Even non-linguists and those who are not China watchers could hardly escape the momentous announcement of the Chinese government last week that casual punning was being outlawed:
- "Punning banned in China" (11/29/14)
- "No laughing matter: China's media regulators ban puns" (12/3/14)
- "Chinese Government Moves To Crack Down On Puns" (12/5/14)
- "Nowhere to Pun Amid China Crackdown" (11/28/14)
- "LIKE A PUN IN A CHINA SHOP: Chinese media regulators crack down on puns, wordplay amid apparent state fears. The United States is stronger than that." (12/3/14)
As Ben Zimmer pointed out in this comment to my earlier post on the subject under discussion,
Jon Stewart tackled the wordplay ban on "The Daily Show" a few nights ago.
And his "Moment of Zen" was about our old favorite, the Grass Mud Horse.
Incredulous though everyone is over this Orwellian proclamation of the Ministry of Truth (in this case the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television [SAPPRFT], although the Minitrue apparatus overall consists of a collection of local- and national-level news management bodies, internal discipline organizations, Party representatives at internet companies, etc.), they don't know the half of it. The animus of the SAPPRFT censors goes well beyond mere, offensive punning, bad as that is. To see just how far the official prohibitions extend, let us take a look at the actual rules and regulations governing language usage that have caused such tremendous consternation in recent days.
David Moser has kindly translated the complete, official announcement of SAPPRFT. Here follows the original Chinese text with English translation interspersed section by section:
Administration issues “Notice on Regulating the Usage of the National Common Language and Script in Radio and Television Programs and Advertising”
[Date]: 2014-11-27 14:38
Recently, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) issued the document “Notice on Regulating the Usage of the National Common Language and Script in Radio and Television Programs and Advertising”, which reads in its entirety as follows:
今年以来，各级广电机构按照《关于规范广播电视节目用语推广普及普通话的通 知》（广发【2013】96号）要求，认真清理整改广播电视用语不规范现象，取得了明显成效，刻意模仿有地域特点的发音、乱用外来词语和 网络用语等现象得到遏制。但是近期听众观众反映，一些广播电视节目和广告中还存在语言文字不规范的问题，如随意篡改、乱用成语，把“尽善尽美”改为“晋善晋美”，把“刻不容缓”改为“咳不容缓”，等等。这些做法不符合《国家通用语言文字法》《广播电视管理条例》等法律法规的基本要求，与传承和弘扬中华 优秀传统文化的精神相违背，对社会公众尤其是未成年人会产生误导，必须坚决予以纠正。现就有关工作通知如下：
This year, broadcasting organizations at all levels, in accordance with the requirements of the "Notice on Regulating Radio and Television Programs to Promote Putonghua" (GF  No. 96), worked diligently to clean up and rectify non-standard language usage in radio and television broadcasts, and achieved noticeable results in restricting the deliberate imitation of local dialect pronunciation and the indiscriminate use of foreign loan words and Internet slang. However, recently there have been audience complaints about non-standard usage of language and script in radio and TV broadcasts and advertising, including distorted usages and indiscriminate tampering with idioms, such as altering the idiom jìnshàn jìnměi 尽善尽美 (“perfect”) to read Jìnshàn Jìnměi 晋善晋美 (“Shanxi good, Shanxi beautiful”), and kèbùrónghuǎn 刻不容缓 (“to brook no delay”) altered to read kébùrónghuǎn 咳不容缓 (“a cough should not linger”), and so on. These practices are not in compliance with basic requirements of laws and regulations such as the “National Common Language and Script Law,” and the “Regulations for the Management of Radio and Television.” Such practices are contrary to the spirit of transmitting and promoting outstanding traditional Chinese culture, and run the risk of misleading the public, especially minors, and therefore must be resolutely corrected. Work related to the “Notice” is as follows:
一、充分认识规范使用国家通用语言文字的重大意义。广播电视推广普及、规范使 用国家通用语言文字，是传承中华优秀传统文化、增强国家文化软实力的战略需要；是树立文化自觉、文化自信、文化自强，确保文化安全的具体 举措；也是广大听众观众收听收看好广播电视节目的基本要求。广播电视作为大众传媒，担负着引领和示范的职责，必须带头规范使用通用语言文 字，做全社会的表率。
(1) The importance of regulating the use of the national common language and script must be fully realized. Utilizing radio and television to popularize and standardize the use of the national common language and script is a strategic requirement for transmitting outstanding Chinese traditional culture and enhancing national cultural soft power; it is a concrete initiative to establish cultural awareness, cultural self-confidence, and ensure cultural security; and it is also a basic requirement for proper listening and viewing by the vast audiences for radio and television programs. Radio and television are mass media, and as such are charged with the responsibility to lead and set an example; they must take the lead in regulating the use of the common language and script, and act as a model for the whole society.
二、高度重视规范使用成语的必要性。成语是汉语言文化的一大特色，承载着深厚 的人文内涵，蕴藏着丰富的历史资源、美学资源、思想资源和道德资源，是珍贵的民族文化遗产，体现出中华文化基因在现代文明中的延续与发 展，是让中华优秀传统文化“活起来”的重要载体。广播电视要推广和传承成语等国家通用语言文字的独特表达方式，充分展现其文化精神和语言魅力，不 能因为肆意乱改乱用造成文化断代和语言混乱。
(2) Great importance must be attached to the necessity for regulating the use of idioms. Idioms are a major feature of Chinese language and culture, carrying deep cultural connotations, and containing rich historical, aesthetic, philosophical and moral resources. They are a precious national heritage, embodying the “genes” of traditional Chinese culture as extended and developed in modern civilization, and are important information carriers that enable outstanding traditional Chinese culture to “come alive.” Radio and television should promote and transmit the unique, expressive means of idioms and other expressions contained in the common language and script, and should fully convey their cultural spirit and linguistic charm, rather than cause cultural discontinuity and linguistic disorder due to arbitrary changes and indiscriminate usages.
三、严格规范使用国家通用语言文字。各类广播电视节目和广告应严格按照规范写 法和标准含义使用国家通用语言文字的字、词、短语、成语等，不得随意更换文字、变动结构或曲解内涵，不得在成语中随意插入网络语言或外国 语言文字，不得使用或介绍根据网络语言、仿照成语形式生造的词语，如“十动然拒” “人艰不拆”，等等。
(3) The use of the national common language and script should be strictly regulated. Radio and television programs and advertisements should be strictly in accordance with the norms and standards for written forms and meanings of the characters, words, phrases, and idioms of the common language and script. It is not permitted to arbitrarily substitute characters or change the structure and distort the meaning of the text; it is not permitted to arbitrarily insert Internet slang or foreign languages and scripts into Chinese idioms; it is not permitted to use or introduce coined expressions that are based upon internet language and that imitate the form of (traditional) idioms, such as “十动然拒” or “人艰不拆” and so on.
[Note: These are two examples of Internet idioms that have recently been discouraged by authorities. “十动然拒” denotes a kind of situation where the pleading, pathetic sincerity of a “diaosi” 吊丝 ("loser") male suitor elicits the sympathy of his female target – but she still rejects him in the end. The source is apparently an incident in which a young college student spent 212 days to produce an elaborate 160,000-character love letter to the woman of his dreams. The young lady was quite deeply moved by the boy's sincere attempt – but rejected him flatly in the end. “人艰不拆” is short for “人生已经如此的艰难，有些事情就不要拆穿” meaning “Life is short, there are some grievous situations that are just not worth exposing and correcting.” One can imagine the resonance many netizens feel with this expression. For more detailed explanations of these two new pseudo-idioms, see here and here.)]
四、加强审查管理和排查整治工作。各级广播电视行政管理部门要加大监管力度， 对存在不规范、不准确使用国家通用语言文字的现象，尤其是乱改乱用成语的问题，一定要及时发现、迅速纠正，对故意违规的播出机构和相关责 任人要严肃处理。各级广播电视播出机构要认真开展自查自纠，重点排查广播电视节目和广告中的字幕、图像和配音等，加强对主持人、嘉宾及其 他节目参与人员规范使用通用语言文字的提示引导，对于不规范使用国家通用语言文字的内容一律不得播出。总局监管中心近期将对各电视上星综 合频道进行一次全面排查，对严重违规的问题将作出严肃处理。各省级收听收看中心也要对辖区内各频道频率节目进行一次全面排查，对于不规范 使用通用语言文字的节目坚决停播处理。
(4) The management and review of investigation and remediation tasks must be strengthened. Radio and television administrative departments at all levels must intensify supervision work. Any irregularities, such as improper use of the national common language and script, especially the indiscriminate use or alteration of idioms, must be quickly discovered and rectified. Any willful violations by broadcasting agencies or responsible individuals shall be dealt with severely. Radio and television broadcasting organizations at all levels must resolutely carry out self-monitoring and self-correction measures, with special investigative emphasis placed on subtitles, images, dubbing, etc., of all radio and television programs, as well as advertisements. Increased awareness and guidance should be placed on program hosts, guests and other program participants, with regard to use of the common language; any contents involving non-standard use of the national common language and script shall not be allowed for broadcast. In the near future, the administrative supervision center will conduct a comprehensive investigation of all television channels, and will deal strictly with any serious violations. Provincial level radio and television monitoring centers shall also carry out a comprehensive investigation of programs from all channels and radio frequencies within their jurisdiction, and resolutely terminate the broadcast of any programming that contains non-standard usages of the common language and script.
It is evident that the strict enforcement of these directives would have a chilling effect upon linguistic creativity, and that is putting it mildly.
Note: the term that is consistently translated as "idiom" in these regulations is chéngyǔ 成语 , but we may also think of them as "set phrases". There are thousands of these idiomatic expressions that speakers and writers of Chinese may draw upon. Most of them consist of four characters and subscribe to literary / classical grammar. Usually they are drawn from and allude to a particular passage in a specific premodern text.
Oh, and by the way, you're not supposed to call yourself a loser or think negative thoughts any longer either:
While all of these restrictions on creative language use are being announced on the Mainland, just the opposite is taking place in Hong Kong:
[Thanks to David Moser and Mark Swofford]