Why China Is Cracking Down on Puns

A brief guide to the wordplay bedeviling Chinese censors, from marijuana to alpacas

Farmers shear an alpaca at a zoo in Shijiazhuang.  (CSN/Reuters)

Which country would you say is entering a "marijuana era"? Maybe Uruguay, which recently legalized the drug? Perhaps the United States, where the state of Colorado is offering holiday discounts on legal weed.

In fact, the "marijuana era" is happening in China. That’s thanks to a clever pun that pokes fun at the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, and has been circulating around China’s web. The pun subverts the cult of personality growing around Xi and first lady Peng Liyuan, who is also a well-known singer.

This is how the pun developed: At a celebration earlier this year of Teachers’ Day in China, Xi picked up the term of affection "Daddy Xi." Last week, an ode to the president and first lady—"Daddy Xi loves Mama Peng"—extended the filial reverence to Peng. The first character in “daddy” is 大, pronounced "da." The first in "mama" is 媽, pronounced "ma." Combining those two, you get "dama." That is a homonym for 大麻, "marijuana."

"And so we enter the Dama [marijuana] Era," one Internet user quipped on Weibo.

Subversive wordplay like this is most likely the real reason China’s media regulator has promised to crack down on puns.

The official line is that the new rules—which ban the use of wordplay in the press, broadcasts, and advertisements—are intended to uphold the sanctity of the Chinese language. In its announcement, the regulator calls out an ad campaign encouraging tourism to the province of Shanxi. By changing a single character, it changed the meaning of an old idiom from "perfection" to "magnificent Shanxi."

This kind of usage "violates China’s cultural tradition" and "misleads the public, particularly the youth," the announcement says, adding that it "must be resolutely corrected."

Of the two examples—"marijuana era" and "magnificent Shanxi"—one is clearly more worrisome to the Communist Party than the other.

Here are just a few more of the many political puns that suggest Beijing is establishing the importance of "standard usage" as a way to censor puns that deride the government.

Grass-mud horse: The most well-known of all political Internet slang in China. The fictional "horse"—usually represented by an alpaca—has become the "de facto mascot of Chinese netizens fighting for free expression, symbolizing defiance of Internet censorship," according to China Digital Times, which maintains the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon. It is a pun on a profane term involving the mother of the person addressed.

River crab: Pronounced "hexie," "river crab" is a homonym on the Chinese word for "harmony." "Harmony" might seem harmless, but it is used euphemistically to refer to censorship. Posts that get blocked by the government are often said to have been "harmonized."

Smog the people: This phrase substitutes "serve" with "smog" in Mao Zedong’s slogan "serve the people." Both characters are pronounced "wu." Another variation on "serve the people" adds a character, changing the meaning to "serve the renminbi"—China's currency.

Brother watch: A pun on the word for "cousin," where the first character is replaced with "watch" (as in a timekeeper). It refers to Yang Dacai, a Shaanxi Province official who Internet users identified in several appearances wearing luxury watches well above his pay grade.

Many more such puns can be found at China Digital Times’ Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon.