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 .
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’
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.
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.