No Joke: China's Broadcasting Authority Bans Puns And Wordplay

from the empty-chair dept

Techdirt has often reported on the Chinese authorities’ overt attempts to control the flow of information in the country, but this latest example in the Guardian seems to show a rather different approach:

The State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television says: “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms.”

Programmes and adverts should strictly comply with the standard spelling and use of characters, words, phrases and idioms — and avoid changing the characters, phrasing and meanings, the order said.

“Idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage and historical resources and great aesthetic, ideological and moral values,” it added.

That last comment is rather ironic, because as David Moser, academic director for CET Chinese studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, is quoted by the Guardian as saying, wordplay too is an important part of Chinese heritage. So banning it seems as likely to damage Chinese culture as to protect it. The article gives an example of what the new regulation wants to stamp out:

Replacing a single character in ke bu rong huan has turned ?brook no delay? into ?coughing must not linger? for a medicine advert.

If this move were merely about stopping such harmless wordplay in broadcasts, it would be of little significance — it’s hard to imagine the Chinese authorities coming down hard on someone who makes a pun in this way. But the Guardian reports Moser’s guess as to what’s really going on here:

“I wonder if this is not a preemptive move, an excuse to crack down for supposed ?linguistic purity reasons? on the cute language people use to crack jokes about the leadership or policies. It sounds too convenient.”

That makes a lot of sense. Repeated crackdowns on Chinese blogs and social media have seen postings on “forbidden” topics erased almost as quickly as they appear. In response, the Chinese have developed a subtle and witty metaphorical approach, whereby the forbidden topics are replaced by apparently innocuous terms. One of the best examples of this is the “empty chair” meme, explained here by China Digital Times:

Writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” on December 25, 2009, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Unable to attend the award ceremony in Oslo, the laureate was represented by his empty seat. Shortly thereafter, the term “empty chair” became a sensitive word in Chinese cyberspace.

Some bloggers who used the term “empty chair” in their posts had their accounts blocked, while others who participated in a campaign to post images of empty chairs saw their posts censored. Some accounts were deleted simply for posting the image.

As that shows, even using the phrase “empty chair” could get people into trouble. But for a while, this oblique reference provided a way for people in the Chinese online community to discuss extremely sensitive topics, and this trick is used quite widely to circumvent censorship. The new restrictions on puns and wordplay would give the Chinese authorities yet another way to clamp down on this technique, while claiming that they were simply enforcing a law about language purity.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “No Joke: China's Broadcasting Authority Bans Puns And Wordplay”

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Anonymous Coward says:

They are basically trying to control the chinese language to avoid non-approved metaphors. It is the preemptive form of book-burnings. The problem is that metaphors will evolve and cause ever increasing demands for further restrictions.

Trying to deny people the use of words has historically lead to more abstractions and metaphors. Yellow ducks and empty chairs are just the surface of the dissent that is brewing.
We can only guess that they are trying to delay the inevitable by trying to disrupt dissenters from communicating. Information wants to be free and in the end fighting that is a losing battle.

Rekrul says:

Can someone please explain to me why China is still considered a “civilized” country? They have some of the most restrictive censorship in the world. They use the military to attack protesters. They regularly arrest, torture and kill the followers of unapproved religions.

How is China not listed with all the other barbaric dictatorships of the world?

Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously says:

In essence, this is a ban on the natural drift of culture. Or at least an attempt thereto, it will certainly fail.

It feels more like “everything was better when we were young” and “Let’s force everything to stay like it was in those days”. It also makes me a bit curious about the political infighting that led to this law.

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