Monday, December 8, 2014

Chinese Checkers

A recent news story reported the alarming news that the Chinese government has banned puns in radio, TV, and films. The rationale is that wordplay makes promoting cultural heritage more difficult and tends to mislead people, especially children. A recent directive decreed, “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.” Altering accepted patterns of speech risks “cultural and linguistic chaos,” the Word Nazis have decreed.

The director of Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, whose name, curiously enough, is David Moser, says that wordplay is part and parcel of Chinese heritage. He points out, for example, the traditional wedding gift of dates and peanuts stems from the fact that the Chinese words for these foods—zao and huasheng—are homophones for the phrase Zaosheng guizi, which means “May you soon give birth to a son.”           

Moser faults whoever gave this order as “conservative, humorless, priggish, and arbitrarily purist.” He suspects the real reason behind the ruling is to prevent jokes about government officials, which often rely on puns for their humor. One recent example plays on the nicknames of President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan to come up with the word for “marijuana.” In another political example Mao Zedong’s phrase “Serve the people” has been transformed into “Smog the people,” using two words that are homophones.

One rather naughty example of a political Chinese pun is the phrase “grass mud horse,” an anti-censorship symbol that has become a widely popular Internet meme. It is usually represented by an alpaca as the mascot for citizens fighting for free expression. In Mandarin Chinese the phrase “grass mud horse” sounds very much like the phrase “fuck your mother.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an inveterate punster—everything he writes is inverse.
            The Chinese all run from a pun,
            So this question is one they must shun;
                         It’s a terrible quandary
                        Much too double-entendre-y:
            Who came out? The sun or the son?

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