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The Other Side of the Great Firewall – The Hidden Joys of the Chinese Internet

I think a lot of us picture China as a place where the people are completely ignorant of the outside world due to heavy censorship (yesterday’s post on the topic). Coming to China often does little to change this perception, as people will smile politely and tell you that everything has always been fine in Tibet, or that Tiananmen Square’s only remarkable feature is that it is the largest public square in the world.

That is why I take so much pleasure in learning about the subversive corners of the Chinese internet, where the feelings people hide in public come pouring out for the world to read.

Some simply ignore the danger of upsetting the government. Little is known about the exact methodology used to patrol the internet, and there are relatively few stories of people being arrested for what they have said online.

Also the government is always concerned with upsetting netizens by blocking too many sites, so if a story becomes popular quickly enough it becomes very difficult to keep it from spreading (like this collection of photos of wasteful government buildings or this post about poisonous food in China).

Scaling the wall

There is a way to get past the wall with a VPN or proxy server, which makes it seem to the internet that you are not actually in China at all.

This is how Chinese activists reach sites like twitter and youtube to spread their message, but it is also how Chinese netizens get access to basic news and information. Without a VPN it is hard to use the internet for gathering information, just this morning a friend who knows I regularly scale the wall, asked me to fetch him some information about Libya.

I can’t provide you with exact numbers of how many people use these kinds of services, but their existence seems to be common knowledge for Chinese people my age. When some of the VPNs were targeted recently by the censors, even middle school students were complaining that it was hard to do research without scaling the wall.

Puns and Internet Creatures

A more creative approach enables people to post on Chinese owned sites without tipping off the censors.This method involves using puns to talk around sensitive key words.

Puns in Chinese are made incredibly easily since it is a sound poor language (more on that here), virtually any name or issue is easily punned. Government spokespeople are regularly given somewhat vulgar names since their real names are not allowed to be used. For example Qin Gang from the Foreign Ministry sounds the same as “bird anus”, she earned this name after famously saying, “The Internet in China is fully open.”

This method really took off in early 2009 with the birth of the internet’s first legendary creature, “Grass Mud Horse”. The Chinese censors had blocked profanity, and so CaoNiMa (grass-mud-horse) was used to mock this attempt, since it’s name sounds identical to “F#*k your mother”.

There was even a popular song and video (not for children) for this first magical creature, and the use of special internet puns exploded. Popular creatures now include the river crab (sounds like “harmony” and mocks the government’s over use of the word), the monkey-snake (sounds like “mouthpiece”), and the valley dove (sounds like “Google”) which is always attacked by the river crab. Each creature has an entire back story, and people have even made several “documentaries” about these magnificent creatures.

What I am hoping you take away from this post is that Chinese people know far more than they are willing to show in public, and that even with huge amounts of government spending, the internet is not such an easy thing to control. The Chinese have found a way to mock the system that would leave most foreigners pulling their hair out.

This story detailing new measures from ChinaDigitalTimes.net came out as I was writing this post. Also credit is due to CDT for their work in compiling a dictionary of Chinese internet slang.


16 Comments

  1. Chopstik says:

    I suspect this is one post that will help to illuminate some things that many foreigners (at least to China) would not know as a matter of course.

  2. […] Seeing Red in China The Middle Kingdom Made Easy Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveRecommendationsSuggested SitesChina Books You Need to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← Tackling the Nuclear Problem with a Grain of Salt – News Story of the Week The Other Side of the Great Firewall – The Hidden Joys of the Chinese Internet → […]

  3. Sasha says:

    I must admit when I came to China I just expected all the people still felt really controlled by the government and not willing to talk about issues. I was really surprised to find that many young Chinese were happy to open up to me on their frustrations and strong opinions surrounding these issues even though they barely knew me. The other thing that surprised me were just how many were using facebook and twitter, I guess i just thought they wouldn’t have any clue how to get past the block in China as everything related to getting past it was blocked in the firstplace! Though apparently the firewall maybe was not quite as strong as the government thought!

    • Tom says:

      It’s always interesting to see just how people react to some of these issues. I remember telling a group of students that I had visited a foreign country, Thailand. One boy jumped out of his seat and shouted, “Thailand has always been a part of China, it is not a foreign country!” Luckily the other students explained that I wasn’t talking about Taiwan, and he turned a bit red.
      Also, Sasha runs Shanghai Novice, if you are new to living in China it offers some practical advice for overcoming culture shock, and making the most of your time in China.

    • Chopstik says:

      I typically stay away from controversial subjects when I am in China – but more than once have subjects been broached with me by both good friends as well as complete strangers. The first time it happened was in a taxi in Beijing when the driver started telling me about how much he thought it was right for Clinton to bomb Saddam Hussein (Dec 1998 IIRC) – that was when I first learned that the US had launched missiles at Iraq. It has happened several other times, too.

      I have found, though, that other taboo subjects (that are more pertinent to the last 40+ years in China) are never discussed. They might be acknowledged (when not in China) but, even then, only reluctantly. The only exception is if the argument is taking the pro-government line.

  4. […] I think a lot of us picture China as a place where the people are completely ignorant of the outside world due to heavy censorship (yesterday’s post on the topic). Coming to China often does little to change this perception, … Continue reading → […]

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I have learned so much from this Post. Thank you very much!

  6. […] at which the main dish was to be river crabs. As you might remember from my post that covered Chinese internet creatures, “river crab” sounds like “harmony” in Chinese, and represents gov’t […]

  7. Nice discussion on the issue of censorship. One thing to take into account is that Chinese don’t often want to admit to a foreigner that they think there country is doing something bad. I’ve asked some of my students before, they sort of jokingly said they didn’t care as long as they had QQ. But anytime a small group of people (that would be the Chinese gov’t) are going to limit access of a website to 1.6 billion people, people will care. There probably a little embarrassed about it, too. I would be if this was my governments way of trying to run things. Another thing to point out.. i asked my students why sites were blocked but they didn’t do…I asked where they could find out.. didn’t know that either.

    The smear jobs of the US, as you talked about, really annoy me.

    • Tom says:

      It is interesting that they don’t know when these things happened. A Chinese college student who is studying in the US asked me why Facebook was blocked in China, it seems so strange that this further deepens the student’s dependence on foreigners for “real news”.

      I have a few Chinese friends that will email me when they hear about something going on in China to get the half of the story that is being blocked.

    • Tom says:

      It is interesting that they don’t know when these things happened. A Chinese college student who is studying in the US asked me why Facebook was blocked in China, it seems so strange that this further deepens the student’s dependence on foreigners for “real news”.

      I have a few Chinese friends that will email me when they hear about something going on in China to get the half of the story that is being blocked.

  8. […] you aren’t familiar with the Great Firewall of China I would suggest reading this and this […]

  9. […] The Bo story may have simply gone viral in a way that censors were unprepared and ill-equipped for. As I’ve discussed before, Chinese has so many homophones and puns that blocking keywords can hardly be called an effective […]

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