What the “grass mud horse” means and doesn’t mean

Warning: This post contains vulgarity in an academic context. Those with weak constitutions are advised to stop reading and visit this wholesome site instead.

The New York Times has an interesting story about Chinese Internet users putting a stick in government efforts to “purify the Internet” with various plays on a rude pun: 草泥马. Read “cáo ní mă“, it means “grass mud horse”. It’s also, however, a few tones away from the scorching but well-worn vulgarity “操你妈”, which is read “cào nĭ mā” and means (send the children out of the room) “fuck your mother”. From the Times:

A YouTube children’s song about the beast has drawn nearly 1.4 million viewers. A grass-mud horse cartoon has logged a quarter million more views. A nature documentary on its habits attracted 180,000 more. Stores are selling grass-mud horse dolls. Chinese intellectuals are writing treatises on the grass-mud horse’s social importance. The story of the grass-mud horse’s struggle against the evil river crab has spread far and wide across the Chinese online community.

Not bad for a mythical creature whose name, in Chinese, sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity. Which is precisely the point.

The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.

Have a read, and make sure you visit some of the linked videos. One of them will ensure you never think about alpacas the same way again. Nasty looking beasts. [Original video now deleted, but re-uploaded by Rebecca McKinnon here.]

Imagethief, a labored speaker of Chinese at best, is no expert on Mandarin profanity or puns, although I have an academic appreciation for the latter. But as with any passenger of Beijing taxis, I am well acquainted with “cào nĭ mā“, and its common accompaniment, the hissed “shaaaaabi!” (You can look it up on the Wikipedia page linked right above.) I hastily point out that these are generally directed at other drivers and pedestrians, and rarely at Imagethief.

Sound-alikes and double entendres are important in Chinese (think of all the words that are auspicious or inauspicious because they sound like something else), and they certainly have played role in the ongoing dance between Chinese Internet users and censors. But I rather think this story reads a bit too much significance into what is, at the end of the day, a naughty pun:

It has also raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet — a project on which the Chinese government already has expended untold riches, and written countless software algorithms to weed deviant thought from the world’s largest cyber-community.

Perhaps. But the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese language cut both ways. Have a read of ESWN’s translation of a recent Southern Metropolis Daily article on “The Seven Possible Fates of an Internet Post” which talks about how many BBS postings get filtered because of accidental character combinations that look like forbidden terms. And also have a read of James Fallows’ excellent Atlantic Monthly article on China’s Internet censorship from almost exactly one year ago, perhaps the best analysis so far in mainstream media.

The goal of Chinese Internet censorship is not absolute control, but sufficient inconvenience and management to keep most people people on the straight-and-narrow. In that context, some naughty puns, even ones that encode an implicit criticism of censorship, can probably be thought of as a feature, if an annoying one, rather than a bug. Poke some fun. Have some laughs. Don’t cross the red lines. I’d guess that the authorities are pretty comfortable waiting for people to get bored and move on to the next allegorical pun.

See also:

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