The Great Firewall of China and the War on Puns

Every day, it seems, we read about a new catastrophe looming on the horizon. Behind each of these narratives, usually lies some sort of ‘villain’. Whether it is Libya’s enigmatic dictator Muammar Gaddhafi or the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there always seems to be a ‘bad guy’ peeking out furtively from behind the curtain. Several months ago, China took the lead in identifying the next major threat, with a culprit so nefarious that letting the threat go unchecked risked ‘chaos’ and the breakdown of Chinese society.

Image courtesy of inmediahk, ©2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of inmediahk, ©2012, some rights reserved.


That threat?

It was the simple pun.

Last November, China’s State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television ordered authorities to ‘tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language’. Specifically, the order identified puns and the misuse of idioms as sources of ‘cultural and linguistic chaos’. The Chinese language, which has an incredible number of homophones, is particularly suited to puns and the shifting of idiomatic meaning. In a given phrase, simply substituting a single character in place of another can dramatically alter the phrase’s meaning without a significant change in sound. Strangely, this is not the first time that China has attempted to control the day-to-day use of language. In 2010, China banned newspapers, publishers and website owners from using foreign words and abbreviations in their work. China’s People’s Daily reported that the mixing of Chinese and foreign languages, especially among China’s youth, had ‘seriously damaged’ the purity of the language and already resulted in ‘adverse social impacts’.

Not surprisingly, upon its announcement the new policy faced vehement criticism on Chinese social media. The negativity stemmed from both its actual tenets as well as the official reasons used to justify the policy. For instance, if you look at the Chinese language with a historical lens, the decision is pretty baffling. With so many homophones, idioms and puns have become an inherent part of the language, and a large proportion of popular sayings and jokes rely on natural wordplay. To make an imposition on altering the meaning of traditional phrases is to deny an essential part of the Chinese language. Additionally, the announcement drew a lot of negative attention based on the peculiar examples used to show the potential destructiveness of wordplay. For instance, the emblematic case that is cited is an ad campaign for cold medicine that altered a standard idiom signifying ‘brook no delay’ to mean ‘coughing must not remain’. While silly, this alteration hardly seems to be an example of unrestrained chaos, and the argument that such manipulations threaten the sanctity of the Chinese language seems relatively hollow.

In attempting to figure out the real justification for these policies, it is worth looking at examples where the manipulation of traditional Chinese can legitimately cause some degree of chaos; namely in circumventing censorship and subtly criticizing the Chinese government. At this point, China’s extensive censorship network has been well documented. ‘The Great Firewall of China’ deserves its mocking name. Foreign websites such as YouTube and Facebook are blocked and Chinese alternatives, such as the micro-blogging website Weibo, are heavily regulated and censored. In addition to the prohibition on foreign material, a variety of words and phrases are passively banned across the Chinese network such as ‘protest’, ‘Occupy’, or, strangely enough, ‘Hillary Clinton’. The censorship apparatus is not just passive though, censors are directly involved with both media outlets and individuals regarding their coverage of particular events. For example, Taiwan’s recent elections drew censors to order Chinese editors to ‘delete all content attacking the political system of the mainland’, in memos that were later leaked. Before that, the protests in Hong Kong caused censors to run wild by blocking Instagram and deleting social media posts at record-breaking rates, over 5 times the normal rate of censorship.

Yet despite this opposition, a large proportion of China’s 500 million Internet users have utilized creative methods to overcome the regulation of the Internet, such as the common use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), or more topically, through the use of coded language. An entirely new lexicon ‘laced with mockery, satire, or sarcasm’ has emerged as a way to safely critique the government; for instance, those subject to censorship are claimed to have been ‘harmonized’, as a reference to Party member’s calls for a more harmonious nation. Another popular example is the ‘grass mud horse’, an alpaca-like creature whose name (‘cao ni ma’) sounds like a Chinese profanity and now serves as an omnipresent representation of resistance to censorship. Or even the altered idiom ‘smog the people’, a clever turn on Mao Zedong’s famous phrase ‘serve the people’, that sounds practically identical.

This type of language manipulation has become quite prevalent in the online community and certainly serves as more of a threat to the government and traditional Chinese society than goofy advertisements. In this way, it seems much more likely that the ban was instituted as a method to further crack down on critical ‘netizens’ rather than a move to protect the sanctity of Mandarin. Language manipulation, with its potential to be subtly used to critique authority structures, has only become more prevalent and important as time has gone on. Wordplay became an essential weapon for activists in the recent Hong Kong protests, with an enormous volume of new politically focused sayings and idioms cropping up weekly, such as a play on the Cantonese phrase ‘to go shopping’ which ended up signifying ‘to protest on the streets’. Clearly, this language is political dangerous and poses a comparatively greater threat to the government than flawed advertising.

It is worth noting that due to the nature of China’s censorship policies, we will probably never see this ban used explicitly as legal justification for censorship. In all likelihood, the censors will ban what they please and will not tell anyone about it. However, this announcement seems to be part of an emerging pattern of language restriction, with more allegedly on the way, which is aimed at silencing the online activist community. As of right now, unfortunately the ‘Great Firewall of China’ still stands strong.

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