Grass Mud Horse – banning puns in China

Warning! This blog post contains some obscene language, don’t read on if you are of  a sensitive disposition or easily offended.

At the beginning of December, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the Chinese Government issued an order restricting puns and irregular wordplay on television, in classrooms, on the internet and in advertising. The international media picked this up and it was widely reported in the English-speaking world. As a result I received a flurry of emails from family and friends asking how/why any government would try to ban puns.  Here is my clumsy attempt to explain, trying to write it down has not been easy…

The Chinese language (by which I mean Mandarin, though it applies equally to other dialects such as Cantonese, Fujianese, Sichuanese etc) is rich in homophones and these lend themselves brilliantly to punning.  Indeed I have always considered that punning was an intrinsict characteristic of Chinese linguistic culture.  The British have always been great ‘punners’ and so we really understand and appreciate this when learning/speaking Chinese.  It has a long, long history which is the same as we have within spoken English.

The Chinese have taken to social media like ducks to water, using Weibo, WeChat and other platforms, and many millions of them have been blogging/tweeting/messaging about things here that the powers-that-be would rather they didn’t comment on and they have tried to shut down critical comment.  However Chinese internet users are a smart bunch and they have found many ways round the web-censors. One of these ways is to use puns.  Puns don’t usually show up when the censors are searching the web for specific word use which might be anti-government.  What follows is merely a single example:

The terms ‘Grass Mud Horse’ and ‘River Crab’ are perfect examples of this.  In Chinese the words grass mud horse 草泥alpaca 5马  said together, mean the South American animal ‘Alpaca’ (ie an Alpaca is a Grass Mud Horse).

The Chinese characters for an alpaca. 草泥马, sound exactly the same – ‘cao ni ma‘ -but are written differently from the characters for the phrase ‘fuck your mother..’  The characters for River Crab, 河蟹 , are written very differently from (but sound exactly the same – héxiè) as the characters for ‘harmonise’ 和谐 .grass-mud-horse 2

A few years back, the then PM of China. Hu Jintao declared that no-one should criticise the State, they should work towards ‘harmony’ as a nation.  The Chinese netizens quickly took up the word ‘harmony’ and ‘harmonised’ and used them to describe posts that were being censored….but they used the words River Crab rather than the word ‘harmonised’ which is a censored word on the Chinese internet.  Combined with the characters for ‘Alpaca’ ie Grass Mud Horse this was understood as a protest phrase meaning ‘Fuck your mother harmonised’

grass-mud-horseEventually the Chinese web censors got the hang of these puns and started wiping them out – so the netizens replaced them with pictures of Alpacas and River is an ongoing battle.

This is but one of many puns that have annoyed the powers-that-be, for a more detailed list, see here.

Puns and wordplay are interwoven into the language of China and used by authors, poets and common people alike.  When I started learning Mandarin, and was struggling with the four tones, a Chinese friend sent me a tongue-twister which goes:


This would be pronounced as: sì shi sì, shí shi shí, shísì shi shísì, sìshí shi sìshí, and translates as:”Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty”  Trying to learn it drove me nearly crazy!


There is also a famous poem called ‘The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den‘  which uses 92 different words which are all pronounced in the same way but with different tones.YuanShikai President RoC 1912-1915

Banning puns is one battle I don’t think the mighty State will win. It is not the first time there has been an attempt to ban punning.  Back in 1912 Yuan Shi Kai,who became President of the first Republic of China after the Qing dynasty was toppled and Pu Yi removed from his role as the Emperor, also tried to have the use of puns prohibited.

He failed.

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Fish Fragrant Aubergine – My version

Chinese auberginesThe first thing you need to know about this dish is that no fishes are involved!  It has this name because the combination of ingredients and the method of making the dish are very similar to some fish recipes.  It is a famous dish from the province of Sichuan but is now served all over China.

To be honest, aubergines have never been one of my favourite vegetables (except for Baba Ghanoush) though I have tolerated them in moussaka, ratatouille etc. It wasn’t until I came to live in Beijing that I really started to appreciate them in their own right.  Now I have become quite a fan…

Fish Fragrant Aubergine is a flavoursome vegetarian dish, and would be served with three or four other dishes to make a Chinese meal. Moreover, it fits well into western meals as it is a great vegetable side dish for grilled pork chops/sausages etc.

This is my version of the famous dish, I have adapted it as the ‘real’ version involves deep-frying which I don’t do.  If you want to try the authentic recipe I suggest you look at one of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbooks , I refer to them all the time and  cannot recommend them more highly. She is THE western expert on  Chinese cooking in general and Sichuan cooking in particular.


Serves 4

2 or 3 aubergines – total weight approx 600g                                                                               Salt                                                                                                                                                   Vegetable oil                                                                                                                                             1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger                                                                                          2 cloves garlic, finely chopped                                                                                                              1 Tablespoon cornflour (corn-starch) slackend with 2 Tablespoons water                          100ml vegetarian stock                                                                                                                          1 Tablespoon light soy sauce                                                                                                                 1 Tablespoon (more if you like it spicy) chilli paste/sauce -NOT sweet chilli  sauce                 1 teaspoon sugar                                                                                                                                       1 Tablespoon dark Chinese rice vinegar – eg Shanxi vinegar.                                                                                                                                                                                    1 teaspoon sesame oil                                                                                                                            2 or 3 spring onions (scallions) green part only, finely sliced for garnish

Cut the aubergines in half length-wise, and then cut each half in half again. Cut these long pieces into even-sized bits, not too big.  Sprinkle with a little salt and leave in a colander for  approx 30mins to drain.Aubergine pieces

Heat a wok or large frying pan until very hot, add two or three Tablespoons of vegetable oil, then add some of the aubergine pieces, stir-fry for 3-4 minutes until soft and golden and remove to a side dish lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil; keep doing this until all aubergine is cooked, adding a little more oil as and Cooking auberginewhen necessary.

Now add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan, and when hot add the chilli paste, garlic and ginger; Fish fragrant aubergine ingredientsstir-fry for 2-3 minutes before adding the sugar, soy sauce and stock.  Mix well and let it all cook together for a few minutes.

Return the aubergine to the pan and stir together with the sauce. Now add the slackened cornflour and stir gently as it thickens. Stir in the vinegar and spring onions and allow it to cook down for 2 minutes or so.  Finally stir in the sesame oil.

Remove from the pan to a dish and serve immediately – although this dish is also good served at room temperature.


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Divorce Lawyers – they’re a big hit here.

A week or two ago I noticed something a little odd happening at the front entrance of our building. There was a group of young people (mostly young women) all standing with their backs to the entrance doors and taking selfies on their phones. That’s strange I thought, why here?  When I went inside I asked the concierge if he’d noticed and what it was about.  He told me proudly that they were fans of the new hit TV programme ‘Divorce Lawyers’ which started being broadcast in October.

Divorce Lawyers posterThat explained it.  ‘Divorce Lawyers’ 離婚律師 was filmed in our building earlier this year.  For six months we all had to put up with film crews, cables, cameramen, lighting rigs, vans, boxes of props, harassed production assistants shooing us out of the lobby, all three lifts being permanently full of production equipment so you had to wait ages to use them, noise at all hours of the day and night and so on.DivorceLawyers_Photo027 After the novelty of it wore off, the whole hoo-ha drove the residents nearly mad, and many had stand-up rows with the production team and/or complained vehemently to the manager of the building. Finally the filming was over, they all decamped and we forgot about it.

Now the series is showing on  It has become a HUGE hit, and every day fans are coming from far and wide – some from as far away as Malaysia – to stand where the stars stood and have their picture taken.

Divorce Lawyers is a romantic comedy in 46 one hour episodes.  The basic storyline is that a two lawyers who specialise in divorce (one male, one female) have both put broken relationships behind them and sworn to have nothing more to do with romance.

Yao ChenHowever, when the female lawyer Luo Li played by Yao Chen 姚晨 represents the wife in a contested divorce and the male lawyer Shi Haidong played by Wu Xiu Bo 吳秀波 represents the husband;wuxiubogq2 they get thrown together, find themselves living in adjoining apartments (in our building!)  and –  you guessed it – after a rather thorny time the inevitable happens and they find themselves falling in love. Needless to say the path of true love never does run smooth, and there are many twists and turns, and ups and downs before the inevitable happy ending.

Yao Chen and Wu Xiu Bo are megastars in the Chinese film firmament, and the series has already been downloaded 1.5 BILLION times. Everyone and their aunties all over the DivorceLawyers 4Chinese speaking world knows who they are, but we in the west have never heard of them.

Although I am not a film/TV fanatic by any means, I do know the names of most of the big stars in Hollywood and the UK and could probably put a face to them and so could many Chinese, as western movies are also watched in China.  However we in the west could not do the same for Chinese film stars despite the fact that they are watched by millions more people than any of  ‘our’ stars are. Yao Chen has more Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter/Facebook) followers than the entire population of the UK!                                            I am ashamed to say that the number of Chinese stars I know could be counted on one hand and I know them only because they have also acted in western films.

The western media rarely, if ever, covers Chinese films or Chinese TV series, they don’t get  dubbed into English, they are not distributed in our countries because the big Hollywood production companies control what is shown and they have been disinterested.  But that is changing, Tinseltown has woken up to the potential profit of selling films and film productions into China, and seem to think that they are so important that they will be given automatic entry…why do they expect that? China has a vibrant and thriving film industry of its own and has done for nearly a century, they are now using the latest technology to distribute their productions,  they are not going to fall over backwards in awe of what comes out of America and Europe.



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Salmon ‘fishing’ on the Great Wall of China

One section of the Great Wall of China runs along the peaks of the Yanshan mountains to the north of Beijing. In one of the ravines running down the southern side of the mountains, immediately below the wall, there is a fish farm which uses the pure mountain streams to keep the water in its tiers of open-air fish tanks clean and fresh.Salmon fishery

This fish hatchery is a very slick operation, started by a couple of Canadians some years ago, and aiming to provide fresh salmon for the local market and  for tourists visiting the Great Wall (when I say tourists I do not mean western visitors to China, I mean Chinese people who are exploring their own country), and there are thousands of visitors most days.

There is a cluster of buildings near the parking area, which includes several labs where the fish eggs are collected fertilised, hatched and incubated. Fish tanks 1The small fry are moved from indoor tank to tank as they grow until they are large enough to go to the outdoor area. Then the young fish move up the mountain-side from tank to tank as they increase in size/age.  Eventually they end up in pools at the upper-most level, where some people ‘fish’ for them with a crude rod and line.   Most fish in the pools are salmon, but there are also golden carp which are a very popular fish with Chinese diners.

Choosing your fish Other fish are in a tank where a chap with a pole and net will catch the fish chosen by the punter which they take away to be paid for.

There is another chap on duty who kills the fishKilling the fish by whacking it hard with a metal cudgel and then weighing it and charging accordingly.  Few people take the fresh fish home with them. The usual thing is to hand the fish over to the staff at one of the roadside diners where the fish is Weighing the fishfilleted, soaked in  various sauces and then grilled over hot coals.  Ten minutes at the most between the fish being netted and sitting down to eat it!

Cooking the fishFor many Chinese families no trip to the Great Wall would be complete without a fish lunch or supper washed down with bottles of local beer.

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Bodysnatchers in China

In Scotland during the early 1800s, there was a problem with ‘Bodysnatchers‘ or, as they were also called, ‘Resurrection Men’.  These people would remove recently buried corpses from graves by night, and sell them to surgeons at the medical schools in Edinburgh and Aberdeen for use in anatomy lectures. Resurrection-Men The need for cadavers was so great that two infamous chaps called Burke & Hare stopped merely robbing graves and started killing people in order to meet the demand. They were eventually caught and tried. Burke was excecuted in front of a crowd of 25,000 and his body was sent to be anatomised!  The case received a huge amount of publicity; Sir Walter Scott mentions it in one of his novels, and the author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story inspired by it.

Here in China there has been a spate of ‘bodysnatching’ recently,  but for very different reasons to those in Georgian Scotland.

In China approximately 9 million bodies are interred in graves every year, and these huge numbers are now beginning to use up land available for agriculture and other purposes.


Being buried has always been of great cultural and religious significance in China.  In rural areas many people purchase their own coffins and grave clothes years in advance, and keep them in their homes ready for the day they will be needed.

Coffin stored in classroom of rural primary school.

Coffin stored in classroom of rural primary school.

89yr old Hunan woman has her coffin ready in her kitchen.

89yr old Hunan woman has her coffin ready in her kitchen.

Because it had become obvious that the country could not sustain this volume of land being used for graveyards, the powers-that-be have tried, right from the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, to persuade the population to accept cremation as an alternative.

Indeed Mao Zedong himself committed to being cremated – in writing, way back in 1956 – however when he did eventually die, his followers completely ignored his wishes and had him embalmed and put on display, but that’s another story.

Last year in Henan province, local government caused consternation and outrage by flattening some 400,00 graves to make more agricultural land available.  Early this year, Anhui province in eastern China passed a local law making cremation compulsory after 1st June.  As a result six elderly people committed suicide in May so that they could be buried before the new law took effect. A fairly drastic un-intended consequence of the legislation.  But that was merely the start of things…

To ensure the policy was working, a government quota for the number of cremations was set  for each area – and this is where the bodysnatching comes in.  Local officials have been buying corpses from bodysnatchers and having them cremated in order to meet their target requirements!  Bodies have been snatched from other provinces and brought in to meet the demand.

But that is not all. There is another ancient reason for  bodysnatching in China.                    In two words:  Ghost Wives (cue spooky music..)  This is when a dead female body is ‘married’ to a man who may be alive, but may have pre-deceased her.                                        Despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party government since 1949, the tradition of ‘Ghost Marriages has never died out completely.  In fact Ghost Marriages are illegal and carry a penalty of 3 years imprisonment. In 2007 ten men were sentenced for having sold female corpses for these rituals, and one man (shades of Burke & Hare) killed no fewer than 16 women in order to sell their bodies!

Despite its illegality, ancient beliefs die hard (excuse the pun).  The idea that a man who never marries and is buried alone will bring bad luck to his family for generations to come is a powerful incentive to break the law.   So a family may consider buying the corpse of a recently deceased woman (if the corpse is rotting it won’t do) and conducting a marriage ceremony before interring her with the dead bachelor to avoid bad luck, and they hope that the authorities will not find out.Ghost wife

Furthermore, it was always the way that a younger son could not marry until his older brother had been married. Sometimes, in order to make the marriage possible, the older bachelor brother will have a ‘Ghost Marriage’ with a corpse so that his younger brother is able to marry.

I do  hope you have been paying attention and got to grips with the complexities of marrying a cadaver – these things are never straightforward.

There is an old English expression that comes to mind:    ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’

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The changing role of women published on


Lijia Zhang is a wonderful writer and I am proud to call her my friend. This piece from her blog explains the changing role of women in China.

Originally posted on lijia zhang's blog:

Lijia Zhang

Writer, Journalist and Public Speaker

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by Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and public speaker. She describes herself as a communicator between China and the world and has given talks at conferences about contemporary China and lectured at many top universities including Stanford, Harvard, and The University of Sydney.

Oct 29, 2014
The Changing Role of Chinese Women

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My grandmother was a prostitute-turned concubine, my mother a frustrated factory worker, and myself a rocket-factory-girl-turned-international-writer. The stories of three generations of women in my family illustrate the changing role of women in contemporary Chinese society.

My grandma’s story – a working girl turned concubine

At birth my grandma was named Yang Huizhen, but for many years she was known as Huang-Yang Shi – meaning the woman who was married to a man surnamed Huang and middle-named, Yang

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfullness in Mutianyu

A few weekends ago the DH and I, together with other friends, had a weekend away at a place called Mutianyu.                                                                                                                      Mutianyu is a village which nestles in a ravine on the southern slopes of the Yanshan Mountains, some 70 kms north-east of Beijing.  It is mainly known for being one of the three public access points to the Great Wall of China closest to the capital (the other two being Badaling and Simatai).Great Wall access map

Our friends had rented a house for two days and nights, and invited us to go along. What a joy to get out of the city for a couple of days, breathe clear mountain air, and take in the glorious views.  We set off loaded down with books to read, lots of food (we were self-catering), lots of wine, walking boots (not mine!) cameras etc. An hour and a half later we were there.

The house – La Petite Muraille – is owned by a French-American couple who used to live in Beijing.  It is now managed on their behalf by ‘Brickyard at Mutianyu‘, and we were the first guests to stay there.  What a wonderful place it turned out to be.

La Petite Muraille Mutianyu

La Petite Muraille

Two very ancient and delapidated adjoining houses had been renovated and turned into one spectacularly comfortable house, with every mod-con, but retaining a Chinese style.Mutianyu LPM bedroom Our bedroom had a fabulous Chinese style four-poster!

There were amazing views in every direction from both the house and the garden. We looked out over the magnificent vista with the nearby slopes displaying  every autumn colour dotted here and there with the wild persimmon trees which are characteristic of this part of northern China.

Needless to say the DH, who loves to climb hills, was in his element and one morning set off at 6.00am to climb up to the Great Wall to watch the sunrise.

Sunrise on the Great Wall

Sunrise on the Great Wall

He was rewarded with a fabulously clear day, and not a soul in sight (a rare thing in China!!).  Others took the cable car which runs from 8.00am onwards and then hiked back down.   I just relaxed on the terrace enjoying the peace and quiet, the beautiful scenery and the fresh air.  For the first time in ages I did some sketching – I’d forgotten how much I enjoy drawing, and have made a promise to myself that I will do it more often.

Great Wall in Autumn 1The one Chinese member of our party loves cooking and he happily set to and produced magnificent meals. After dinner each evening we all sat round a roaring fire sipping wine and discussing life in China and what amazing contrasts we have all experienced here.

Returning to Beijing on the Monday morning we all felt our batteries were fully recharged.  Truly a weekend to remember.

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