Using riddles to circumvent censorship in China

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We are thoroughly familiar with the use of puns to foil and irritate the censors in China:

"Punning banned in China" (11/29/14)

"It's not just puns that are being banned in China" (12/7/14) — with links to earlier posts on puns in China

"Fun bun pun" (4/9/17)

And many others, including the most recent post on puns and censorship, which focused squarely on the heated controversy over the abolition of term limits for the presidency:

"The letter * has bee* ba**ed in Chi*a" (2/26/18 — the day after the announcement of the constitutional change)

Another means of evading the censors, and more difficult to detect than puns because they speak through indirection (the answers are not given), are riddles.

"Lantern Festival riddles outwit and enrage Chinese censors", by Oiwan Lam, Hong Kong Free Press (3/6/18)

Conveniently, China has just celebrated the Lantern Festival (fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar calendar, Friday March 2 this year), so it serendipitously coincided with the decision of the Chinese Communist Party to remove term limits on the presidency, essentially making him dictator for life.  One of the most common traditional activities associated with the Lantern Festival is for people to write riddles on pieces of paper that they affix to the lanterns they display on this day.  Spectators who see the riddles and figure them out can tell the owners of the lanterns and check to see whether they have the right answer.

Here's one of the riddles that has been circulating this year:

fúshì sānqiān,
wú ài yǒusān.
rì, yuè yǔ qīng.
rì wéi zhāo, yuè wéi mù,
qīng wèi zhāozhāo mùmù.


This poem was originally written in English in 2006 thus:

I love three things in this world.
Sun, Moon and You.
Sun for morning, Moon for night,
And you forever.

It was subsequently translated into various versions in China, the most popular one having this as the first line:

fúshì wàn qiān 浮世万千 ("there are a myriad [things] in this ephemeral world") — cf. Japanese ukiyo ("floating world") for 浮世

instead of the one given above:

fúshì sānqiān 浮世三千 ("there are three thousand [things] in this ephemeral world")

which sounds odd to me.

If we take this poem as a riddle, the expected solution would be "zhídào yǒngyuǎn 直到永遠" ("forever and ever").  In the current context, however, this would be modified as "Xí dào yǒngyuǎn 習到永遠" ("Xi [Jinping] forever").

Ah, China's netizens are so very clever!  China's censors will never be able to defeat them.

[h.t. Norman Leung]


  1. arthur waldron said,

    March 6, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

    Please do not use the word "warlord" see my artcile in AHR. junfa is simply gunbatsu except singular rather than collective in Chinese, borrowed by Dhen Duxiu in 1919. I have the page number. Confirmed by China's great expert.

    This discovery is one of my exceedingly modest additions to the sum of human knowledge.

    In any case, what does warlord mean in Ordinary Chinese? Simply this: a general who is/was not a communist.

    Warm good wishes Arthur

  2. Michael Watts said,

    March 6, 2018 @ 4:08 pm

    If we take this poem as a riddle, the expected solution would be "zhídào yǒngyuǎn 直到永遠" ("forever and ever"). In the current context, however, this would be modified as "Xí dào yǒngyuǎn 習到永遠" ("Xi [Jinping] forever").

    What is the relationship between the riddle and its answer? The only way I see to interpret the original as a riddle is that you (the reader) are supposed to guess the referent of "you" (卿 in the riddle). But saying that "you" refers to the phrase 直到永远 makes no sense. Is 直到永远 indicated by something in the riddle, or is this just a fixed historical convention that says "the answer to this riddle, for reasons that have been lost to history, is 直到永远"?

    Am I correct in reading this post to say that the new answer 習到永遠 is justified solely by the context of current events, without reference to anything in the riddle itself (as the riddle has not changed since the time when its answer was something different)?

  3. Joshua K. said,

    March 7, 2018 @ 1:07 am

    I can't parse either version of the poem as being a riddle in the first place, nor "forever and answer" as being the solution to the riddle if it needed one.

  4. Terry Hunt said,

    March 7, 2018 @ 5:55 am

    @ arthur waldron

    As far as I (via Ctrl+f) can see, the word "warlord" is used neither in this LL post, not any of the LL posts linked from it (though I have not checked all their comments). It is used once in the linked article by Oiwan Lam in the Hong Kong Free Press, referring to an event over a century ago.

    Wherefore then your admonition (which to me as a layperson is in any case largely incomprehensible) addressed to writers and readers of Language Log?

  5. Joshua K. said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 5:32 pm

    Sorry, I meant "forever and ever" in my comment above.

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