On January 1, 2018, a New York City-based academic came forth with allegations of having been sexually harassed by her adviser during her years of study in Beijing. Inspired by the growing movement in the United States, she wrote a detailed account of her experience and posted it under the #MeToo hashtag on the popular Chinese social media platform, Weibo. Her post quickly went viral. The #MeToo movement had officially reached China.
Weibo quickly blocked the #MeToo hashtag, though, prompting users to search for alternate means to tell their stories. #RiceBunny, along with the rice bowl and bunny face emojis, quickly took the place of #MeToo. The Chinese words for ‘rice bunny’ are pronounced ‘mi tu,’ a homophone that allowed its users to evade detection (until it, too, was later blocked).
As UC Riverside Professor Xiao Qiang, who is also co-author of the paper, “From Grass-Mud Horses to Citizens: Language and Political Identity on the Chinese Internet” explains, “demands for greater freedom of information and expression are often expressed in coded language and metaphors…which allows them to avoid outright censorship.”
Grass-Mud Horses and River Crabs
In other words, the transformation of the #MeToo hashtag to #RiceBunny was not the first of its kind. As suggested by the title of Xiao’s paper, the ‘Grass-Mud Horse’ is another play on words popular on the Chinese internet. A Google search of the grass-mud horse will turn up over 25 million hits, many of them portraying a lively alpaca-like animal, which has become a sort of mascot against government censorship. The Mandarin phrase for grass-mud horse is cǎonímǎ, which is only a shift in tone away from a more vulgar expletive.
The grass-mud horse is often depicted fighting a villain called the ‘river crab’ – a symbol whose genesis is similar. During the regime of Hu Jintao, crackdowns on politically subversive internet content were often justified in the name of the regimes goal of creating héxié shèhuì, or a ‘harmonious society.’ Héxié, ‘harmony,’ soon began to be used online as slang for ‘censorship.’ Thus, when Chinese citizens found that their activity online had been censored, they would often invoke the term, saying that they had been ‘harmonized.’
The word for harmony bears a striking similarity to the word for river crab (héxiè), which has a falling tone on the final ‘e’ rather than a rising tone. Thus, when the subversive use of the word ‘harmony’ became so widespread that – in a head-spinning irony, the slang word for ‘censor’ was censored – the river crab took its place.
Fast Forwarding Language
As the technology used in mass censorship continues to improve, so too do the methods of elusion employed by internet users. A word or an image gets banned, then a stand in word or image is used until it gets banned, and so on, ad infinitum, until the connection of the stand-in word to the original is so distant and convoluted that it can be hard to trace.
Viewed from a linguistic perspective, we see that the restrictions placed on online expression force the language to speed-up, as though it were the subject of one of those time-warped videos of the growth and decay of plants. Oftentimes, we are susceptible to the idea that language, like a plant, is static and unmoving, when it’s really the opposite.
It’s easy to forget how many transformations of an idea were necessary for any modern word to be born, and online censorship forces those changes to take place extremely rapidly. Words and concepts escape destruction by mutating into permutation after permutation, becoming a testament to humanity’s linguistic ingenuity.
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Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.