other merit whatsoever but reached the Top Ten.

    Much funnier was SNL's "sofa king" sketch. That had layers and depths .

  23. Bryn LaFollette said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    @dl: Absolutely "sit" and "shit" are close enough to pun on in English. In fact, that's a pretty common one.

  24. Bryn LaFollette said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    Also popular would be "ship" and "shit".

  25. 28481k said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    Franco-Croatian Squid (法克鱿) is just a euphemised version of f**k you.

    It's obviously a transliterated version too. And I think 鱿 refers to a cuttlefish, not a squid.

    Very true, but as I read it somewhere else, a guy mentioned such euphemisms have always existed on the fringes, especially Cantonese loves to use such euphemisms to dress up some really down-right obscenities.

    There's even a butterfly which is disguised from Japanese "yamate" (Stop!), I'd leave the readers to the exercise of where this term comes from.

    鱿 is indeed more of a cuttlefish then squid.

  26. 28481k said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

    Oh, and one more point about deliberate tonal errors:

    The whole point is to obscure it even in spoken speech as well, so they used some tonal liberty to let gems like the song of the grass-mud horse to be spread across the internet. (Poor Alpaca, it's more the mascot of the horse, though it's cuter than river-crabs, right?)

  27. zhwj said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    The short definitions I translated for the Danwei.org post are drawn from longer articles that originally appeared in Baidu's user-edited encyclopedia. They've been deleted, of course, but there are screenshots here. They're full of additional puns, random references to other aspects of Chinese net culture, and odd contradictions that probably resulted from the collaborative nature of the encyclopedia.

    The entry for the Squid explains that it was found to have originated in France and Croatia, hence the name.

    In mainland media – newspaper headlines, print ads, and the like – puns tend to be explicitly pointed out through the use of quotation marks. Is this necessary for the double meaning to be conveyed? Perhaps, but the country does have regulations to ensure that public writing adheres to proper standards, so it could be related to that. Back in 2005, Jilin Province released a set of updated rules that, among other things, appeared to ban net-speak and puns from public signage.

  28. anonymous11 said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    法克鱿(fa3 ke4 you2) here means f**k you, although the author intentionally makes it sounds like a foreign word.

    雅灭蝶(ya3 mie4 die2) derives from Japanese word やめて(yamete), meaning "Please stop!". It is commonly used in Japanese animes, where girls often say this when they get raped.

  29. Joshua said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

    This reminds me of the cross-language obscenity which was allegedly included in the animated movie "Ice Age." In the film, a dodo warns other animals, "If you weren't smart enough to plan ahead, then doom on you!" The other dodos repeat after him, "Doom on you! Doom on you!"

    Some believe that the phrase "doom on you" was inserted in the dialogue as a reference to the Vietnamese expression "du ma nhieu" which means "go fuck yourself" and is pronounced similarly to "doom on you."

  30. bocaj said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 12:21 am

    There's also the Cantonese "Delay No More!" 叼你老母

  31. Fluxor said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 12:57 am

    bocaj wrote:

    There's also the Cantonese "Delay No More!" 叼你老母

    I believe the correct characters are 屌你老母.

  32. 28481k said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 1:03 am

    Fluxor said,

    bocaj wrote:

    There's also the Cantonese "Delay No More!" 叼你老母

    I believe the correct characters are 屌你老母.

    Indeed, the insult is that someone fornicates his mother.

  33. Branko Ananijevski said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:00 am

    肏 is indeed used on mainland China, however there seems to be a conscious effort to restrict its use. This is evident in its absence in many communication interfaces, such as on most mobile phones and some electronic dictionaries sold in China . Its taboo extends to both its aesthetic and aural characteristics.

    The character 肏 is made up of 入 (enter) and 肉 (flesh or meat), and is seen as suggestive on appearance alone. Thus the less visually offensive 操 is used, and as a slang reference to copulation, it retains the falling tone of 肏. Similarly, in order to mitigate the vulgar sound of cao4 in spoken chinese, 靠 kao4 became more popular in less offense is intended, such as the phrase 我靠.

  34. deep said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    I wodder if your guys are seriously.Actually all people of BAIDU TIEBA cheat it a joke.
    http://tieba.baidu.com/f?kz=551181399
    丫的,这网站是真的吗?

  35. 春哥 said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:58 am

    春哥纯爷们!!!

  36. Bwang said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:16 am

    Hey, there're puns beside the horse one in the songs.
    The place where those grass mud horses live is called "ma le ge bi", which literally means Ma Le desert or "horse-reining or reining-horse dessert". But it also sounds like "your mothers cunt", another curse that usually comes along with "wo cao ni ma" in madarin.
    Also the "he 2nd xie 4th" (river crab) is a pun with "he 2nd xie 2nd", which is the "harmony theory" from the propaganda of the government.

  37. 李毅大帝 said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:22 am

    你们都天太黑,被耍了还不知道

  38. jole said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:24 am

    呵呵!想不到这么火!

  39. Stentor Wang said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:30 am

    D8观光团前来点亮此贴。

    We are having a wonderful tour here from our sacred D8, and we do appreciate the researcher's detailed analysis of the fakeyou issue. However, we doubt there exist further academic significances instead of lingual studies. Matter of fact, a study on dirty puns like fakeyou is not so much as that on teaching proper spelling of a pure word – “f*ck”。

  40. BOBO said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 4:15 am

    春哥纯爷们!

  41. Aaron Sheng said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 4:20 am

    The history of GMH, or the Grass Mud Horse, is longer than most people had realized. It is even difficult to identify where it had particularly originated from. One thing is certain, though, that GMH did have a close relationship with the Spartan culture (a sort of Chinese online subculture), which based on a series of smart photoshopped parody comic owning genesis to the Hollywood blockbuster The 300 Spartans, 2005. The actor Vincent Regan as Captain in the movie made out an exaggeratingly roaring sound with the exact likeness of lip movements as a Chinese curse word "WoCao" carrying the meaning close to "fuck". The funny thing is "WoCao" can also be written as 卧槽,a technical term in Chinese chess game. Some Internet users discovered this and soon mass volumes of gif animations subtitled 卧槽 capturing the scene from the movie,began to prevail in major Chinese bbs's (i.e. Baidu, mop).

    Next is where the horse part came in. As people were amazed by the overnight success of "WoCao", some pushed this idea even further. They created a montage combining "WoCao" animation, a mud horse statue, and a Gobi desert together. All the three things are not related at all and has no vulgar meanings by itself, yet attached together in a specific sequence, they sounds just like "Wo Cao Ni Ma Le Ge Bi", a longer and harsher curse word. This dirty invention was so popular in 2007 and 2008, that millions of people quoted it to express their anger, frustration avoiding being too indelicate towards certain social phenomenon or issues that were not allowed be discussed openly and freely.

    Later, at the end of the year 2008, a next phase of improvements began to brew. Since "Wo Cao Ni Ma Le Ge Bi" was too long for fast-beat online communication, and "Ni Ma" was in the heart position of this phrase, the essence of the long curse word was concentrated upon the three syllables in the middle, which is "Cao Ni Ma", or the Grass Mud Horse. Now that this long story finally has a definite image or figure to rely on-a horse- people with photoshop skills began the process of symbolizing this culture. Also at the same time, the other nine legendary beasts were invented from the inspiration of GMH, and a mass movement to hoax Baidu began. Chinese online users finally chose alpaca, a creature of innocent looking, to visualize this imaginary beast GMH.

  42. bocaj said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:31 am

    Fluxor said:
    "I believe the correct characters are 屌你老母."

    Ah! Yes, that makes sense! I suppose out of habit with Sichuanese I added a 口 to some character that sounds like the word I wanted to say.

  43. jetwit.com - Translator’s Corner: Keep Our English Out of Your Japanese Puns! said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 10:56 am

    [...] When the Chinese writing system first crash landed onto the Japanese language around fifteen-hundred years ago no one could have predicted the historical fallout:  an explosion of bad puns. As Chinese characters were gradually adapted to Japanese, all of the tones that had previously distinguished words like"mǎ" ("horse", 馬) from "má" ("hemp" 麻) were flattened out. In a language already rife with nearly identical words, this produced a new explosion of homonyms, the building blocks of puns. (The Chinese also use these for puns. In an effort to mess with government censors the phrase 草泥马, "grass-mud-horse" has gone viral on the Chinese blogosphere because the same sounds with different tones mean… something not really printable here. ( This page explains the whole phenomenon.) [...]

  44. vanya said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    What about SNL's "Colonel Angus" skit?

  45. Grass Mud Horse at Tastes Funny said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    [...] meme is sweeping China right now, and as obscene as it is, it's actually a hilarious protest against censorship (a euphemism for which is 'harmony' – which sounds a lot like 'river crabs' [...]

  46. Mythical Baidu Deity | The Grass Mud Horse said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    [...] a recently published Language Log post about the grass mud horse, Mark Liberman, of the Department of Linguistics at the University of [...]

  47. Terry Collmann said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    Ah, those cunning linguists …

  48. Jim said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    "E.g. in English, would "shit" and "sit" be close enough for someone to pun on?"

    No, but 'sheet' and 'shit' , which are more analogous, work just fine all the time. They are the basis of a million "immigrant momma" jokes.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    @davidn: We've replied to this several times on LL:

    1. it's much faster
    2. it's much easier
    3. it's much clearer (1, 2, 3, 4) for those who don't know the significance of the diacritical marks
    4. it's a simple way to make transcription stand out from regular text
    5. there's a long tradition of this sort of thing in cuneiform studies
    6. not everybody has the capability of doing all four diacritical marks in their computer
    etc.

  50. davidn said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 5:07 am

    1, 2. Granted, and I wouldn't object to using numbers in IM or other informal settings, but that doesn't imply that you should use the fast and easy thing on LL posts, which are such high quality that I assume much time and effort has gone into them.
    3. This I don't understand. The marks were chosen to match the pitch contours. The match isn't exact and ignores some subtleties, but it must be easier to tell a beginner "make the pitch follow the marks" than explain what the various numbers mean. For someone that doesn't even know you're trying to transcribe a tonal language, neither the marks nor the numbers provide any useful information.
    4. No argument, though italics could work just as well.
    5. This actually confused me for a while, because I learned some Akkadian before I learned pinyin. In cuneiform, NA2 refers to a specific sign, the second (in some arbitrary order) one that shares the pronunciation NA. In pinyin, NA2 only refers to a pronunciation, and there are several characters that have that pronunciation. The numbers are being used for very different things, so I don't think the tradition applies.
    6. Granted, but surely the LL authors have this capability. If not on their computers directly, there are several web sites that will do the conversion for you (at least one using just javascript).

  51. johnleemk said,

    March 15, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    davidn, I think #6 applies mainly for readers, not all of whom have the necessary character sets installed for the tonal marks in pinyin.

  52. Nom d'un chien said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 4:36 am

    This is how it happens in China, things are told indirectly, but they are told anyway. This is good to see that in China too, people are able to stand up for their rights.

  53. Victor Mair said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    Chinese netizens now have veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) ways to refer to almost anything that they wish to protest, despite the thirty to forty thousand internet police who are trying their best to keep a lid on any expression of dissent. I've seen puns similar to "Grass Mud Horse" directed against riots, prisoner abuse, indifference to rape, earthquake rescue operations, Olympian shenanigans, and all manner of other sensitive topics. None, however, quite matches the chutzpah of one that is frequently joined to the "Grass Mud Horse" trope, for it strikes at the very heart of the Chinese leadership. Since I'm not aware of this having been discussed elsewhere, I'd better bring it up in connection with this thread.

    Namely, what I'm talking about is this ringing denunciation: "胡哀帝! 卧 草泥马!" HU2 AI1DI4! WO4 CAO3 NI2 MA3! "Dolorous / Mournful Emperor! I f*ck your mother!" On the surface, 卧草泥马 means something quite different, depending on how one parses the four characters: "a mud horse lying in the grass/straw" or "a straw-and-mud horse that is lying down" or "cause the straw-and-mud horse to lie down." But, in this kind of wildly abandoned punning, tones are thrown to the wind; all four syllables have the "wrong" tones for the intended meanings. However, for the four syllables, WO CAO NI MA, you could pronounce them with any combination of tones (4, 4, 4, 4; 1, 1, 1, 1; 4, 3, 2, 1; 1, 2, 3, 4; 4, 3, 2, 1; 1, 1, 3, 3; 2, 1, 2, 4; and so on), and practically any Mandarin speaker would understand that together they meant "I f*ck your mother." And you could even pronounce all of the syllables tonelessly, or only one or more of them tonelessly, and you'd still be understood. Or you could even invent tones that don't exist in Mandarin and pronounce the four syllables that way, and people would get your message very clearly and unambiguously.

    When I first started encountering this exclamation at various places on the Web, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Here's an example. From other references to HU2 AI1DI4 that I had read on the Web (such as the last line of this one, I knew that it had to be a reference to the current Paramount Leader of China, Hu Jintao. The AI1DI4, incidentally, could be a posthumous title that indicates the collapse of a dynasty. On the other hand, it may also be the transcription (with the wrong tones again) of the first part of 爱迪 ·奥特曼(ウルトラマン80; Ultraman), a famous superhero on Japanese TV, which would be another way to poke fun at the Supreme Leader.

    Why the animosity? Apparently the bloggers are genuinely angered at how the government is clamping down so heavily on any expression of opinion that smacks of dissidence. Government control of the Internet intensified heavily after the publication of Charter 08, China's version of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. Many popular blogs that had been the focus of vibrant intellectual discussion were shut down. Some of them simply "moved overseas," such as bullog.cn, which was reincarnated abroad at bulloger.com.

    Make no mistake, the clever netizens of China are several steps ahead of the censors.

  54. Rich Scholl said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    "Also agree with Jesse Tseng; I initially didn't get the pun because the tones make a whole lot of difference. Since tones are contrastive, it's rather like making a pun by substituting phonemes. E.g. in English, would "shit" and "sit" be close enough for someone to pun on?"

    definitely. here's part of an old ditty that goes on to many verses with no words to catch a sensor's attention, but just try to say it fast!
    Sarah, Sarah sittin' in a Chevolet
    All day long she sits and shifts
    All day long she shifts and sits

  55. Rich Scholl said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    "No, but 'sheet' and 'shit' , which are more analogous, work just fine all the time. They are the basis of a million "immigrant momma" jokes."

    one more verse (there are enough to fill a book, I wish I knew Chinese-sounds like a gold mine):
    Sarah, Sarah sittin' in a Chevrolet
    All day long she slits her sheets
    All day long her sheets she slits

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