Punning banned in China

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When the first headline arrived stating that China was going to ban punning, I thought that it must be something from The Onion.  But when more and more reports came pouring in, I said to myself, "No, this is China.  They're really going to do it."

Indeed, the latest directive from the Ministry of Truth (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television [SAPPRFT]) shows that they are dead serious.

Here are some of the reports that have come my way:

"China bans wordplay in attempt at pun control"
The Guardian (11/28/14)

"Officials say casual alteration of idioms risks nothing less than ‘cultural and linguistic chaos’, despite their common usage"

The Guardian article was picked up by Reddit, where the puns are running fast and furious.

"Nowhere to Pun Amid China Crackdown"
WSJ, China RealTime (11/28/14)

"China Bans Puns; Citizens Left Dis-Oriented"
Mediaite (11/28/14)

Just what sort of puns was SAPPRFT decrying?  Here are two of the most egregious offenders:

Jìn shàn Jìn měi 晋善晋美 (lit., "Shanxi good Shanxi beautiful") was used in ads promoting tourism to Shanxi province.  The slogan — translated as “Shanxi, a land of splendors” — was a pun on the Chinese saying, jìnshànjìnměi 尽善尽美 ("perfection").

kèbùrónghuǎn 刻不容緩 ("pressing; acutely urgent", lit., "acutely may not delay") was rewritten as kébùrónghuǎn 咳不容緩 ("coughing may not delay / linger") in an advertisement a for cough remedy.

One would think that such offenses are hardly serious of government attention.  Indeed, not only are such clever puns inoffensive, they lie at the heart of much humor and advertising copy.

Because of the huge number of homophones in the language, punning is super easy in Mandarin, and Chinese are extremely fond of engaging in this type of verbal play.

So deeply entrenched is paronomasia in the Chinese tradition that it is even commonly reflected in the symbolism of art and material culture.  For example, Chinese families used to put a saddle (ān 鞍) in the main hall of their home because it was thought that it would bring ān 安 ("peace").  Bats (biānfú 蝙蝠) figured prominently in many decorations because the second syllable sounded the same as the character for "fortune" (fú 福).  Entire dictionaries were based upon the principle of punning as a means for defining words; see Shìmíng 释名 (Explaining Terms).

David Moser, as quoted in The Guardian, sheds light on the real motivation of the government in going after those miscreants who have a fondness for puns:

“But I wonder if this is not a preemptive move, an excuse to crack down for supposed ‘linguistic purity reasons’ on the cute language people use to crack jokes about the leadership or policies.  It sounds too convenient.”

To be sure, the current attack on punning is not the first we've seen in recent years:

"Crackdown on Chinese Bloggers Who Fight the Censors With Puns"

The deft punning of netizens to circumvent government censorship has often been documented on Language Log:

"Banned in Beijing"
(6/4/14) — with links to many relevant posts

"Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics"

The Chinese government may think that, because they've outlawed guns, they'll also be able to outlaw puns.  But they have another think coming, since the latter is one pleasure, and one powerful weapon, that the people are not likely to relinquish lightly.

[Hat tip Ben Zimmer, Bruce Rusk, John Rohsenow, Nathan Hopson, Kelsey Seymour, and Norman Leung]


  1. Irenaeus G. Saintonge said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 2:00 am

    I wonder if it's maybe an indirect way to try to crack down on things like the Grass Mud Horse / 草泥马。

  2. JQ said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 5:26 am

    It's a direct way of cracking down on the political things that Victor mentioned in his "Banned in Beijing" post. I doubt the government is too concerned about swearing.

  3. David Morris said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 7:06 am

    They take the pun out of everything!

  4. shubert said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 8:42 am

    They prefer panegyric; however, the pun is used too "pan" there.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 8:42 am

    I've always been somewhat tickled that the CC-CEDICT entry for 肏你妈 includes a usage note: "(vulgar)". I have a hard time imagining the world where any phrase with a similar sense might not be considered rough speech.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 9:51 am

    From an astute friend:

    Maybe the Chinese government doesn't like to be made fun of by the lowest form of wit. Then give them something higher and stronger.

  7. Tom said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    Just to confirm Prof. Mair's point: one ubiquitous ad slogan around Shanghai these days is "Hǎi'ěr bīngxiāng, tiānxià wúshuāng" 海尔冰箱,天下无霜 (Hai'er refrigerators: no frost anywhere), which puns on the homophonous phrase "tiānxià wúshuāng" 天下无双 ("peerless," or, "on earth it has no equal"). I can't imagine what will happen to my favorite ad copy without all this punning!

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    Cautionary note from Mark Swofford:


    Amazing stuff. I'd have expected this to be an April Fool's joke, 'cept it's not the right time of year.

    One thing, though: I flinched a bit when I read mention of the "huge number of homophones" in Mandarin. It's not that there's a particular problem with the statement in itself; it's that so many people use their misunderstanding of homophones in Mandarin to reinforce uninformed anti-Pinyin stances. So I prefer to see such statements qualified. Of course at LL you have a relatively sophisticated audience. Anyway, I tend to worry too much.


    VHM: I completely agree. After I posted that remark about the "huge number of homophones", I had second thoughts about it. In fact, I was sort of regretting it as I wrote it, but was distracted by things going on around me, and failed to add a qualifier.

    Just to set the record straight: Chinese does *not* have a homophone problem. If it did, people would have a very difficult time talking to each other.

    At the monosyllabic level, there are a lot of homophones, but the average length of a word is approximately two syllables. So, at the level of the word, there's no problem with homophony.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 30, 2014 @ 12:15 am

    "China seeks to ban puns"



    Comment by a colleague:

    "I was rendered speechless — not a common occurrence."

  10. Mark Mandel said,

    November 30, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    I blogged a link to this LL post, with the first ¶ or two, and one commenter pointed me to this article:

    Here’s why the name of Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” is so subversive

  11. AntC said,

    November 30, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    @VIctor thank you for the clarification about the alleged "huge number of homophones". I'm not a Chinese speaker; so it's always puzzled me whether there's a pundemic of misunderstanding. And many of your examples of poor translation into English seem to result from using a wrong (but similar-sounding) Chinese character.

    So: no more egregious than confusing homophone with homophobe?

  12. Mark Mandel said,

    November 30, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    Wikipedia's article "Homophonic puns in Mandarin Chinese" left the "huge number of homophones" inference wide open. I have edited it to include your and Mark Swofford's point.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

    China's Ban On Puns Comes Straight Out Of '1984'



  14. W. Sun said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 3:14 am

    Neologism such as 人艰不拆 Rén jiān bù chāi and 十动然拒 Shí dòng rán jù are also banned from broadcasts. http://www.sarft.gov.cn/articles/2014/11/27/20141127143826180126.html

    人艰不拆 Rén jiān bù chāi: 人生已经如此艰难,有些事就不要拆穿了。Life is hard enough; some things should be left unexposed.

    十动然拒 Shí dòng rán jù: 十分感动,然后拒绝。 (The girl was) deeply moved, then (she) rejected (him).

    It looks like that one of Prof. Mair's favorite phenomenon, morpheme borrowing, such as -ing, might get banned too. From broadcasts, that is.

  15. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    Jon Stewart tackled the wordplay ban on "The Daily Show" last night.

    And his "Moment of Zen" was about our old favorite, the Grass Mud Horse.

  16. Richard W said,

    December 6, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

    Michael Watts wrote: I've always been somewhat tickled that the CC-CEDICT entry for 肏你妈 includes a usage note: "(vulgar)".

    (Sounds like you come across that entry quite a lot!)

    Well, having (vulgar) as a tag in CC-CEDICT means you can generate a list of vulgar expressions and study them ;-)

    Seriously though, I think the tendency these days in CC-CEDICT is not to add tags like (coll.), (vulgar) etc. if the definition itself makes the register clear.

  17. Moebius Street said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

    There's definitely something to this.

    I have a painting from China, made by a moderately famous artist who's a friend of my wife's family. This painting shows a winking owl. It's a variation on another painting that the artist actually went to prison for.

    He went to prison because in Mandarin, the word for "owl" is a homonym for "Mao" – you do the math. Further, the wink the owl was giving was with the left eye shut, indicating that Mao/the owl has his eyes closed to the abuses of the Left while watching intently to the Right.

    So there's evidence that there's a history of pun-based political protest in China.

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