Perry Link: Rhymes Against the State

Perry Link, a co-editor of “The Tiananmen Papers,” teaches at the University of California-Riverside. He wrote this piece in the Washington Post:

In Imperial China, emperors and other high officials sometimes disguised themselves as commoners and mingled with the ordinary folk to learn what they were really thinking. For essentially the same purpose, a government office in the People’s Republic now collects shunkouliu, or “slippery jingles.” These are rhythmic, often rhyming sayings full of clever wordplay. They are invariably satirical, and corruption is the most common target of their biting wit. The ditties are passed around by word of mouth (or, more recently, through text messages) and, like jokes in the West, are of unknown authorship. Uncensored and uncensorable, they are the freest and arguably the liveliest medium in China, even though the government has classified the poems in its own collection as state secrets.

… The Olympics arrive
Beijing’s alive!
The torch on display!
(The people make way.)
The foreigners are here
So the sky’s suddenly clear!
And here’s a new treat:
Fewer cars on the street!
Of course we are moved
That the food has improved.
And: no beggars, no riff-raff,
No petitions, you see,
No jails, no beatings
Just sweet “harmony!”


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