Blocked on Weibo

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This afternoon I received in the mail the following book:

Jason Q. Ng. Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China's Version of Twitter (and Why). New York and London: The New Press, 2013.

In this wonderful volume, Jason Q. Ng runs all the terms in the Chinese-language version of Wikpedia through the search function of Sina Weibo to discover which ones are censored. The results are mind-boggling in their ramifications.

The presentation is straightforward and clear. At the top of each page is the objectionable term in characters. That is followed by a section in which Ng transcribes the characters into Hanyu Pinyin and then translates the term into English if appropriate. He also provides explanatory notes, including historical background and literary allusions. Then comes a section under the rubric "Why it is blocked".

The reasons for blocking a given term are often arcane and convoluted beyond belief. They also evince a level of paranoia on the part of the Chinese Communist Party that would be ludicrous, were it not so damaging to open discussion in the People's Republic of China.

The book is replete with scholarly annotations that are useful for further research.

What emerges from Ng's study is that in China (at least not on China's Twitter) you can not talk about Tibet, Falun Gong, "outstanding thing", "inject", "captcha", "Hoobastank", "Zhina" (=China), "river crab" (I think that all Language Log readers know why), "Wöhler" or "Villar", "white powder", "Jiang Zemin", "Milarepa", "coup d'état", "cunt", "Shanghai Gang / Clique", ҉ [U+0489], "Goddess of Democracy", "Pangu / PunkGod", "Victoria", "internet commentators / monitoring", "meow", "without hair" (= shaved pussy), "lesbian", "Demerol", "Peng Liyuan" (wife of the current president), "Fei Xiaotong" (most famous anthropologist of the 20th century), "Bo Xilai", Mein Kampf, "AIDS village", "leave the Party", "Song Zuying" (famous soprano of Miao ethnicity), "parade / demonstration / march", "satellite television", "labor strike", "organizer", "charter", "Twitter", "never forget", "empty stool" (= Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize laureate), "May Fourth Movement" (an important component of which was to urge successfully the adoption of vernacular over Classical Chinese), "student leader", Dynamic China, "Radio Free Asia", "Independent Chinese PEN", "tank", "massacre", "plain clothes", "persecution", "9-11 attacks", "blockade", "machete", "Kashgar", "Kucha", "HMX" (= octogen), "wound", "East Chang'an Avenue", "cobalt-60", "hair bacon", "calico cat", "Canadian French", "Islam", "Lucky Star" (manga), "warlord", "medicine patch flag", "sky burial", "sensitive", "Communist dog", "dry your mother" (Language Log readers know about that one too), "Sacred Heart Cathedral", "flood control monument", "Bloomberg", "augment / supplement", "black / dark angel", "leopard colored", and countless other terms that are considered by the Communist authorities to be sensitive or objectionable. (That was true for the period 2011-2012, but as the political winds shift, some words are unblocked while new ones are added. Pp. 213-221 give a list of all the terms in the book with Weibo blocked status as of October, 2012.)

If you're curious about why all of these terms are blocked, run out and buy the book, or head to Ng's blog for a sampling.

Here's the corresponding blog which provides additional data and even more up-to-date details.

This is an example (p. 146 in the book, but here taken from Ng's blog [May 28, 2013] so that I didn't have to retype it) of one of the simpler entries:

快闪党 (flash mob / kuài shǎn dǎng) is a “public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again.” Though the concept has existed in the past, the modern version was popularized by former Harper’s editor Bill Wasik, who organized a series of gatherings throughout New York City in 2003. They were mostly social experiments or a sort of performance art, and soon spread across the globe. This is in contrast to a “smart mob,” which is more directed and typically has a goal, the dîner en blanc phenomenon for instance, where people dress in all white and gather at specified locations for a secret dinner.

Why it is blocked: Even though most flash mobs do nothing more harmful than show off a few Michael Jackson pelvic thrusts, Chinese authorities still fear the idea of large numbers of people organizing in public spaces, perhaps viewing it as training for future political gatherings (the distinction between a flash mob and a protest hinges on the intention, but execution-wise, they are quite similar: see for instance the 散步 / “take a walk” demonstrations). Flash mobs, though often harmless and playful, have caused disorder and even violence in other countries, a situation Chinese authorities no doubt are keen to avert. (Flash mob is currently blocked on Weibo.)

Many of the entries in the book are longer and more elaborate, but even the relatively short ones (the entries average about a page in length) provide much food for thought.

This is a fascinating study with important implications for anyone who is interested in the intellectual and political climate of contemporary China. Highly recommended.

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16 Comments »

  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    "The reasons for blocking a given term are often arcane and convoluted beyond belief. They also evince a level of paranoia on the part of the Chinese Communist Party that would be ludicrous, were it not so damaging to open discussion in the People's Republic of China."

    The great lyricist E. Y. "Hip" Harburg of "Wizard of Oz" fame was blacklisted by Hollywood during the HUAC-McCarthy paranoia and he was told that one man could remove his name from the blacklist.

    Harburg went to see that man, and something like the following dialogue took place:

    THE MAN: You wrote a song called "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe," didn't you?

    HARBURG: Yes, I did.

    THE MAN: And you meant Joe Stalin, didn't you?

    At that point, Harburg gave up, reasoning that there was no way to fight such stupidity.

  2. Rodger C said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    I think that should be Yip Harburg, but yes. The, what, censorial mentality is unfathomable.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    Harburg did write lyrics to a song (music by Jerome Kern) for the soundtrack of "Song of Russia," a 1944 film characterized by wikipedia as "Heavy with propaganda featuring an idealized Soviet Union." I was unable to quickly google up the lyrics for the song in question to gauge their political content, but I doubt they were a forthright condemnation of the censorship policies or other manifold abuses of the Stalinist regime.

  4. Jerome Chiu said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    Fei Xiaotong seems to be off the hook now, or at least for a period about a month ago where a discussion (IIRC) on a book (or two books?) by Liang Hong 梁鴻 took place.

    I tried to check at the Blocked on Weibo site to see whether Fei is thus off the list, but failed to verify – I found nowhere to perform a search, and the list is huge and not in an order conducive to such searches. Laziness set in, and I left it at that.

  5. Peter said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

    I'm new to this blog. Could someone link me to the page explaining what's wrong with drying your mother ? I did a quick search but i was unable to find a reference other then this article. Thanks !

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    Peter: Mandarin gān "dry" (traditional 乾, simplified 干) has often been mistranslated into English as "fuck." See Victor Mair's analysis here.

  7. Jason Q. Ng said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 1:16 am

    Longtime listener, first-time caller… thanks so much for the kind words Victor.

    Jerome, indeed, Fei and many other people and keywords have been unblocked since I initially tested them in Jan 2012 (especially in recent months–see my post Weibo Keyword Un-Blocking Is Not a Victory Against Censorship for more on possibly why). And you're right, my site mostly only explains what has been censored in the past (my claim to semi-notability is that I was among the first to rigorously uncover these keywords and foolish enough to try and figure out the "why?" component). And though I post periodic updates on what is blocked and unblocked (click on "Lists"), lots of folks do a much better job than I at the daily tracking of what's currently banned (see the excellent China Digital Times). If you want to check in real-time if a keyword is still filtered, you can do so by manually searching at s.weibo.com or by going to en.greatfire.org and checking there. For instance, GreatFire notes that 费孝通 (Fei Xiaotong) was last recorded as blocked in Oct 2012.

    Thanks for your interest!

  8. dw said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 6:47 am

    "Hair bacon"?? Here's the explanation.

  9. Brian T said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    "The most poetic and affecting of all the songs about Russia written during the war was, in a very real sense, a love song. With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, a writer nearly as far left as Harold Rome, 'And Russia Is Her Name' (Chappell, 1943) is apolitical and has none of the satirical touches that are the hallmarks of much of Harburg's writing. Rather, in this first-person song, the singer personifies RUssia as a woman, and not just any woman, but the singer's own beloved: 'She stood bseide my plw, she kissed away my tears / And warmed my empty hands through all the empty years / … And she is still my own and Russia is her name.' "
    from "The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945," John Bush Jones

  10. Brian T said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    Here's somebody's unverified transcription of the full lyrics:

    And Russia Is Her Name

    Words by E. Y. Harburg, Music by Jerome Kern

    When I was very young I gave my heart away
    Her cheeks were all the cherry trees that bloom in May
    Her eyes were stars that lit the darkness with a silver flame
    And she is still my love and Russia is her name.

    She stood beside my plow, she kissed away my tears
    And warmed my empty hands through all the empty years
    And when she smiled, the heartbreak vanished and the daybreak came
    And she is still my own and Russia is her name.

    I heard her sing
    I heard her sing to me
    It was the song of all the world in spring to me
    Then all the world was green
    Then all the fields were fair
    And there was bread and wine
    and song for all to share
    And there was love,
    A love that set my hungry heart aflame
    And now that love is mine
    And Russia is her name.

  11. Uri said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    State-sanction pro-Soviet propaganda was common in Hollywood between 1941-45, just as censorship became endemic after the war.

    Harburg however was no hardcore communist, just a politically and socially aware Roosevelt supporter. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (1930) became the theme of the Depression. "Hooray for What!" (1937) had an anti-war theme. "Bloomer Girl" (1944) was pro-feminist. And "Finian's Rainbow" (1947) was anti-racist.

    Here are some lyrics from Harburg's patriotic anthem "God's Country"

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6srRKxaPN5EC&lpg=PA109&ots=SgNOdgzgNP&dq=%22God%E2%80%99s%20Country%22%20lyrics%20harburg&pg=PA109#v=onepage&q=%22God%E2%80%99s%20Country%22%20lyrics%20harburg&f=false

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

    I have read the lyrics to "God's Country" and shuddered. Blacklisting was too good for him. (It would I suppose be interesting to know if "Stalin" and "Gracie Allen" naturally rhymed for him, or it was a semi-forced rhyme of the sort not uncommon in comical song.)

  13. Rod Johnson said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 8:26 pm

    Does nobody care about the Chinese Hoobastank fans?

  14. Uri said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:40 am

    I expect Stalin/Allen was either a forced comic rhyme (in the style of Lydia/encyclopedia or thinkin'/Lincoln, other Harburg 'rhymes') or to emphasise a comic accent.

    Re "blacklisting was too good for him". Hollywood blacklisting was more than just denying employment (often on the flimsiest of pretexts). It also involved "omitting from the screen" the names of blacklisted individuals even for work done prior to the blacklist. A la Weibo.

    (The blacklist did not even officially exist, meaning that when the apolitical Louis Pollock was blacklisted after being confused with a clothier named Louis Pollack, he did not realise. Former associates who did avoided associating with him, and he only found out from a friend after 5 years of having his work rejected.)

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    It would be interesting to know how Hoobastank got on the list. Some googling confirms that many people are of the opinion that "Hoobastank sucks" but not nearly as many as are of the opinion that "Nickelback sucks," and Nickelback is apparently weibo-safe. And in any event I suppose the youth of the PRC should have the same right to listen to sucky rock music as American youth do. (I found very poignant an interview with Dmitri Medvedev, who is the same age as I am, in which he remembered that he could not as a teenager buy the new Pink Floyd album I had at the same time bought with my allowance at my local mall, because he could not afford the exorbitant Brezhnev-era black market price. I find that poignant even though I think in hindsight that the album in question kinda sucks. Indeed, one of the suckier British hard rock bands of the '70's somehow became massively popular among dissident-leaning kids in Communist-ruled Bulgaria, and good for them if bootleg copies or samizdat cassettes of their sucky albums were taken to signify freedom and the hope for a better future.)

  16. Rodger C said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

    I do seem to remember some people of my parents' generation and older (now no longer with us) pronouncing "Stalin" normally to rhyme with "Allen." Those were also the days when "Maya" was pronounced with the vowel of "May," a usage that startled me with a shock of recognition when I heard it a few years ago in a movie from ca. 1960.

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