In 2018, #MeToo, the hashtag people around the world use to discuss sexual harassment, was blocked on social media in China.
Internet users in the country formed a new hashtag to keep raising awareness. They used the characters for rice (米, pronounced “mí”) and bunny (兔, pronounced “tù”).
They even used emoji to represent the phrase — a clever and more effective way to dodge the censors.
Here are some other ways people in China are tricking the censors to post on social media.
A few months ago, people were posting a lot about the Netherlands on Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Wake up, sleeping people of the Netherlands!” said one post. Others lamented that the people of Amsterdam wanted their tulips back.
These Chinese social media users aren’t expressing a nascent interest in all things Dutch. They’re talking about recent protests over frozen bank deposits in the province of Henan. Ordinarily, discussions about a controversial topic like this would be censored on Chinese social media, and posts containing the word “Henan” could be blocked or deleted. But “Henan” (河南) sounds a lot like “Helan” (荷兰), the Mandarin word for the Netherlands. By swapping the names around, people were able to get past the censors and keep the conversation going.
This particular approach to internet speak — substituting words that sound like or are spelled like others — has been an essential part of being online in China for decades, allowing netizens to use the humor and cleverness of spoken Mandarin to dodge censorship.
Criticism and discussion of China’s zero-Covid policy is often suppressed on social media. When an outbreak occurs, people are forced to undergo endless rounds of mandatory testing. To talk about it, people used a phrase to represent the concept “again and again” visually, repeating the character for “again” (又, pronounced “yòu”) an escalating number of times.
In each successive character (双 “shuāng”, then 叒 “ruò”, then 叕 “zhuó”), 又 appears another time.
The word “again” is repeated ten times across the four characters, hiding the phrase “again and again” in plain sight.
In China, people have perfected this kind of language play online as a way to discuss an ever-lengthening list of banned or controversial topics, creating an eternally shifting lexicon of online slang. “The play on puns and homophones has been a long existing literary and cultural tradition,” Shaohua Guo, author of The Evolution of the Chinese Internet, told Rest of World. “The prevalence of Internet use, particularly social media, further popularizes the practice.”
In July, Chinese social media site Weibo announced an effort to “clean up” the use of intentionally misspelled words and homophones, following on the heels of one of the country’s main internet regulators prohibiting their use in usernames. Weibo said it would refine its “keyword identification model” to be able to filter this type of coded language, but experts wonder if the company can really keep pace with online slang in China.
Xuan Wang, a sociolinguist at Cardiff University, pointed to memes, GIFs, and even images of everyday household objects, like an empty chair, that have been layered with subtext and additional meaning to demonstrate the diversity of online language in China. There are so many examples, China Digital Times keeps a running catalog. Being able to fully ban language like this as it continues to evolve is “not realistic or tenable,” Wang told Rest of World. “Wherever there is censorship and control, there is resistance. There is no end to it. That’s how social life is.”
To illustrate just how difficult this might be, we’ve collected some popular examples of censor-dodging online slang — most of which were eventually banned, too.
If you want to: insult someone’s intelligence
you call them: a paratrooper
The word for paratrooper (伞兵, pronounced “sǎnbīng”) sounds similar to a popular insult that Chinese internet company Baidu banned from its message forums in 2021. After people started calling each other paratroopers instead, state media published stories defending China’s airborne forces. It forced Baidu into an awkward spot: the company knew what people were really using the word for, but it couldn’t ban a word that honored China’s military, and left the posts up.
If you want to talk about: censorship
you mention: seafood
The reference originated with the word for river crab (河蟹, pronounced “héxiè”), which sounds nearly the same as the word for harmony (和谐, pronounced “héxié) — if something had been censored, it had been harmonized.
Once the characters for river crab were themselves banned, internet users subbed in other seafood. “Now people say fish, anything you catch in the sea,” said Wang. “Not using the direct homophone, but words that refer in a zigzag way back to the censored word.”
If you want another way to talk about: censorship
you can invoke: a grass mud horse
Perhaps the most widely known of the code words referencing online censorship, the meaningless phrase “grass mud horse” (草泥马, pronounced “cǎo ní mǎ”) sounds nearly the same as a common insult to someone’s mother and was popularized in response to attempts to scrub “vulgar” content from the internet.
If you want to talk about: feeling burned out
you can say you’re: lying flat
Some young people in China have turned to “lying flat” (躺平, pronounced “tǎngpíng”), which refers to opting out of participation in the hypercompetitive cultures of work and school. This trend has been in response to intense working hours, a widening wealth gap, and what The New Yorker described in 2021 as a Sisyphean experience of “being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless.”
If you want to talk about: social distancing
you can say you’re: sitting
The character for seat (座, pronounced “zuò”), contains two components representing people. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the winner of a creative character contest in Japan reinvented it, moving one of the “people” to the line below the other, to look like they’re socially distancing. The example was picked up online in China.
“It’s pictorial, but it’s not part of the official corpus of characters, so how does anyone pick that up?” said Wang, the Wales-based sociolinguist.
If you want to: quiet quit
you can: touch fish
A tactic that’s essential for surviving any workplace with 996 hours, the phrase “touching fish” (摸鱼, pronounced “mō yú”) means pretending to work — appearing busy, while really just passing the time at the office. It comes from the idiom “fishing in troubled waters,” which refers to the idea that rough seas are easier to catch fish in, allowing a lazy angler to get a big haul.
If you want to talk about: Google
you can say: valley dove
The word “valley dove” (谷鸽) is pronounced just like “Google.” The term became popular after Google relocated its servers from China to Hong Kong in 2010.
Some users said that “valley doves could not survive in China,” referencing the fantastical creature to mock censorship.
If you want to talk about: your Covid-19 health code
you can refer to: the green horse
These days, in China, being in possession of a green health code (绿码, pronounced “lǜ mǎ”) means you’re Covid-free and can move freely in public. This code is required for everything from entering a movie theater to boarding a flight. People have started talking about holding onto their “green horse,” pronounced the same way, in order to preserve their freedom. In April, a giant inflatable green horse was put up in a public square in Wuhan, making it an instant social media sensation.
If you want to: defy the censors
you can write in: chrysanthemum script
Chrysanthemum script (菊花文, pronounced “júhuā wén”) overlays ҉ — the symbol for multiplying a number by one million in Cyrillic — between characters.
It obscures the characters, visually and in writing, hoping to confuse automated censorship tools while still remaining easily readable by a human. The Cyrillic character is no longer banned, leading some users to believe it is no longer an effective method.
If you want to: stop trying to make something better
you can: let it rot
An approach that has become particularly popular with the lying-flat crowd, letting it rot (摆烂, pronounced “bǎi làn”) means to sit back and let a bad situation get worse.
If you want to talk about: government corruption
you can say there’s: “govern-rot”
This pun (正腐, pronounced “zhèngfŭ”) sounds the same as “government” (政府, “zhèngfŭ”), but means “totally rotten” or “completely corrupt.”
This homophone was used to discuss corrupt government officials online until it was banned.
If you want to: get away from it all
you can: run
As people get tired of economic challenges and Covid-19 lockdowns, those who have the means have been spreading the message: run. The Chinese words for “profit” and “enjoyment” both include the character 润, which is pronounced like the English word “run.” Through using it as slang, people have been daydreaming, and sharing tips online about getting visas or studying abroad.