The Grass Mud Horse Lexicon

The Grass Mud Horse Lexicon, a catalogue of subversive online witticisms in China, is an example of the unflagging creativity of the human spirit, writes Amy Qin.

The case

In early 2009, a seemingly innocuous video called “Song of the grass mud horse” was posted on a Chinese web page. The video depicted a “grass mud horse”, which in Chinese is a near homophone with a banned phrase in China, cào nǐ mā (“fuck your mother”), defeating a river crab, itself a pun on “harmony” (héxiè), a propaganda buzzword often used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Immediately, the satirical video became a viral hit amongst Chinese netizens, propelling the grass mud horse to the symbolic forefront of an online protest movement aimed at getting around and poking fun at the CCP’s internet censorship practices.

The grass mud horse soon inspired a proliferation of Chinese puns on internet censorship and the CCP’s prosaic rhetoric. For example, netizens coined “the thirty-fifth of May” (wǔyuèsānshíwǔrì) in reference to the politically sensitive Tiananmen Square incident, known in Chinese by the date on which it occurred (the “June 4th Incident”). The China Digital Times, a bilingual online news aggregator founded by Xiao Qiang at the University of California, Berkeley, has collected these subversive witticisms to create the Grass Mud Horse Lexicon, a Wikipedia-style glossary of translations of terms created by Chinese netizens. In doing so, the China Digital Times hopes to contribute to a deeper understanding of the “resistance discourse” that has “[forced] an opening for free expression and civil society in China”.

Author opinion

The Grass Mud Horse Lexicon is an example of the unflagging creativity of the human spirit. Even in the face of increasingly repressive online censorship regulations, Chinese netizens have managed to find innovative and creative ways through which to voice their opinions. As evidenced by the continually expanding Grass Mud Horse Lexicon, many netizens in China have revived discussion of important historical and political issues that the CCP would rather sweep under the rug, such as “the thirty-fifth of May” or the grass mud horse. It is important to remember, however, that this witty discourse of resistance is still confined to only a small segment of Chinese population, and that most Chinese remain passively subject to egregious public encroachment on the internet.

- Amy Qin

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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