Remember when you first learned to cuss and how great that felt? I can still recall the exact conversation I had with my friend Carolyn when we were 10, when we brainstormed every bad word we knew, and what I did after. I hopped on my red Schwinn bicycle -- that I had nicknamed "Little Red Corvette" -- and rode around my small-town neighborhood, which was surrounded by piney woods where you could often find petrified wood and, on occasion, an armadillo, yelling "fuck fuck fuck" into the wind. It was like a door being opened to a secret universe, a first taste of freedom on the tongue.
I didn't learn how to properly curse in Mandarin until I went to China to teach English after college. One of my students, "Doug" -- they were all given Anglo names freshman year -- didn't care a whit about the writing class I taught, but he did want to know how to throw down in English, and in exchange, he taught me a few insulting Chinese phrases. The worst was "Cao ni ma" or "Fuck your mother," which Doug advised me never to use (and I still haven't).
In January of this year, a video about the "cao ni ma," or "grass-mud horse," an alpaca-like creature, accompanied by an excruciatingly catchy "It's a Small World"-type children's song appeared on a Chinese web page and found its way onto YouTube. Of course the word for grass-mud horse has different tonal inflections than the insult, but the effect is the same:
But this is China we're talking about, so the video isn't just funny, punny wordplay. And since its appearance on the Internet, the grass-mud horse has become a national symbol of resistance to authority and censorship. The NY Times reported Wednesday:
The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China's authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.
It has also raised real questions about China's ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet -- a project on which the Chinese government already has expended untold riches, and written countless software algorithms to weed deviant thought from the world's largest cyber-community.
I also love the double entendre of "Fuck your mother." Fuck your mother, Fuck your mother country, Fuck your mother ship. So what better time is there for me to finally bust out my nastiest Mandarin?
Hey Chinese government!
Cao ni ma!
Ahhh. The first taste of freedom on the tongue.