26 May 2019
Ai Weiwei's portrait of himself with a 'grass mud horse' had a caption that could be read more than one way. Photo: Internet
Ai Weiwei's portrait of himself with a 'grass mud horse' had a caption that could be read more than one way. Photo: Internet

Jokes aside, Chinese face punishment for wordplay

China announced a ban on puns and casual alteration of idioms last week, warning that wordplay could lead to “cultural and linguistic chaos”, Business Insider reported.

Shades of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the government prohibited puns and any kind of double meaning. The result was Newspeak, which was designed as a tool for thought control.

Orwell described the officially cleansed language in the book’s appendix: “Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.

“This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.”

Reaching for a reason for the ban, Beijing criticized in its announcement a provincial tourism campaign in which advertisements played on the similar-sounding words for “perfection” and “magnificent Shanxi”.

But what are the puns China is really worried about?

How about Ai Weiwei’s favorite “caonima”, or “grass mud horse”?

The dissident artist published in 2009 an image of himself nude with only a sculpture of the legendary creature hiding his genitals, with the caption “cǎonímǎ dǎng zhōngyāng”, literally “a grass mud horse covering the center”.

By changing the tones of the words, the caption can also be read as, “f*** your mother, Communist Party Central Committee”.

Needless to say, the stunt didn’t endear him to the authorities.

China’s internet censors ban hundreds of terms. Among them is “May 35″, a dodge to get around censorship of “June 4″, the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Even an innocuous, officially promoted word like harmony (“hexie”) can be enlisted by mischievous netizens for the purpose of mockery — it sounds the same as the word for censorship.

Mass civil unrest remains one of the biggest fears of the Chinese authorities.

Watch for “umbrella” to be the next word to be banned.

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