Fun With Chinese

If you’re chatting in Chinese on weibo, the enormously popular network of microblogs that make up China’s version to Twitter, and you mention, for instance, an obituary (fùgào) of a friend or public figure, you are going to find the word blocked.

Why? Nobody knows for sure, unless it was because of the false reporting of the death of former President Jiang Zemin, or perhaps the rumor that North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, had been assassinated. Or maybe not.

There have been legions of stories of the Chinese authorities’ exotic approach to the blockage of words on weibo, which has a vast corps of censors watching to make sure no sensitive words slip through. Jason Q. Ng, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, set out to try to catalogue all the blocked words he could find and to provide possible reasons for the blockage. His efforts can be found at “Blocked on Weibo. For some insights into the sometimes fantastical thinking of China’s censors, it’s worth looking into.

“I finally finished searching through the 700,000 Chinese Wikipedia keywords last month and have verified 1,000-plus unique words to be blocked, but the posting of logs and lists of banned words are temporarily on hold as I try and sort through the data and clean it up,” he wrote on his blog. He found data on Weibo, Google Translate, and Wikipedia, he says, adding “Please note, the translations were automatically generated and have not been checked for accuracy. Full lists of words searched are in individual log posts. “

Some words, he writes, are blocked and later turn out to be unblocked. “Of the 1,300 mostly unique words I found to be unsearchable in my initial test in Nov/Dec 2011, 933 were subsequently unblocked some time in late-January to early-February 2012,” he writes. “But apparently, that was an overreach and as of this morning, 393 of those 933 have been re-blocked (words which include 五毛 [Fifty Cent Party], 轮奸 [gang rape/gangbang], and 梯恩梯 [TNT], among others).

Many blockages are obscure. Deauville (duōwéi’ěr) is the name of a seaside resort city in France that each year hosts the Deauville American Film Festival along with the lesser well-known but similarly respected Deauville Asian Film Festival. Apparently, he writes, “Deauville has screened a number of incredibly raw Chinese films that engage sensitive contemporary topics. The 2010 Grand Prize winner, Judge, is about a death row inmate and the judge who controls his fate. The 2003 winner, Blind Shaft, is a brutal depiction of life as a coal miner in northern China and was banned in the PRC.

Wúmáo, he writes, can be used to describe any hairless thing (including animals) but is usually used to refer to a woman’s hairless pubic region. “Rather than being an implicit moral judgment of one’s grooming habits, this is likely blocked because it is a term used to look for pornography, a totally separate immoral activity. Alternatively, perhaps it might be used as a homophone for the 50 cent party?

The blockage of “50-cent party” is interesting in itself. The 50-centers, as they are known, are hired by the government to deliver scornful rejoinders for pay to any stories that are critical of China (many turn up on Asia Sentinel).

Strangely, Zhōngliánbàn, short for the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is blocked. The agency is China’s press office in Hong Kong, but is charged with a more active propaganda and political administration role. “Cao Erbao, head of research at the agency, wrote in a 2008 article that Hong Kong was and should be jointly governed by the local government along with the mainland one, a direct contradiction of the one-country, two-systems policy. Numerous protests have taken place in front of the Liaison Office in past years, and even the comings and goings of local politicians to the agency’s Hong Kong offices are closely watched,” Ng writes.

Nude photograph / luǒzhào), lovemaking, parade or demonstration/march / yóuxíng) 抗议 (protest). 示威 (demonstration) 遊行 (blocked version of “march”) and 罢工 (strike) are relatively obvious.

But why “Combining Cyrillic Millions,” a Cyrillic character used to represent one million, which is also associated with bi-directional text and backwards writing and which is useful for languages that read from right-to-left like Arabic or Hebrew. Ng isn’t sure, saying perhaps its ability to control the direction of text and reverse the order of characters* is an indictment of the CCP’s doublespeak. He is helped out by a Tumblr user who replies that it is called 菊花文 and was mainly used for obfuscation or censorship circumvention, with online converters like this http://tool.52hxw.com/028.html.” Another writes, “This sign is so similar to the symbol of Fa Lun Gong or it could be possibly used as the sign online.”

“As would be expected, most of the three-character and keywords were names of people (most Chinese names are made up of a one character surname and a one or two character given name). 87 of the 219 were names of people, and the vast majority of those people, 54, were CCP members,” Ng writes. “Nine of them were involved with either corruption or other controversy in which they were usually dismissed. Fifteen of the people are dissidents of various sorts. Three are criminals who were neither dissidents nor CCP politicians and are probably listed because their crimes were so gruesome.”

Warlord (jūnfá) is blocked “probably due to netizens comparing their corrupt and abusive local leaders to warlords. Lucky Star / xìngyùn xīng is a Japanese four-panel comic strip manga by Kagami Yoshimizu which features the stories of four high school Japanese girls. A huge hit in Japan, it doesn’t appear to have crossed into mainland China. “Perhaps the potential for naughty schoolgirl mashups caused this to be banned?”

(aphrodisiac / chūnyào) is blocked: “Even though China has a long history of using aphrodisiacs (purportedly even emperors relied on them to satisfy their harem of concubines), certain discussions about improving one’s virility are apparently taboo (however, 伟哥, aka Viagra, is not blocked). Perhaps this is a public safety measure, what with reports of older sex pill-popping Lotharios dying after engaging in too vigorous sex (in Jin Ping Mei, one of China’s most famous novels, a character dies of an accidental overdose of aphrodisiac pills).

Machete / kǎndāo) apparently is blocked because knife and cleaver-wielding men attacking schoolchildren became an unfortunate phenomenon in China in 2010. However, none of these cases specifically involved machetes, so it may simply be a matter of Weibo’s general block of most weapons.

Dew point / lùdiǎn) is apparently blocked not for its scientific meaning but because of an alternative meaning that translates as “reveal” or “expose” and can not only mean “point” but also “a little.”

“Thus, slang for “reveal a bit (of skin)”, or translated more loosely into English, something like ‘nipple slip’ or ‘crotch shot.’ Based on news references and Google searches (NSFW), the term can be used both for accidental cases and intentional exposures (eg risque photo shoots). But though the latter may be titillating, its generally non-nude.

Blockade / fēngsuǒ) apparently got the axe because of the recent Wukan seige, in which villagers stood up to Communist authorities and drove them out of the area in late 2011.

The 9/11 attacks in the US jiǔyīyī xíjī) are blocked because of China’s attempts to battle its own Muslim rebels, which it labels terrorists, in its Western provinces. The term was later unblocked, “a reminder that the line between sensitive and not is always shifting.”

A great one that Ng found is Hoobastank, an American that few have ever heard of, which was blocked “as amusing as the thought might be, not because Weibo censors have declared the band’s style of modern rock music off-limits; rather, the blocked keyword is “stank” and Hoobastank is merely caught inadvertently.. One might rightfully think the trigger would be the word “tank,” the Chinese version of the word once being blocked itself, but ”tank” was tested at the same time as “Hoobastank” and “tank” was unblocked. Thus, “stank” is definitely the blocked word, perhaps because of its connotations of licentiousness, since neither stink nor stunk are blocked. Or, perhaps even more likely, someone screwed up.”

Tortoise-shell cat or calico cat / sansemao, literally: “tri-color cat” is blocked It is a reference to Deng Xiaoping’s famed 1961 proverb in favor of market reforms: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice it’s good” “Perhaps the term was previously used to mock the current system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Regardless, it is now apparently a sensitive topic (though you can freely perform a search for Deng’s proverb itself). A favorite is“hair bacon” / mao larou), “a reference to Mao’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Tian’anmen Square, Beijing. The character mao means hair, but is also Mao’s surname. larou commonly refers to bacon, but literally means “preserved meat.” Thus, the preserved meat of Mao: his embalmed body. The term is generally used in a derogatory fashion…Referring to Mao as a slab of meat is undoubtedly offensive to a government that still officially reveres the Great Helsman, though only 70% of the time.

Ng says he has no agenda. “I think the world of China,” he writes in his blog. “If anything, I hope this site proves the resourcefulness and resiliency of Chinese netizens as well as the sense of responsibility that Chinese leaders (in the government and in private organizations) have for shepherding the country forward. You could even claim that the CCP cares too much for its citizens.”