Shanghaied Speech

The Chinese government isn’t known for being very freedom-loving — seemingly at a whim, the nation bans the most random things. For example, the title of today’s Now I Know could run afoul of Chinese censors. Sure, it’s arguably anti-China (although that’d be a stretch), which could be problematic in and of itself. But there’s another problem — if you’re linguistically charitable at least — it’s a pun. And late last year, the Chinese government proscribed puns as unwelcome in China.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. Puns are — were, maybe? — a core part of Chinese culture. As the Los Angeles Times reported, this is a function of the language itself: “puns are ubiquitous in Chinese, which has countless homophones. Substituting one character for another can easily change the meaning of a phrase while barely altering the sound.” The Guardian provided an example which has been true for decades, if not generations: “When couples marry, people will give them dates and peanuts – a reference to the wish Zaosheng guizi or “May you soon give birth to a son”. The word for dates is also zao and peanuts are huasheng.”

But in December of 2014, that tune changed. The Washington Post relayed a Chinese press release on the matter: “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms.” (And for that matter, puns and euphemisms as well.) That may sound like a joke in and of itself, but the Chinese aren’t kidding. Of particular concern to the Chinese government was that the erosion of the Chinese language may make it more difficult to promote the larger Chinese culture and, in particular, to promote that heritage to children — at least officially.

Unofficially, though, many experts can’t help but gag at such reasoning; rather, they think that this is no laughing matter. In their view, China is saying one thing but trying to do another — the government hopes to censor potentially subversive political speech. Online chatter — forums, Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), and the like — had adopted a culture of punning in order to talk about Chinese leadership — and not too fondly — without invoking the names of leaders directly. Quartz had a specifically revealing example:

The “marijuana era” is happening in China. That’s thanks to a clever pun that pokes fun at the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, and has been circulating around China’s web. The pun subverts the cult of personality growing around Xi and first lady Peng Liyuan, who is also a well-known singer.


This is how the pun developed: At a celebration earlier this year of Teachers’ Day in China, Xi picked up the term of affection “Daddy Xi.” Last week, an ode to the president and first lady—”Daddy Xi loves Mama Peng“—extended the filial reverence to Peng. The first character in “daddy” is 大, pronounced “da.” The first in “mama” is 媽, pronounced “ma.” Combining those two, you get “dama.” That is a homonym for 大麻, “marijuana.”

Most likely, the ban will be short-lived — even if it’s not overturned, it’ll be only loosely enforced. But for now, if you’re in China, you’d best not treat the policy as some sort of joke.

AnchorBonus Fact: Author Lewis Carroll was a huge fan of puns, and his most well-known novel Alice in Wonderland is full of them. And it was once banned in China, but not because of the puns. In 1931, according to the Banned Books Awareness project, China banned the book because “animals should not use human language, and that it was disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.”

From the ArchivesWitzelsucht: Uncontrollably punning? Maybe you’re suffering from a neurological disorder.

RelatedAlice in Wonderland.