Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke

The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy article looking at the role of humor and satire online in China:

No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”

So pervasive is this irreverent subculture that the Chinese have a name for it: egao, meaning “evil works” or, more roughly, “mischievous mockery.” In its simplest form, egao (pronounced “EUH-gow”) lampoons the powerful without being overtly rebellious. President Hu Jintao’s favorite buzz word, “harmony,” which he deploys constantly when urging social stability, is hijacked to signify censorship itself, as in, “My blog’s been harmonized.” June 4, the censored date of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters, is rendered as May 35 — or “535.” There are also more complex forms of egao, like Hu Ge’s 2010 film spoof, “Animal World,” in which a rare species of Internet users is “saved” from “compulsive thinking disorder,” i.e., the urge to think freely.

Satire is sometimes a safety valve that government might grudgingly permit. Better a virtual laugh, after all, than a real protest. But being laughed at, as Orwell found during his stint as a colonial police officer in Burma, can also be a ruler’s greatest fear. And the Chinese government, which last year sentenced a woman to a year of hard labor for a sarcastic three-word tweet, appears to suffer from an acute case of humor deficiency.

October 26, 2011 2:51 PM
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