According to an article by the New York Times, online censorship increased markedly after a group of high-profile intellectuals, led by Liu Xiaobo, published Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democracy in China. Shortly after that, the government started a campaign against Internet pornography and “deviance.”
Three months later, nearly 2,000 websites and 250 blogs were shut down, including pornographic websites and online content involving sensitive issues. It is in this cyber climate that the first homophones appeared, with the most notable being “草泥马 (Cao Ni Ma)” and “河蟹 (He Xie).”
In 2009, a short music video named “Children’s Chorus: Grass Mud Horse in the Mahler Gobi Desert” (童声合唱：草泥马之歌) went viral on Chinese social networks. It features a herd of Grass Mud Horses (Cao Ni Ma) whose peaceful life in the idyllic Mahler Gobi land is threatened by a swarm of River Crab (He Xie). In the end, the Grass Mud Horses successfully fight off the evil River Crabs, much to netizens’ delight.
“River Crab” in Chinese is a homophone for “和谐,” which means “harmony.” It was invented in response to the government’s quest to “build a harmonious society,” which involved censoring certain keywords on the government’s blacklist. The code word “River Crab” is also used as a verb meaning “filter,” when posts are blocked supposedly because they are not “harmonious” enough. “Grass Mud Horse” and “Mahler Gobi” are both homophones of obscene phrases in Chinese, further adding to the song’s popularity.
More recently, Chinese women joined the online movement to fight against sexual harassment through the #MeToo campaign. But the momentum suddenly came to a halt a few weeks after it began around January 19, when the primary hashtag of China’s #MeToo campaign – #MeToo在中国 (#MeTooInChina) – was momentarily blocked.
Undeterred, the campaigners came up with a solution to get around the censors. They used Chinese homophones for “me too,” “米兔 (Mi Tu),” to replace “me too” in the hashtag. “米兔” is composed of two characters that respectively mean “rice” and “bunny.”
Chinese puns, or homophones, are part of the history of the guerilla warfare between netizens and the authorities. Where there is censorship, there will be a homophone.
Below are some classic examples of the types of homophones used to dodge the censors:
斯巴达 (Shi Ba Da, Sparta) – 十八大 (Shi Ba Da, the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China)
毒菜 (Du Cai, Poisonous Vegetables) – 独裁 (Du Cai, Dictatorship)
皿煮 (Min Zhu, Cooked in Utensils) – 民主 (Min Zhu, Democracy)
滋油 (Zi You, Pouring Oil) – 自由 (Zi You, Freedom)