THE BLOG
09/30/2014 11:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Decoding China's Internet, One Meme at a Time

TARIK KIZILKAYA via Getty Images
china digital times

In early 2009, as the Chinese government launched a campaign against "vulgar" language on the Internet, an imaginary creature called the grass-mud horse emerged as a fast-moving meme in Chinese cyberspace. "Grass-mud horse" (cǎonímǎ 草泥马), which sounds nearly the same in Mandarin as an obscene curse, was originally coined to get around, and also poke fun at, government censorship. The idea caught fire instantly, completely transforming its symbolic meaning. Within weeks, the grass-mud horse became the de facto mascot of Chinese netizens fighting for free expression. As one Chinese blogger explained, "The grass-mud horse represents information and opinions that cannot be accepted by the mainstream discourse, and the 'Song of the Grass-Mud Horse' has become a metaphor of the power struggle over Internet expression."

Since then, Internet users in China have created an endless stream of unique terms, phrases, and puns that provide euphemisms for censored terms or politically-charged events in order to keep their conversations going. At China Digital Times, we have collected these terms and translated them in our Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon, an ongoing project to document the resistance discourse of Chinese netizens. Our new eBook, Decoding the Chinese Internet: A Glossary of Political Slang, compiles the most enduring and popular of the more than 250 terms in our Lexicon. It provides a handy reference for anyone interested in Chinese politics, online activism, or linguistics, while vividly illustrating the resilience and creativity of China's Internet users.