Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke

Yunchao at his apartment in Hong Kong.


October 26, 2011


The cellphone vibrated softly, insistently, echoing off
the whitewashed walls of the artist’s studio. It was a Sunday morning in early
April, and Wang Bo — an Internet animator better known to his legions of online
fans by his nickname, Pi San — ignored the call at first. He wanted no
intrusions. A compact 40-year-old with short-cropped hair and arched eyebrows
that give him a look of permanent bemusement, Pi San is most famous for
creating a mischievous cartoon character named Kuang Kuang, but he earns money
by making animations for corporations, and he was on a deadline. Pi San had
bicycled to his studio in a defunct factory building on the outskirts of
Beijing that morning, hoping to finish up some work in peace. But the buzzing
of the phone didn’t stop.



The Controversial Cartoons of
Pi San

Despite strict censorship, the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest
space in China due to a humorous subculture of coded languages and ironic
animated shorts from netizens. Watch the Chinese Internet animator Pi San’s
most viral and politically satirical series, Kuang Kuang.


San in his studio in Beijing with Ms. Puff, a popular (apolitical) creation.


The moment Pi San picked up, the caller blurted out the
news: State security agents had just detained Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist
and a government critic. Pi San spat out a profanity. Over the previous six
weeks, hundreds of bloggers — lawyers, activists, journalists — had vanished
into police custody in one of the harshest assaults on social activism in
decades. Now they had Ai — fat, brilliant, bombastic and internationally
renowned. If Ai could be arrested, was any independent thinker in China safe?

Pi San had reason to be scared. He and Ai were friends. A
few weeks earlier, over lunch, the two artists talked about collaborating on a
satirical Internet animation. Though a bit wary of Ai’s Web activism, Pi San
admired his daring solo exhibitions in New York, Berlin and London. The most
recent show had consisted of 100
million sunflower seeds made of porcelain
, laid out across the floor
of the Tate Modern, which visitors were invited to walk upon. Some considered
the seeds to be symbols of the downtrodden Chinese people.

Despite his fear, Pi San quickly posted the news about
Ai’s detention on Sina Weibo, China’s closely monitored equivalent of Twitter
and the fastest-growing Internet platform in the world. An invisible censor
deleted the message in seconds. He then tried posting, without comment, a
cartoon drawing of Ai, the better to evade China’s word-sensitive filtering
software. But the image disappeared, too — a sign that a human being, not
computer software, had deleted the drawing. Pi San told his Weibo followers:
“Again I was ‘harmonized.’ It’s just a picture!”

Now the creative synapses started firing. “I had to do
something to lift the fear,” Pi San told me later. “Others might write or
protest; I make animations.” He and a colleague worked feverishly through the
night on a 54-second flash animation entitled “Crack
Sunflower Seeds.”
The animation takes place in Kuang Kuang’s school,
where a little girl is speaking over the loudspeakers. “Once upon a time,” she
begins, “there was a Chinese man selling sunflower seeds.” Suddenly, a black
cartoon hand yanks her off the set. A succession of trembling announcers tries
to tell the same story, but the black hand pulls them off too, each time more
quickly than the last.

Finally, it is Kuang Kuang’s turn. The boy hems and haws
and, giving up, sighs in exasperation: “Ai.” A word bubble appears with the
Chinese character for the sigh (
), virtually the same as Ai’s surname ().
Kuang Kuang is hauled off, screaming. In the next frame, the black hand sweeps
away sunflower seeds arranged in the same “Ai.” Then we hear a grating sound —
teeth meeting porcelain — followed by an off-screen scream: “Damn it! Who sold
us these fake sunflower seeds?”

Pi San finished the animation before dawn on April 4,
less than 24 hours after Ai was detained. “I hesitated for a second before
posting it online,” he told me. “But then I thought, If I don’t put it up, that
would be like self-castration.” With a few clicks, he sent “Crack Sunflower Seeds”
into cyberspace, posting it onto China’s top video Web sites. In just a few
hours, a million or more netizens watched the animation online. Then the video
began disappearing from Chinese Web sites one by one, just like the announcers
in his animation. Pi San lashed out directly at the censors in a Weibo post:
“You’re like the eunuch who gets worried before the emperor does!” There was no
response. Even in his anger, Pi San was left wondering if the black hand would
come for him.

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
 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. “Jokes that mock the
abuse of power do more than let off steam; they mobilize people’s emotions,”
says Wen Yunchao, an
outspoken blogger who often mounts sardonic Internet campaigns in defense of
free speech. “Every time a joke takes off,” Wen says, “it chips away at the
so-called authority of an authoritarian regime.”

Satirical threads sweeping across the Internet can often
seem like brush fires whose origins are lost in the conflagration. But behind
every outbreak are individuals probing the limits of self-expression, flirting,
often perilously, with the blurry line between the permissible and the
punishable. Over the past several months I followed two individuals — the
animator Pi San and the blogger Wen Yunchao — in an effort to understand the
dynamics of “mischievous mockery” and the increasingly serious game of
cat-and-mouse taking place along China’s digital front lines.

Pi San and Wen are perfect counterpoints — a northerner
and a southerner who approach
 egao from
different angles. One specializes in visual images, the other mainly in words.
Pi San shudders at being considered an activist; he sees satire as an artistic
way to vent personal frustration. Wen wears the activist label proudly; he
views humor as a “weapon of the weak” to mobilize civil society. As the
government crackdown intensified, each man was forced to adjust his
calculations of danger and opportunity: How far could they go before they
crossed the invisible line?