It's not just puns that are being banned in China

« previous post | next post »

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:

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:


【发布时间】:2014-11-27 14:38

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

近日,国家新闻出版广电总局发出《关于广播电视节目和广 告中规范使用国家通用语言文字的通知》,全文如下:

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 [2013] 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]


  1. Shubert said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    One needs to be corrected in simplified Chinese.

  2. hwu said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    The latest news about online censorship:

    "China Watchdog Says TV Censorship Rules Should Apply Online Too"

    So what is not forbidden? Take a look at the poor "手撕鬼子/hand-pulled Japanese Devils" style TV series in China. OMG.

  3. Neil Dolinger said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

    The first Baidu link in (3) above discuss both diaosi and its antonym gaofushuai. Her are two videos that dig into these terms a little further:

    Both are from the Off the Great Wall Channel, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in current Chinese culture, both in Asia and abroad (particularly the US)

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    The current rulers of China appear to be afraid of the Chinese language itself.

    I suppose it's inevitable: autocrats will naturally fear anything which is an autonomous creation of the people themselves.

  5. Philip L said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

    Off topic and nothing to do with language, but this is deliciously ironic as well:

  6. Y said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    Not to excuse these rules by any means, but won't their effect be fairly limited? These rules apply only to TV and radio broadcasts, including advertisements, but not to other media. They look to me only slightly more boneheaded than U.S. anti-obscenity rules, and equally ineffective in the long run. Am I missing something?

  7. Fabio9000 said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

    If Plato was living today he would be loving China. Cf. books two and three of the Republic.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

    I, for one, welcome these initiatives because it will make learning Chinese easier! Arcane cultural references will be precisely that, and not be made even more arcane by distorting them to reference current trends. Bravo! (Tongue in cheek, if you hadn't realised.)

    A Chinese once told me the best English term for chengyu (成语) was 'cliché'. The implication being that these were tired, overused expressions that covered up a lack of original thought.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 7:45 pm


    Plato lived about two and a half millennia ago. In books two and three of the Republic, he discusses the type of education that should be provided for the guardians. Here we are talking about control of language usage, especially when it has political implications, by the state.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 10:06 pm



    Hardly. Radio and television are vanguard media, and, together with their advertisements, are huge in China. Censorship of the entire internet is even more massive and draconian than the regulations documented in this post; we have repeatedly discussed internet censorship (including of puns, but certainly not limited to them) on Language Log. Philip L, in his comment above, gives a beautiful example of just how up-to-the-minute and inane internet censorship is in the PRC. As for print media, most major outlets are strictly and directly controlled by the government, so of course they won't be engaging in any clever or daring linguistic experiments. As for those who do commit some imagined crime in what they write, it is very easy for the government to take away the right to distribute their publication (happens all the time, even to some of my own friends in China) or "disappear" an editor or two, as happened last week to Caixin's Xu Xiao and Liu Jianshu, an N.G.O. worker and movie enthusiast.

    "Few Clues in Chinese Editor’s Detention"

  11. David Moser said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

    Oh-oh, I just caught sight of an ad in the men's toilet of our dorm here. The company Houze Guarantee 厚泽担保 has this as their ad slogan:


    The "Way of the Loan"
    Houze knows.

    Should I report this immediately to SAPPRFT's Dept of Pun Violations? It also seems to poke fun at Daoism, which is surely part of Chinese Glorious Traditional Culture? What should I do?

  12. John Rohsenow said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 3:52 am

    Well, they can protect the sanctity of "idioms" (CHENGYU) if they must, as long as they don't forbid the use of XIEHOUYU ("enigmatic folk similes" or
    "truncated witticisms"), which as Sam Cheung told us many years ago frequently occur on radio and TV talk shows.

  13. Simon P said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 5:56 am

    Can we get a link to the Umbrella Terms dictionary? There's no link in any of the articles I've read, and it's frustratingly ungoogleable.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 7:56 am

    @Simon P

    Thanks for asking about the Umbrella Terms dictionary. I'll post about it later this morning.

  15. AB said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 8:49 am

    “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."

    I believe the English term is "YOLO".

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    Here's a photograph of the advertisement mentioned by David Moser in his comment above:

    Notice that Hòuzé is misspelled as Hoze. The two characters mean "thick; generous" and "benefit; beneficence".

    It's amazing what you'll find in men's rooms in China:

    "Signs from Kashgar to Delhi" (10/11/13)

    "English tips from Li Yang, noted wife-beater and pedagogue" (10/23/13)

    "Linguistic Advice in the Lavatory: Speaking Mandarin is a great convenience for everyone (9/11/07)

  17. Eidolon said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

    The rules come off as being ultra-conservative. They call for traditional idioms to be preserved while refusing to accept new idioms. While I understand the need to standardize the national language given China's linguistic diversity, the authorities don't appear to understand that a living language is an evolving organism. English today is certainly not the English of twenty years ago, and the amount of new words, slangs, and expressions is indeed dizzying – and yes, capable of being alienating to older generations. But such change is inevitable and it is best that Anglophone media collectively run with it than try to stave off change. New developments are as culturally valuable as old ones.

  18. Bathrobe said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 2:59 am

    I still can't figure out how socialism, dictatorship of the proletariat, a people's republic, or whatever else it's supposed to be, can come up with this kind of poky conservatism.

  19. hwu said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 3:52 am

    @Victor Mair

    I believe Chinese government is continuously monitoring the major online media, and they also hire internet commentators (五毛党). However if Y is talking about punning in user generated content (UGC) in Web 2.0 communities like 糗事百科/暴走漫画/acfun, I doubt government have very tight control on those communities, sometimes self-censorship is more than enough.

  20. flow said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

    @VHM is there a reason you translate "弘扬中华优秀传统文化的精神相" as "promoting outstanding traditional Chinese culture"? i would have said "promoting the outstanding traditional Chinese culture" instead. it seems to me that the writers intend to re-state that "我们伟大祖国" "our great motherland" does indeed have "优秀传统文化" "a great traditional culture" (or "a great cultural tradition", indeed), and, the "天命" mandate of heaven having been conferred to "国家" "the State", it is the responsibility of those in power to remind the media of their responsibility to promote that culture and tradition (and not to promote something new-fangled or improvised that people will feel is very cultural—they are expected to draw on the age-old resources of the Chinese tradition). i don't think it would be easy to make this slight connotational distinction in Chinese, though.

    @Neil Dolinger many thanks for those links, i really enjoyed my time. "高富帅" and "son of a 官" just made it into my active vocabulary.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 1:29 am


    The translation of the SAPPRFT regulations is not mine; it is the work of David Moser, to whom we can all be grateful. Regardless, I'm not sure I grasp the significance of the difference between "promoting outstanding traditional Chinese culture" and "promoting the outstanding traditional Chinese culture" that you are trying to point out.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 1:48 am


    Y was saying that the effect of the SAPPRFT regulations was limited, whereas I was pointing out that their impact, combined with a host of other types of censorship and interdictions in diverse areas of communication, is large and chilling.

    You say that "self-censorship is more than enough" (for what? — to keep people in line? from saying the wrong sorts of things? from using language incorrectly?), but what would motivate people to exercise such self-control? Sanctions? threats? penalties? Imposed in accordance with what sorts of specified infractions?

  23. flow said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    @VHM the distinction between the two is quite apparent to me. let me use a German example (which in this case is parallel to English, i believe).

    suppose a publishing house is doing a book showing off landscapes in Germany. the editor finds that odd photo of a huge industrial plant belching clouds of smoke into the skies. consequently, the responsible editor gets admonished: "Wir wollen doch die schöne deutsche Landschaft zeigen", i.e. "show how beautiful Germany really is (and not those pictures where the lens pointed the wrong direction)". the editor could have just as well said: "Wir wollen doch schöne deutsche Landschaft(en) zeigen", i.e. "show the more beautiful among all the landscape pictures you can possibly take in this country (however rare those might be)". the nuance is that in the former case, there's more of an assertion on the part of the speaker that there is, indeed, such a thing as beautiful German landscapes, even that the German landscape *is* fundamentally and mainly beautiful (and those sore spots are just spots), which is absent from the second.

    i threw in "我們偉大祖國" because i feel that something akin to this assertion stands behind the text and gives justification to it. Our Country is great, so it's our duty to promote those great things. this is different from the weaker "我們祖國有些偉大成績", "our country has some outstanding achievements" (and places where it may fall short).

    i think this interpretation is fully borne out by the passage "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。", which states and re-states how "特色" "special", "深厚" "deep" and "丰富" "rich" the cultural heritage really is, period. consequently, the last sentence in the quote should pick up and be understood as "let *the* outstanding Chinese traditional culture come alive".

  24. JS said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 10:38 am

    I think flow is pointing to the difference between two thoughts we might paraphrase as (1) "promote that which is/happens to be outstanding about traditional Chinese culture" and (2) "promote traditional Chinese culture, all of which is outstanding."

    But I'm not sure "promoting outstanding traditional Chinese culture" of the translation points unambiguously to either of these; I read it more as (2), but only because I knew this was the implication of the original. And I'm not sure a change to "promoting /the/ outstanding…" as flow suggests, succeeds in pointing more clearly to (2).

    We probably have to go further from the source text to be more successful here; "promoting the magnificence of traditional Chinese culture" or some such.

  25. flow said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 2:06 pm

    @JS aye that's the point.

    i think the translation as shown is indeed a very good one in that it carefully walks right on the fine line that separates faithful-to-the-letter renderings from translations that are 'made fully native' at the price of diverging more from the original's diction. i still feel that it would be harmless and actually beneficial to translate "中华优秀传统文化" as, say, "the magnificence of traditional Chinese culture", as you suggested, or even as "the outstanding cultural tradition of China". this is not so much arguing in favor of the one or the other wording, just saying that there's a number of factors that contribute to the faithfulness of a translated text, and in order to improve one factor that is deemed more important, some other factor will likely have to give.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 10:37 pm


    "the translation as shown"

    Which one are you referring to?

  27. flow said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 3:05 am

    "the translation as shown" = "the translation in the original posting", specifically the indented section between "总局发出《关于…" and "It is evident that the strict…", above.

  28. hwu said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    That comment was made in a hurry so I didn't elaborate my point. I was trying to say that everything in TV and radio broadcasts was directly censored by Chinese government, however the government could not directly censor every word on the "long-tailed" internet, which consists of millions of small/tiny websites.

    To encourage self-censorship, making threats (of shutting the website down) is a common way used by the government. For "self-censorship is more than enough", Let me show you a website as example:) is a big Chinese IT news site (Alexa China Top 200), as an engineering guy, I am a big fan of it. Cnbeta uses aggressive censorship strategy: Guest comment can appear for only 24 hours; It also tries to replace every "sensitive" keyword with synonyms. The comments below are extracted from a Cnbeta post:


    A first time visitor of probably won't understand what A, B and C are saying at all, So let me reverse the replacements:


    As you can see, Cnbeta's word replacing script has turned those comments into argots that only some visitors know. Just search "姑文明用语" (姑.娘.) or "文明用语作" (.操.作) in google, there are clues that this script is not only used by Cnbeta, but also by many smaller forums.

    So the below comment is a great pun:


    The first meaning implys that the author is about to use bad words, and another meaning is that even the bad words (操/逼/娘) cannot express author's anger.

    and this comment from the Best Cnbeta Comments Collection:


    A best comment that no one knows what it says. What a black humor.

RSS feed for comments on this post