Yu Hua: The Spirit of May 35th

In the New York Times, author Yu Hua writes about the language developed by those in China who want to express themselves online without catching the attention of censors. “May 35th” has become a common euphemism for “June 4th,” one of many banned keywords in Chinese cyberspace:

I once tried to post online a literary essay of mine. Though it made no reference whatsoever to politics, an error message kept popping up. Innocently, I assumed I must have miswritten a character or two, and marveled that technology could detect typos so easily. But after careful proofreading and revision of the odd phrase here and there, that frosty error message continued to appear. Finally I realized that the text had violated several taboos. Though widely scattered in different paragraphs, the offending words left the automated censors with little doubt that I was indulging in political dissent.

We have no way of knowing how many words have been blacklisted, or which once-banned words can now be used. Sometimes you can manage to avoid all the taboos and post your opinion, but if it is couched in too explicit an idiom, it will get deleted almost right away.

So we adapt. With the Chinese government so bent on promoting a “harmonious society,” Internet users slyly tailor the phrase for their own purposes. If someone writes, “Be careful you don’t get harmonized,” what they mean is “Be careful you don’t get shut down” or “Be careful you don’t get arrested.” Harmonize has to be the word most thoroughly imbued with the May 35th spirit. Officials are aware, of course, of its barbed meaning on the Internet, but they can hardly ban it, because to do so would be to outlaw the “harmonious society” they are plugging. Harmony has been hijacked by the public.

Such is China’s Internet politics. Practically everyone has mastered the art of May 35th expression, and I myself am no slouch.

About 200 examples of such terminology are compiled and explained in CDT’s Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon.

Read more by and about Yu Hua via CDT.