China Digital Times has launched a participatory Web 2.0 initiative we are calling “Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon,” (“GMH Lexicon”) an online glossary of translations of terms created by Chinese netizens and frequently encountered in online political discussions. The Lexicon has been posted on China Digital Space, our new, collaborative wiki site.
This project is part of our effort to contribute to a deeper understanding of the Internet’s cultural, social, and political impact by moving beyond anecdotal evidence and systematically documenting and interpreting political discourse created by Chinese netizens. By creating this lexicon, we hope to map out the dynamics of “domination and resistance” in Chinese communication and information networks. The aim is to vividly illustrate the increasingly dynamic and sometimes surprising presence of an alternative political discourse: images, frames, metaphors and narratives that have been generated from Internet memes. This “resistance discourse” steadily undermines the values and ideology that reproduce compliance with the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian regime, and, as such, force an opening for free expression and civil society in China.
Ultimately, we hope this project will contribute to the ongoing debate: Is the Internet acting as a “safety valve” to prolong the life of the Chinese authoritarian regime; or are new forms of networked communication enhancing opportunities for social change and helping to move China toward the “threshold” for political transformation?
Origins of the Grass-Mud Horse
In early 2009, a creature named the “Grass-Mud Horse” appeared in an online video which became an immediate viral hit. The term grass-mud horse, which sounds nearly the same in Chinese as “f*** your mother” (cáo nǐ mā), was originally created as a way to get around, and also poke fun at, government censorship of vulgar content. After netizens created an online video depicting the grass-mud horse at war with and eventually defeating the river crab, a homonym for “harmony,” a propaganda catchword, the idea caught fire instantly and the symbolic meaning of this term has been completely transformed. Within weeks, the “grass-mud horse” became the de facto mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression, inspiring poetry, photos and videos, artwork, lines of clothing, and more. As one Chinese blogger explained, “The grass-mud horse (草泥马) 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”
The grass-mud horse was particularly suited to the contested space of the Chinese Internet. The government’s pervasive and intrusive censorship system has generated equally massive resentment among Chinese netizens. As a result, new forms of social resistance and demands for greater freedom of information and expression are often expressed in coded language and implicit metaphors, which allow them to avoid outright censorship. The Internet has became a quasi-public space where the CCP’s dominance is being constantly exposed, ridiculed, and criticized, often in the form of political satire,jokes, videos, songs, popular poetry, jingles, fiction, Sci-Fi, code words, mockery, and euphemisms.
In recent years, Chinese netizens have shown they possess boundless creativity and ingenuity in finding such ways to express themselves despite stifling government restrictions on online speech. To the uninitiated, even those who can read Chinese, their coded language can be confounding. But to Chinese Internet users, the terms often resonate deeply by expressing feelings about shared experiences that millions of people can immediately relate to. Despite their subversive beginnings, many of the terms have already become mainstream in Chinese society; a few were even added to the Oxford Chinese dictionary this year.
How have these Terms Been Submitted and Selected?
The terms in our lexicon are all created by netizens and circulated on websites inside China, not just by prominent bloggers or opinion leaders. For many of the terms, one cannot identify the original author or how exactly it originated. China Digital Times selected these terms from a variety of sources. We discovered many from a self-initiated online project of Chinese bloggers to select for the “words of the year in Chinese blogosphere.” Others come from countless online articles, blog posts, articles from mainstream publications such as Southern Metropolis Daily or even Xinhua, and from Chinese BBS. The direct participation of Chinese netizens also yielded many terms after China Digital Times’s Chinese version made the call for submissions public in June 2010.
The selected terms are not a complete recording of pop culture online terminology. Rather, China Digital Times editors have focused exclusively on politically-charged terms which represent the netizens’ “resistance discourse.” These are not “censored” keywords, which have been documented elsewhere by CDT and other projects, nor are they part of the “legitimizing discourse,” used by people who actively defend and support government policy, including nationalists. At times, some of these words may be put on individual websites’ “sensitive lists” or outright blocked, but in general they are popular daily lingo for Chinese netizens.
The current list, chosen by China Digital Times editors, is by no means exhaustive and new words are being created daily. But we hope this list will provide a glimpse into online political discourse and make it more accessible to non-Chinese readers.
Help Us Build the Lexicon
This is an ongoing open source collaborative translation program with submissions from volunteers and professional translators. What is currently published is just a seed that we hope to expand upon in coming months and years. If you are interested in participating in this project by submitting and/or translating terms, please contact the GMH Lexicon editors at chinadigitalspace [at] gmail [dot] com.
China Digital Times would like to express deep gratitude for the extraordinary work of our primary translator, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Read the current entries in the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon here.