March 12, 2009
A Dirty Pun Tweaks China's Online Censors
By MICHAEL WINES
BEIJING — Since its first unheralded appearance in January on a
Chinese Web page, the grass-mud horse has become nothing less than a
A YouTube children's song about the beast has drawn nearly 1.4
million viewers. A grass-mud horse cartoon has logged a quarter
million more views. A nature documentary on its habits attracted
180,000 more. Stores are selling grass-mud horse dolls. Chinese
intellectuals are writing treatises on the grass-mud horse's social
importance. The story of the grass-mud horse's struggle against the
evil river crab has spread far and wide across the Chinese online
Not bad for a mythical creature whose name, in Chinese, sounds very
much like an especially vile obscenity. Which is precisely the point.
The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China's
authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an
impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has
not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has
surely done that.
It has also raised real questions about China's ability to stanch the
flow of information over the Internet — a project on which the
Chinese government already has expended untold riches, and written
countless software algorithms to weed deviant thought from the
world's largest cyber-community.
Government computers scan Chinese cyberspace constantly, hunting for
words and phrases that censors have dubbed inflammatory or seditious.
When they find one, the offending blog or chat can be blocked within
Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of
California, Berkeley, who oversees a project that monitors Chinese
Web sites, said in an e-mail message that the grass-mud horse "has
become an icon of resistance to censorship."
"The expression and cartoon videos may seem like a juvenile response
to an unreasonable rule," he wrote. "But the fact that the vast
online population has joined the chorus, from serious scholars to
usually politically apathetic urban white-collar workers, shows how
strongly this expression resonates."
Wang Xiaofeng, a journalist and blogger based in Beijing, said in an
interview that the little animal neatly illustrates the futility of
censorship. "When people have emotions or feelings they want to
express, they need a space or channel," he said. "It is like a water
flow — if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or
overflows. There's got to be an outlet."
China's online population has always endured censorship, but the
oversight increased markedly in December, after a pro-democracy
movement led by highly regarded intellectuals, Charter 08, released
an online petition calling for an end to the Communist Party's
monopoly on power.
Shortly afterward, government censors began a campaign, ostensibly
against Internet pornography and other forms of deviance. By mid-
February, the government effort had shut down more than 1,900 Web
sites and 250 blogs — not only overtly pornographic sites, but also
online discussion forums, instant-message groups and even cellphone
text messages in which political and other sensitive issues were
Among the most prominent Web sites that were closed down was
bullog.com, a widely read forum whose liberal-minded bloggers had
written in detail about Charter 08. China Digital Times, Mr. Xiao's
monitoring project at the University of California, called it "the
most vicious crackdown in years."
It was against this background that the grass-mud horse and several
mythical companions appeared in early January on the Chinese Internet
portal Baidu. The creatures' names, as written in Chinese, were
innocent enough. But much as "bear" and "bare" have different
meanings in English, their spoken names were double entendres with
inarguably dirty second meanings.
So while "grass-mud horse" sounds like a nasty curse in Chinese, its
written Chinese characters are completely different, and its meaning —
taken literally — is benign. Thus the beast not only has dodged
censors' computers, but has also eluded the government's own ban on
so-called offensive behavior.
As depicted online, the grass-mud horse seems innocent enough at the
An alpaca-like animal — in fact, the videos show alpacas — it lives
in a desert whose name resembles yet another foul word. The horses
are "courageous, tenacious and overcome the difficult environment," a
YouTube song about them says.
But they face a problem: invading "river crabs" that are devouring
their grassland. In spoken Chinese, "river crab" sounds very much
like "harmony," which in China's cyberspace has become a synonym for
censorship. Censored bloggers often say their posts have been
"harmonized" — a term directly derived from President Hu Jintao's
regular exhortations for Chinese citizens to create a harmonious
In the end, one song says, the horses are victorious: "They defeated
the river crabs in order to protect their grassland; river crabs
forever disappeared from the Ma Le Ge Bi," the desert.
The online videos' scenes of alpacas happily romping to the Disney-
style sounds of a children's chorus quickly turn shocking — then, to
many Chinese, hilarious — as it becomes clear that the songs fairly
burst with disgusting language.
To Chinese intellectuals, the songs' message is clearly subversive, a
lesson that citizens can flout authority even as they appear to
follow the rules. "Its underlying tone is: I know you do not allow me
to say certain things. See, I am completely cooperative, right?" the
Beijing Film Academy professor and social critic Cui Weiping wrote in
her own blog. "I am singing a cute children's song — I am a grass-mud
horse! Even though it is heard by the entire world, you can't say
I've broken the law."
In an essay titled "I am a grass-mud horse," Ms. Cui compared the
anti-smut campaign to China's 1983 "anti-spiritual pollution
campaign," another crusade against pornography whose broader aim was
to crush Western-influenced critics of the ruling party.
Another noted blogger, the Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua,
called the grass-mud horse allusions "weapons of the weak" — the
title of a book by the Yale political scientist James Scott
describing how powerless peasants resisted dictatorial regimes.
Of course, the government could decide to delete all Internet
references to the phrase "grass-mud horse," an easy task for its
censorship software. But while China's cybercitizens may be weak,
they are also ingenious.
The Shanghai blogger Uln already has an idea. Blogging tongue in
cheek — or perhaps not — he recently suggested that online democracy
advocates stop referring to Charter 08 by its name, and instead
choose a different moniker. "Wang," perhaps. Wang is a ubiquitous
surname, and weeding out the subversive Wangs from the harmless ones
might melt circuits in even the censors' most powerful computer.
Zhang Jing contributed research.