The Grass-Mud Horse Dictionary: How Chinese Bloggers Evade Censorship

Code words aren't just for James Bond and the Secret Service

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There is a mythical creature who only exists because its name sounds awfully vulgar—at least in Chinese. Since 2009, the “grass-mud horse” has become the mascot for Chinese “netizens” using special lingo to evade and make fun of government censorship. The creature’s name sounds an awful lot like a rude, four-letter instruction and your mother.

The China Digital Times has been collecting words in this sneaky lexicon and recently issued a collection of “classics,” a rundown of 71 “politically charged terms which represent netizen resistance discourse.” As University of Pennsylvania Professor Victor Mair writes on Language Log, the compilation provides a “really fine introduction to the labyrinthine world of China’s blogs and microblogs, one which would be impenetrable to outsiders without such specialized manuals to guide them on their way.”

In 2009, TIME did a brief history of Chinese censorship, explaining what surfing the web is like in that part of the world:

Technology known as “the Great Firewall” blocks web sites on an array of sensitive topics (democracy, for instance), while tens of thousands of government monitors and citizen volunteers regularly sweep through blogs, chat forums, and even e-mail to ensure nothing challenges the country’s self-styled “harmonious society.”

Earlier this year, the editor for the China Digital Times, Xiao Qiang, co-authored a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the secret tongue, explaining that metaphors allow for political conversation that would otherwise be impossible. Many of the coded words and references replace similar sounding words. For example: the word for harmony, a propaganda catchword, sounds much like the word for river crab. So the river crab has become the storied foe of the grass-mud horse–and, Qiang explains, anti-Communist types will say they’ve been “river-crabbed” when they’re stopped by the Great Firewall.

Here’s a taste of other words and phrases in this new introduction to wordplay subversion, primarily put together by an anonymous translator:

scale the wall (v): to circumvent censorship measures put in place by the Chinese government. 

West Korea (n.): a pejorative nickname for China, meant to suggest that it shares negative qualities with North Korea, such as repressive rulers and a lack of democracy.

Fifty Cent Party (n.): a nickname for alleged undercover commentators who are paid to post pro-government messages online; fifty cents is their alleged rate of pay per post.

Ministry of Truth (n.): a nickname for any government agencies involved in censorship; a reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

compare fathers (v.): a metaphor for the gap between the rich and the poor, and the difficulty in closing it, as evinced by how parentage is theoretically linked to one’s current economic status.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

MORE: A Brief History of Chinese Censorship

MORE: When Chinese Netizens Attack: 10 Famous ‘Human Flesh’ Hunts

1 comments
deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Katy. When code words are needed, it's never good. Beyond double entendres for humor, transparency in language is what's needed. Alas, as YOU would know, righties / trolls at swampland use code words / phrases - aka dog whistles - to mask their vitriol and racism. Also, as you would know, we regular (and sane, usually) commentariat keep finding their code words and calling them out on it, like that ever stops them, of course. While I'd like to suggest a blog post exposing their dog whistles, the content would be too disgusting to post.