"Grass Mud Horse" and other homophonic puns threatened with extinction

« previous post | next post »

Article by Manya Koetse, What's on Weibo (7/13/22):

Weibo Vows to Crack Down on Homophones and ‘Misspelled’ Words to “Stop Spread of Harmful Information”

Creative language targeted by Weibo. Is this great Chinese online tradition in danger of dying out?

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Chinese social media platform Weibo announced that it will crack down on the use of homophones and ‘misspelled words’ by netizens in order to create a more “healthy” online environment and stop the spread of “misinformation.”

The announcement became a trending topic on the platform on Wednesday, receiving over 180 million views.

Weibo Administrators posted the announcement on Weibo on July 13, writing:

In order to create a clear and bright cyberspace, and to maintain a civilized and healthy social ecosystem, we will launch a focused regulation on the illegal behavior of using of homophone characters, variants of words, and other ‘misspelled words’ to spread harmful information. The main details are as follows:

1. We will increase our efforts to inspect and clean up the use of ‘misspelled characters’ to spread harmful information and other violations.
2. We will strengthen the platform’s mechanism of language [wording] supervision, and will refine the keyword identification model.
3. By establishing a positive incentive mechanism, we will reinforce the way to publicize (..) and guide platform users to use standard Chinese characters.

We call on the numerous netizens participating in community discussions here to express their viewpoints in a civilized way and to use standard characters. If you detect content that is in violation of this, we welcome you to report it and we will promptly take care of it.

The use of homophones on Chinese social media is as old as Chinese social media itself. One of the most well-known examples is the use of the 3-character phrase ‘cao ni ma’ (草泥马), which literally means ‘grass mud horse’, but is pronounced in the same way as the vulgar “f*ck your mother” (which is written with three different characters [VHM:  cào nǐ mā 操你媽 / originally 肏你媽]).

In the earlier years of Chinese social media, the ‘grass mud horse’ became some sort of mythical creature (神兽) that resembled an alpaca. Everyone knew that it was actually a big middle finger to the cyberspace authorities; it was netizens’ way of showing that they could use creative language as a weapon against censorship.

My response to this latest effort on the part of the Chinese internet censors to stifle discussion of sensitive topics:  rotsa ruck!  No matter how sophisticated their algorithms and how pervasive their police, the Chinese authorities will never be able to cope with the creativity of the netizens.

This week, for example, some Chinese netizens started using the characters for the word ‘Helan’ (荷兰), meaning The Netherlands, which sounds very similar to the province ‘Henan’ (河南) to discuss the Henan bank protests. As reported by Leen Vervaeke in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, the replacement of the much-censored ‘Henan’ topic by the term ‘Holland’ sparked some affiliated code language, like Zhengzhou [VHM: provincial capital of Henan] becoming ‘Amsterdam’ and bank deposits becoming ‘tulips.’

It's hopeless, or rather, I should say, hopeful:

Reported by Megan Garber as early as 2014 (quoting research by Jason Q. Ng), there were already 64 different Chinese terms related to ‘Tiananmen’ [VHM: the Tiananmen Massacre] that were censored on Chinese social media by that time, including the characters ‘陆肆’ (lùsì) and the term ‘liu四’ which both sound like ‘liu si’ (六四), June 4, the day of the Tiananmen student protests of 1989.

It's a cat-and-mouse game.  You know, Tom and Jerry.  The mouse usually wins, and, in any event, there are lots more mice than cats.  And mice are very clever.


Selected readings

(Thanks to Don Keyser)


  1. Michael Watts said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 3:27 pm

    Concurrent detection of prohibited speech can't be done, that's true.

    But retrospective detection is very easy. If there are penalties attached, you can tamp down prohibited speech as much as you like, despite the fact that you can't detect it at the very moment it occurs.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

    That's the whole point. Keeping one step ahead of the bâtards.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 6:25 pm

    But if you post something seditious — under your own name — and get called to account for it a week later, have you beaten the state because it took them a week to notice you?

    I've been wondering whether the online environment has tightened recently in China. I remember that when I wished an acquaintance happy [lunar] new year in 2020 over wechat, she started venting, apropos of nothing, about what a terrible job the Chinese government was doing.

    On the other end of the spectrum, just a couple of weeks ago I asked a friend if there were rules about what could be broadcast on the internet in China, and she said not only are there rules (which I expected), but they've been getting much more strict. She said it felt a bit like the Cultural Revolution. (She is 40, so without experience of the actual Cultural Revolution.) And then she spontaneously declared that she couldn't say any more about the Cultural Revolution, lest she come to the attention of the 网警 ["internet police"].

    The development discussed here would seem to support the idea that the online environment is getting stricter.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 7:04 pm

    "The development discussed here would seem to support the idea that the online environment is getting stricter." [emphasis added]

    Not really. You could always be hauled in for alluding to Xi Dada as Winnie the Pooh or a steamed stuffed bun.

  5. Sanchuan said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 8:57 am

    This reads a bit like Clinton's warning that you can't nail jello to a wall. Chinese internet censors have certainly shown they like a challenge.

    And, as Michael Watts points out, retrospective detection can be enough of a deterrent. When it's not, it's certainly enough of a punishment.

    Let's just think of the chilling effect such laws are having in HK.

RSS feed for comments on this post