How May 35th Freedoms Have Blossomed With China's Martian Language

from the say-what? dept

In recent years, the Internet news from China has been pretty depressing, as Xi Jinping tightens his control over every aspect of the online world. But the Chinese are a resourceful people, with thousands of years of experience of circumventing imperial oppression. For example, one of the many taboo subjects today is the “June 4th incident“, better known in the West as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A New York Times article published in 2011 explains how people in China managed to refer to this forbidden date online:

You might think May 35th is an imaginary date, but in China it’s a real one. Here, where references to June 4 — the date of the Tiananmen incident of 1989 — are banned from the Internet, people use “May 35th” to circumvent censorship and commemorate the events of that day.

Inevitably, the authorities soon spotted this trick, and blocked references to May 35th too. But as the author of the New York Times piece, Yu Hua, explains:

May 35th freedom is an art form. To evade censorship when expressing their opinions on the Internet, Chinese people give full rein to the rhetorical functions of language, elevating to a sublime level both innuendo and metaphor, parody and hyperbole, conveying sarcasm and scorn through veiled gibes and wily indirection.

The latest, most highly-developed form of that “May 35th freedom” is described in an article on Quartz, which explores an invented Chinese language known as “Martian”:

Martian dates back to at least 2004 but its origins are mysterious. Its use appears to have begun among young people in Taiwan for online chatting, and then it spread to the mainland. The characters randomly combine, split, and rebuild traditional Chinese characters, Japanese characters, pinyin, and sometimes English and kaomoji, a mixture of symbols that conveys an emotion (e.g. O(?_?)O: Happy).

Martian is an extension of the May 35th approach, but with additional elements, including fairly random ones. That makes it hard for the automated censorship systems to spot forbidden topics, since the Martian elements have to be decoded first. Naturally, though, the human censors eventually work out what the Martian terms mean, and add them to the blacklists for automatic blocking. However, according to the Quartz article, China’s censorship system is not monolithic, and just because a post written in Martian is blocked on one service doesn’t mean it will be blocked on another.

It’s the continuing existence of those small spaces for free speech, coupled with the never-ending ingenuity of Chinese Internet users in coming up with Martian-like linguistic camouflage, that allows controversial material to be posted and circulated, despite the massive censorship machine.

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Comments on “How May 35th Freedoms Have Blossomed With China's Martian Language”

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46 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

>> Or the Declaration of Independence; the right wing folks will object to it as “propaganda” as they did when NPR tweeted it out.

“Right wing” is far too vague and left-wingy.
Many who appear to be “right wing” are simply
neo-con fascists who DO indeed object to the
Constitution, that “goddam piece of paper” as
George Bush called it, and are indistinguishable from militant
socialists of the neo-liberal “left”, who have
themselves forgotten what “Liberal” means. Repeating those false divisions doesn’t help.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I’m actually centrist in my politics, which means the rabid Leftists consider me hopelessly Right-wing extremist and the equally rabid Right consider me hopelessly Left-wing extremist.

It says a lot about our current political system that being normal and balanced causes over 70% of the population to consider me an extremist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Left and right are not particularly useful descriptions of political positions, while a scale running from anarchist to totalitarian is much more useful. On that scale all too many of those in power are near the totalitarian end in outlook, regardless of whether their politics are left,right or religious.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“”Right wing” is far too vague and left-wingy.”

Then what is “left wing”?

Seriously, despite the way some have tried to corrupt them, terms do still have a meaning. They’re not vague, they just get abused by fascists, authoritarians and others who don’t like to admit the correct terms for their own ideologies, since they know how negative the terms are in context of history.

“Many who appear to be “right wing” are simply neo-con fascists “

“fascist” being a term for adherents to a far-right wing ideology. You’re not very good at this, are you?

“socialists of the neo-liberal “left””

Ah, so you also don’t know what the term “socialist” means. Yet you attack others for their usage of the correct language!

Evil Timmy (profile) says:

Re:

But at the end of the day, with our creativity, adaptivity, and millennia of technological advancement, all we use the pinnacle of human ingenuity for is to tell each other stories and share pictures of our naughty bits. Give a shaved ape a new way to communicate, whether it’s a high-end smartphone or a cave wall, and we do the same things we always have.

Anonymous Coward says:

entire US Midwest* is block-banned so must use TOR to get around bi-coastal 1-percenter censoring.

Confucius say “Censorship is as censorship does”. The

Usual words also need explaining on Techdirt, where weenies “report” to “hide” (censor so much as can, wish to do more up to entirely) comments of “trolls” (any non-rabid or non-pirate who disagrees with The Masnick, no matter how mildly).

* This large area is to anonymize my location. Since I seem to be the only representative of working / creative people here on Techdirt, well over half the country is accurate.

Killercool (profile) says:

Re: entire US Midwest* is block-banned so must use TOR to get around bi-coastal 1-percenter censoring.

We have MANY working and artistic people. I work in petrochem, AND am an amateur writer.

YOU do not represent myself, nor anyone I know.

Plain and simple, you are a nutter.

You despise anonymity, yet hide behind it to harass people who believe differently than you. When they just wish to turn the volume down on you, but leave your aberrant propaganda visible to the masochistic, you scream and flood the board with accusations of censorship, and misguided rants on the nature of the private enterprises you claim to defend.

Please, PLEASE. Go back to your hole.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: entire US Midwest* is block-banned so must use TOR to get around bi-coastal 1-percenter censoring.

SURE, you’re a working, creative person. I have your text to support. — Your response is just an “informed attribute” for thin claim to authority, so irrelevant.

And I could say the same “GET LOST” to you (but DON’T, never have to anyone), and you wouldn’t. See how that doesn’t change anything? You’re so sophisticated and wise, but try that for the elebenty-hundredth time? I’m familiar with “STFU”, “GTFO”, “get cancer”, and other vile response from this site. You’re going for “classy”, but it’s same message.

You’re in Techdirt’s little ideological bubble, and of course have a fair point for my current habits. I quit trying for substance after my comments were nearly all unfairly hidden over course of YEARS. I’m no longer bothering to try and help the site, just giving back same crude level as I got, I think entirely unprovoked, by people who simply cannot bear skipping past a little bit of text if doesn’t agree entirely with their bias. That’s what YOU clearly can’t do: skip over a little bit of text. Sheesh. Yeah, you’re SO mature.

Here’s an idea, Techdirt: just leave my little bits of text UN-hidden, and UN-commented at. Just say what YOU want ON-TOPIC, not stupidly continue what amounts to harassment by the site, besides doing same thing over and over which clearly does not work. SHOW that you’ve found me absolutely impervious to reason, not TARGET and stir up with what would rile anyone. — BTW: I offer no quid pro quo, just advise that as sound practice.

So long as Techdirt (that means you at moment), boxes me in this way, I’ll just focus on that and enjoy what shows about YOU! — Fact is, ANY dissent here THESE DAYS gets only unmoderated viciousness. Yet no fanboy has EVER been moderated. Fanboys have run off HUNDREDS of reasonable people — and you want it to be ALL. My opinions aren’t outre on other sites. It’s just that I endure this toxic environment, even kind of like it now because shows Techdirt bare. — Techdirt has OFTEN preached that other sites/person must be tolerant and accommodate dissent, but won’t admit doesn’t practice that.

Killercool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: entire US Midwest* is block-banned so must use TOR to get around bi-coastal 1-percenter censoring.

Hundreds of people were run off? No, I’m pretty sure most of them were YOU, and it didn’t work. As for blocking and responding, I’m doing what any responsible neighbor does:

You remove the turd from the sidewalk, and inform the one who made it that such behavior is unacceptable. Since you refuse to make of of that oldest and greatest of protests, the boycott (as in, stop earning Techdirt money by commenting), I guess I’ll stop trying to correct your misunderstandings, and get on your level, no substance (as you say yourself.)

Another turd on the sidewalk.

Bad dog.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 entire US Midwest* is block-banned so must use TOR to get around bi-coastal 1-percenter censoring.

I like how Hamilton and this chode have yet to present any evidence of “hundreds” of inventors, artists etc that were run off and irreparably harmed by one website they loudly claim is fringe and insignificant.

Or maybe he’s silly enough to count each unique geolocation snowflakes per article as an individual. Wouldn’t put it past RIAA supporters to fudge the numbers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: entire US Midwest* is block-banned so must use TOR to get around bi-coastal 1-percenter censoring.

Hey scooter, if you don’t get off that cross pretty soon, good old Mr No Regulation is going to have a cow and drink a quart of cerulean blue in protest. You don’t want those dead brain cells on your hands do you?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: entire US Midwest* is block-banned so must use TOR to get around bi-coastal 1-percenter censoring.

“censor so much as can”

Which is “not at all”, which is why you still get people calling you out for the comments that you whine about being censored.

“representative of working / creative people”

An extremely poor one at that. If you consider yourself such a vital representative, perhaps you should consider acting at the very least like someone who is sane? Why you think an obsessive sociopath playacting Don Quixote is the best representative of the creative community to project is anyone’s guess.

Fortunately, you’re lying your ass off about there being no creative people represented in here. No wonder you insist on remaining anonymous.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Effect and Cause

Here’s the funny part. If you post in China in “martian” or use long winded prose to suggest a whole bunch of stuff without saying anything, you get added onto a list, and you are likely to find out that the neighborhood watch is watching you a little more and checking who you are talking to in real life.

China has one and only one set of “truth” to work from. Any variation makes you stand out, and standing out in China is not a good thing (trust me, been there, done that).

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Effect and Cause

I’m fairly sure that most actual dissidents would be aware that they are being spied on. I’m also very sure that if a trend has become common enough to be reported in mainstream Western media that the Chinese authorities are also well aware of it – and that the people using it will also be aware that they know. Such linguistic and surveillance games have been going on for centuries. Large chunks of British English were essentially invented to confuse police officers who might be spying on their conversations.

However, I dare say that the important thing here is to try and get ideas and information past the automated filters being used by Chinese authorities. People doing that should be at least aware of the danger of pushing verboten material past such a government. You would have to be somewhat naive to be doing this and not also understand that the messages that escape filters will themselves be monitored, along with those sending them.

Whether the people using Martian are that naive or simply willing to risk the consequences in order to keep information alive is perhaps something under question, but the determined will always find the gaps in the filters.

“standing out in China is not a good thing (trust me, been there, done that)”

That comment is intriguing. Would you mind expanding on it?

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Effect and Cause

“”standing out in China is not a good thing (trust me, been there, done that)””

I have spent have been spending a bit of my life living in China.

” I dare say that the important thing here is to try and get ideas and information past the automated filters being used by Chinese authorities.”

It’s a game played by people who spend their lives trying to get around the rules and the laws put in place by their government. There is some official tolerance in many areas, but a few things such as what happened on that day not in May is not up for debate. Like many other things, the people do like to test the government and see how far they can push, just like animals testing the limits of their cages in a zoo. The reality, however, is that they are still caged.

Whatever gaps they find are just as likely traps built to catch the unwary. The people who really fight stuff like this aren’t posting online, they aren’t dumb enough to call attention to themselves and their friends.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Effect and Cause

The people who really fight stuff like this aren’t posting online, they aren’t dumb enough to call attention to themselves and their friends.

Which means that they are as disconnected from the people as the government, and if they got power, likely no better that the government, they would just say different things while and censor somewhat different things, but other wise just act the same in power..

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Effect and Cause

“I have spent have been spending a bit of my life living in China.”

That’s not even grammatically parsable, let alone informative. But, thanks for the response.

“It’s a game played by people who spend their lives trying to get around the rules and the laws put in place by their government.”

Indeed. It’s an old game and one that will continue for a long time yet. Read up on a bit of history, summary execution wasn’t enough to stop people sending anti-Nazi messages from occupied territories, for example. Why do you seem to think that everyone involved in these messages will inevitably just stop if pressured?

“The people who really fight stuff like this aren’t posting online, they aren’t dumb enough to call attention to themselves and their friends.”

There may be different sets of people doing these things, but keeping information alive is important to the cause of those doing the fighting. Resistance movements throughout history have had non-violent action and printed material supporting those taking direct action.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Effect and Cause

“That’s not even grammatically parsable, let alone informative. But, thanks for the response.”

Let me say it more clearly. Lived there, done that, and sort of technically still do.

“Why do you seem to think that everyone involved in these messages will inevitably just stop if pressured?”

I don’t think they stop with pressure. China is well known for sending people to “retraining” facilities to change their views. They have other ways of accomplishing things. People like Ai Wei Wei have talked about how their lives and those of their families are disrupted for decades. The system has way more patience than the people fighting it.

” Resistance movements throughout history have had non-violent action and printed material supporting those taking direct action.”

The difference in places like China (and say North Korea) is that they relentlessly track down those spreading such information and make sure that it gets stopped.

https://newrepublic.com/article/117983/tiananmen-square-massacre-how-chinas-millennials-discuss-it-now

That piece is a bit fluffy, but it gives you an idea of how solidly the information is suppressed, and also how maybe one more generation from now that it will effectively become nothing more than a lie put forward by the West to discredit China, or something along those lines.

China is also very wise. Unlike NK which has built up a whole big bundle of lies tied together with misinformation and an iron fist, China uses an interesting combination of tools to achieve much of the same without having to lie extensively. Except for certain gaps or bumps in the day to day, it really is as if nothing ever happened. It’s been surgically removed and has left no obvious scarring. It’s actually pretty amazing.

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