“THE Travelogue of Dr Brain Damages”, a show of Kenneth “Tin-Kin” Hung’s artwork, opened recently in Manhattan. Mr Hung’s garish and busy large paintings feature images of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders juxtaposed with icons of Western culture, such as Marilyn Monroe and the Mario Brothers (of Nintendo fame). These pieces are arresting, and I wish Mr Hung success, but most Western viewers will fail to understand some of the games the artist is playing. His work depends heavily on Chinese puns about internet censorship.
The Chinese have played with homophones and near homophones (usually differing only by a tone) for a long time. (They’re a staple at the Chinese New Year.) More recently, this feature of Chinese has been particularly useful for evading the censors. When the authorities banned the phrase cào nǐ mā, or “fuck your mother”, from the Chinese internet, in the name of combating vulgarity, the Chinese were quick to coin an internet hero, the Grass Mud Horse, whose name is a near homophone: Cǎo Ní Mǎ. Maorilyn Maoroe can be seen with him above. He is an opponent of the River Crab, a pun on “harmonious”, the official description of the society censorship is meant to promote.
The Grass Mud Horse is just one of ten mythical creatures all designed to talk about naughty stuff through puns. Mr Hung includes a painting of another of them, the great French-Croatian Squid, whose Chinese name requires a little English to get the pun. He is Fǎ Kè Yóu, and wears a Mao jacket while blowing an inflationary bubble with chewing gum.
For more background and a glossary of about 200 similar terms created by Chinese netizens, please browse CDT’s Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon.