The Slang Chinese Bloggers Use to Subvert Censorship

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They call it the Grass-Mud Horse lexicon, and, lucky for us language lovers, the China Digital Times just started a recurring word of the week feature to go along with its catalog of the slang China's bloggers use to subvert government censorship. The first post, which went up last Wednesday, explains the project's namesake, Grass-Mud Horse. "Grass-mud horse, which sounds nearly the same in Chinese as 'f*** your mother' (cào nǐ mā), was created as a way to get around and poke fun at government censorship of vulgar content," writes Fiona Smith. The term is perfect for a lot of reasons: It sounds like a swear, has its own YouTube culture and references the Communist party, which is often referred to as "mother." All of that has led to its evolution as not only a term that means "someone who is web-savvy and critical of government attempts at censorship," in the words of Smith, but also the representation of an entire language.

Over at China Digital Space, where the Grass-Mud Horse project lives, we find the full alphabetized list of common terms used on the heavily censored Chinese Internet platforms. Each letter has between 2 and 21 entries -- there's a lot on there. Here are some of our favorites: 

Term: Love the Future.

Definition: "'Love the future' is a coded reference to Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei (艾未未) that began to be used after Ai's disappearance in early 2011. Ai’s surname sounds the same as the word 'love' in Chinese, and his given name 'Weiwei' can be converted into the word “future” by adding two small strokes to the second character." 

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What we love about it: The play on words just happens to work out so well for the beloved Chinese artist. Related, here's a video of the artist singing the Grass-Mud Horse song.

Term: "Getting Soy Sauce"

Definition: "It means, 'no comment' or 'none of my business.' It is a humorous way for netizens to distance themselves from a sensitive or political topic. The word came into popular usage after Guangzhou Television interviewed a local resident about the Ed[ison] Chen photo scandal. The man answered, 'What the f--- does it have to do with me? I was just out buying some soy sauce.'"

What we love about it: So very snarky and so very Chinese. We think we'll adopt and Americanize this one for ourselves. "Getting Ketchup." 

Term: Rice-Drunk

Definition: "Sounds the same in Chinese as 'to commit crime;' (犯罪). Rice-drunk gangsters (饭醉团伙) are people who have engaged in illegal eating and drinking."

What we love about it: What a great way to make "illegal eating or drinking" -- something very absurd -- sound so very bad ass. If that's not reclaiming a term, we don't know what is. 

We could go on forever -- there are many many more where those came from. But, we'll let you explore for yourself. Though, there's a lot to catch up on. The project started back in 2010 as an effort to "contribute to a deeper understanding of the Internet’s cultural, social, and political impact by moving beyond anecdotal evidence and systematically documenting and interpreting political discourse created by Chinese netizens," explains the site. "By creating this lexicon, we hope to map out the dynamics of "domination and resistance" in Chinese communication and information networks. The aim is to vividly illustrate the increasingly dynamic and sometimes surprising presence of an alternative political discourse," the description continues. Sounds like a valid effort. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.