Decapitated Democracy, Headless Liberty

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A couple of days ago, and within minutes of each other, David Moser and Brendan O'Kane called my attention to the latest graphemic pun going around the "Nèi liánwǎng 内联网" (what some netizens call the firewalled Chinese Internet, and what we might translate as "Intranet") is to refer to the 目田 and 氏王 enjoyed by Chinese citizens.

Literally, that would be the mùtián 目田 ("eye-field") and the shīwáng 氏王 ("clan-king").  Of course, this makes no sense, especially not in the context of the "rights" enjoyed by Chinese citizens.  However, once again, in their desire to outwit the ever more zealous censors, clever netizens are now using mùtián 目田 ("eye-field") and shīwáng 氏王 ("clan-king") to refer to zìyóu 自由 ("freedom, liberty") and mínzhǔ 民主 ("democracy"), where the "heads" of all four characters have been lopped off.  Thus, China's netizens have not only outsmarted the censors, they have conveyed a not at all subtle denunciation of the kind of zìyóu 自由 ("freedom, liberty") and mínzhǔ 民主 ("democracy") enjoyed by Chinese citizens:  mùtián 目田 ("eye-field") and shīwáng 氏王 ("clan-king"), where all four characters making up zìyóu 自由 ("freedom, liberty") and mínzhǔ 民主 ("democracy") have been decapitated.

An analogous effect could be achieved in English by writing "reedom; iberty" and "emocracy," which are acephalic versions of "freedom; liberty" and "democracy."  Someone might object that "reedom; iberty" and "emocracy" aren't words, so they cannot serve as puns.  But I would counter that mùtián 目田 ("eye-field") and shīwáng 氏王 ("clan-king") aren't words either, yet people understand well enough what they stand for when the idea of headlessness is factored in.  Furthermore, it is easy to recognize the referents of "reedom; iberty" and "emocracry" without any instruction about their headlessness, since that is immediately evident, whereas for mùtián 目田 ("eye-field") and shīwáng 氏王 ("clan-king") to be recognized as beheaded versions of zìyóu 自由 ("freedom, liberty") and mínzhǔ 民主 ("democracy"), there needs to be a fairly clear context to the discussion in which they are used.

Be that as it may, Kaiser Kuo tweeted, "It's just like 'freedom and democracy' but it's missing some of the crucial points."

Brendan tweeted in with a slightly modified quote from Braveheart: "They'll tak our 玍叩, but they'll nivver tak our 目田!"  We already know what mùtián 目田 ("eye-field") signifies ("freedom, liberty"); following the same pattern of decapitated characters, gǎkòu 玍叩 ("odd-knock") stands for shēngmìng 生命 ("life").

The original line from Braveheart was "They can take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!"

For a discussion of the current pother over eye-field and clan-king, see C. Custer's piece on ChinaGeeks for September 1 called "Beheading Freedom."

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19 Comments »

  1. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    The end of your second para seems a bit repetitive, is that how you meant it or is it just editing fever?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    @richard howland-bolton

    I try to write so that people who know absolutely no Chinese whatsoever (and there are plenty of readers of LL who fall into that category) will understand what I'm talking about.

  3. George said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    Victor: Even I understood it. So, it must have been a successful endeavor. (and, the orthography discussed is very clever).

  4. arthur waldron said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    When we correspond using the net esp with China it makes sense to truncate words, use asterisks, etc. as the content scanning is looking for precise key words.

  5. groki said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    But I would counter that mùtián 目田 ("eye-field") and shīwáng 氏王 ("clan-king") aren't words either

    seconding George, I too understood the post: thanks Victor. but I have a question: might these graphemic puns also be intended semantically?

    "eye-field" is quite suggestive for me, of transparency, unobstructed views (from an overlook, say), and seeing far: decent metaphors for freedom and liberty. (though perhaps "field" in this case just means "flat area of ground" instead of something more "field of view"-ish?)

    and "clan-king" is a nice reversal of headedness/headlessness: instead of the demos being in charge, with the body politic in a sense being headless, the term "clan-king" focuses on the "head" who would lead the group: the opposite of democracy.

    (incidentally, "emocracy" sounds to me like "rule by emo types.")

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    I vaguely remember hearing of an incident during the Kangxi or the Qienlong reign when the text set for the examinations contained the same characters as the emperor's name, but missing the "heads", so the emperor ordered the person who chose the text beheaded. Yes?

  7. John Chew said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: In Terry Pratchett's "Interesting Times", a character lives up to his promise not to utter an order to have someone executed by folding an origami figure of a headless person.

    When I first saw 目田 above, I read it with the Japanese pronunciation ("meta") and was only mildly disappointed that the ensuing discussion was not about self-referentiality.

  8. H.B.B. Noizzz said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    @groki

    While it is a clever interpretation, unfortunately, in this case, 田 refers to a field, more specifically a rice paddy or cultivated section of land.

  9. Richard said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

    Jerry:

    It was during the reign of Yongzheng (who was one of the more paranoid Qing emperors because he didn't feel his grasp on power was so secure, which led to him ordering a fair number of executions), and the guy who was executed (along with his family) was Jiangnan literati. The phrase was in some book he wrote, which (unfortunately for him), he gave out.

  10. Richard said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    Speaking of which, I was going to make the point that the practice of lopping off the heads of characters to evade censors wouldn't seem so ingenious to most Chinese who know their history.

    Still, I wonder how commonplace the practice has been in modern times.

  11. Melissa said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    I have heard of Chinese netizens' wit and humor (and passion), but haven't yet read it firsthand; reading this post, though, has perhaps deepened my curiosity enough to finally start delving into Chinese blogs. As an ex-pat living in China, in my (slow) process of studying Mandarin, I am always amazed at the language’s practicality and the Chinese’s creativity in the most practical of ways.

    Another popular example of wordplay that might have already been covered in this blog is the use of 囧 jiong3. Linguistically, this character means “brightness” or “luminosity”, but modern use of it, especially among the younger generations during online chats, depicts embarrassment due to the character’s composition resembling a face/emoticon.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 12:37 am

    @Richard: Thanks for straightening me out.

  13. groki said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    and @H.B.B. Noizzz: thanks for straightening me out.

  14. dirk alan said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    to our democracy minded chinese friends. tanks for the memories. we love the shopping bag guy.

  15. 司馬淺 said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    According to one source, the figure executed under the Yongzheng reign was one Zha Siting (查嗣庭), inspector of examinations for Jiangxi.

    He had proposed, as an essay topic for the official examinations, the phrase “維民所止” (meaning "where the people rest"), a phrase from the canonical commentary on the Great Learning. The first and last characters of this quotation (i.e. 惟止), do in fact look quite like beheaded versions of the characters in Yongzheng (雍正). It was clear, then, that Zha Siting was attempting to foment regicide ambition among his students, though he died in jail before he could be executed by slicing.

    This may or may not be relevant to the question of 目田 and 氏王 in China, but I think the details of a good story always bear repeating.

  16. Jesse Tseng said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    You could also get in trouble for not deforming the emperor's name in writing. Yongzheng's predecessor was Kangxi, of dictionary fame, and as Wikipedia explains, it was taboo to write out the two characters of his given name Xuányè 玄燁 in full. They appear in the Kangxi Dictionary missing their final stroke: and (look for the entries labeled "御名", imperial names).

  17. Urban Garlic said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 12:12 am

    Distantly related, but there was a similar joke going around the US aerospace community in the 1980s. One of Reagan's addresses called for NASA to build a space station, to be called "Freedom". As NASA plans evolved over the years, the space station component gradually became smaller. UseNet wags began referring to "Space Station Fred", and later to "Space Station Ed", the names being derived by successive letter-removals from "freedom", of course.

  18. Michael Turton said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:28 am

    It's a fascinating cross-cultural example of a common response to surveillance. Just ask any college student in my day what it meant when Uncle Sid was in town.

  19. JLee said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    On a related note, The Liberal Party in Hong Kong is colloquially known as the Soy Sauce Party. Their chinese name is 'Freedom Party'. In Cantonese, Ji-Yao (freedom) sounds fairly similar to Si-Yao (soy sauce).

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