When the first headline arrived stating that China was going to ban punning, I thought that it must be something from The Onion. But when more and more reports came pouring in, I said to myself, "No, this is China. They're really going to do it."
Indeed, the latest directive from the Ministry of Truth (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television [SAPPRFT]) shows that they are dead serious.
Here are some of the reports that have come my way:
"China bans wordplay in attempt at pun control"
The Guardian (11/28/14)
"Officials say casual alteration of idioms risks nothing less than ‘cultural and linguistic chaos’, despite their common usage"
The Guardian article was picked up by Reddit, where the puns are running fast and furious.
"Nowhere to Pun Amid China Crackdown"
WSJ, China RealTime (11/28/14)
"China Bans Puns; Citizens Left Dis-Oriented"
Just what sort of puns was SAPPRFT decrying? Here are two of the most egregious offenders:
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.
One would think that such offenses are hardly serious of government attention. Indeed, not only are such clever puns inoffensive, they lie at the heart of much humor and advertising copy.
Because of the huge number of homophones in the language, punning is super easy in Mandarin, and Chinese are extremely fond of engaging in this type of verbal play.
So deeply entrenched is paronomasia in the Chinese tradition that it is even commonly reflected in the symbolism of art and material culture. For example, Chinese families used to put a saddle (ān 鞍) in the main hall of their home because it was thought that it would bring ān 安 ("peace"). Bats (biānfú 蝙蝠) figured prominently in many decorations because the second syllable sounded the same as the character for "fortune" (fú 福). Entire dictionaries were based upon the principle of punning as a means for defining words; see Shìmíng 释名 (Explaining Terms).
David Moser, as quoted in The Guardian, sheds light on the real motivation of the government in going after those miscreants who have a fondness for puns:
“But I wonder if this is not a preemptive move, an excuse to crack down for supposed ‘linguistic purity reasons’ on the cute language people use to crack jokes about the leadership or policies. It sounds too convenient.”
To be sure, the current attack on punning is not the first we've seen in recent years:
The deft punning of netizens to circumvent government censorship has often been documented on Language Log:
"Banned in Beijing"
(6/4/14) — with links to many relevant posts
"Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics"
The Chinese government may think that, because they've outlawed guns, they'll also be able to outlaw puns. But they have another think coming, since the latter is one pleasure, and one powerful weapon, that the people are not likely to relinquish lightly.
[Hat tip Ben Zimmer, Bruce Rusk, John Rohsenow, Nathan Hopson, Kelsey Seymour, and Norman Leung]