Supposing Mitt Romney cancelled all of his appearances and meetings and went missing for a week. Furthermore, neither the Republican National Committee nor the Secret Service would make any statements or answer any questions concerning his whereabouts. Naturally, we would all be alarmed and wondering what had happened to the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. But imagine, if you can, that it would be illegal to search for Romney's name on the internet. All searches for "Romney" and "Mitt Romney" would be decisively blocked by the United States Government, and one might well be arrested for complaining about this. Out of frustration, citizens would search for "Room Knee eh?", "Glove ROM leg joint", and the like.
By now, practically all news conscious persons in the West are aware that PRC president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, has disappeared for about a week and hasn't kept any of his scheduled meetings, including a very conspicuous one with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The story is all over the web; here is a typical report from the Washington Post. And the New York Times just issued this new report. Since there are so many wild rumors about Xi's absence, I asked several of my Chinese students in the PRC whether they had heard any scuttlebutt there. One of them replied:
People in Beijing always get this kind of news from outside of China. The article in the Washington Post has provided the only details we know. What happens among the nine people [VHM: he's talking about the members of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China] is always a mystery to us! Now we can not search any news about "where is Xi" on the internet. Even when I search "半羽呢" (half 羽 means 习), nothing will appear.
bànyǔ ne 半羽呢 ("and what about half a feather"?)
bàn 半 ("half")
yǔ 羽 ("feather")
ne 呢 (interrogative particle)
What in the world is my student talking about?
Well, half of the character for yǔ ("feather"), i.e., 羽, is xí 习 ("study; practice; review; exercise; get / be used / accustomed to; habit; custom"), and xí 习 just happens to be the surname of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. So, if you are in China and you want to make an attempt to find out what has happened to Xi Jinping, the next leader of your nation, you don't enter his name directly into a search engine, but you use some such circuitous route as bànyǔ ne 半羽呢 ("and what about half a feather"?).
This type of oblique, convoluted discourse and search is extremely common in China. To an outsider, "mud grass horse" and "river crab" may seem like the language of idiots, but in China it is the way clever people do their best to discuss sensitive subjects despite massive censorship and extraordinarily stringent control imposed upon the internet.
Of course, the censors are always trying to stay one step ahead (or behind, actually) of the netizens, so apparently they've also blocked bànyǔ ne 半羽呢 ("and what about half a feather"?) to keep people from finding any news about Xi Jinping.
Further notes on the interrogative particle ne 呢:
1. XXX ne 呢? ("and what about XXX [so-and-so]")
2. Wǒ bà ne? 我爸呢
a. "Where's my father?"
b. "How about my father?"
c. "How's my father doing?"
3. Nà běn shū ne? 那本书呢
a. "What about that book?"
b. "Where is that book?"
c. "How is that book?"
The nuances of ne 呢, especially in oral usage, are many and subtle.
Perhaps the most famous internet search of this type is for Bo Xilai 薄熙来 (former Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing Municipality and once expected to join the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China, until March of this year when huge scandals surrounding him, his wife [Gu Kailai], and his police chief [Wang Lijun] erupted).
To try to find out something about Bo Xilai, one searches, not for his name, but for bù hòu 不厚 (“not thick”), since Bo's surname (bó [also pronounced báo 薄, and pronounced bò as part of the word for "peppermint"]) means “thin”. If that doesn't work (it probably won't), one can search for Bo Xilai under the guise of Píngxī wáng 平西王 ("prince who suppresses the west"). What??
Bo Xilai was a powerful leader in the southwest of China, like Wú Sānguì 吴三桂 — traitor to both the Ming Dynasty and the Manchu Qing Dynasty — who had his latter-day power base in southwestern Yunnan. Bo Xilai's fate in the southwest is similar to that of Wu Sangui in the same region. So, if you want to search for Bo Xilai, look him up under bù hòu 不 (“not thick”) or Píngxī wáng 平西王 ("prince who suppresses the west"). Or try something else equally ingenious.
When the scandal of Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai / Gu Kailai broke into the news, Chóngqìng 重庆 — the city where they were based — also couldn't be searched directly on the internet in China. Consequently, netizens used xīhóngshì 西红柿 ("tomato") to replace it. What???
xī 西 ("west")
hóng 红 ("red")
shì 柿 ("persimmon")
This is perfectly logical:
xī 西 ("west") because Chongqinq is in the west of China
hóng 红 ("red") because Bo Xilai is famous for having the people of the city sing "red songs" (patriotic, Maoist songs eulogizing the party and the army)
shì 柿 ("persimmon") because it here stands paronomastically for shì 市 ("city")
Incidentally, Hè Guóqiáng 贺国强, another member of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China, has not been seen for a week. What games will be played with his name in an attempt find some juicy morsel of information about him on the Chinese internet?
Hè Guóqiáng 賀國強 (lit., "congratulate-country-strong")
Zhōu Yǒngkāng 周永康 (lit., "circumference-eternal-health")
So many mysteries! So many puzzles! And, though it is devilishly difficult to find the answer to these burning mysteries and puzzles, one can occupy nearly all of one's time and exercise nearly all of one's intelligence trying to devise ingenious means to circumvent the obstacles that stand in the way of one's discovering what is really going on.