chai zi, again

I meant to follow up on this much sooner, but somehow the end of 2009 for me was full of everything but this blog – Malaysia, Singapore, Manchester, London, massive Wire binges, life-reordering, ice-skating, art galleries, Ottolenghi, Annabel Scheme, article-writing, to name a few. Much contrition.

What I wanted to do, after the last post on Ho Chi Minh’s puntastic poetry, was to talk about the present. Chai Zi, if you remember, is an old form of divination involving the splitting up of Chinese characters into their component radicals, altering or removing strokes to form different words. But ancient an artform as it is, it’s also become, today, one of the weapons in the arsenal of the Chinese Internet Résistance.

From the proceedings of the recent Chinese blogger conference in Lianzhou, it’s clear that resistance was a central theme of the Chinese internet last year. Almost all bloggers cited 墙 / 反墙 (Wall / Anti-Wall), 管制 / 反管制 (Control / Counter-Control) and variants on this as the key dynamics of 2009. The number of words filtered by the Great Firewall is pretty staggering – the Chinese Wikipedia article on it is comprehensive, and regularly updated by concerned Chinese netizens. The filter (过滤) is regularly bemoaned on Chinese forums, particularly its strict deployment on Baidu Tie Ba (百度贴吧) (a government-provided service a bit like a cross between Wikipedia and a discussion forum). Here, users can open a ‘post-bar’ (like a Wikipedia page) on any keyword topic they like – except, of course, the ones the government doesn’t like. Some of the barred topics include the Communist Party, Tiananmen, all religions, revolutions, slaves, strikes and sex organs. This censorship has been going on for some years.

While digging around on the internet for information on Chai Zi, I came across on Baidu Tie Ba one particularly creative user, who some time ago created a postbar with a peculiar title. Its contents consist of just two sentences:

不 矢口 亻十 么 日寸 候,亻奄 口斤 言兑 言仑 土云 有 辶寸 氵虑 白勺 言兑 氵去,于 是,亻奄 学 会 了 扌斥 字。 后 来 , 亻奄 米青 礻申 分 裂 了

This is Chai Zi in contemporary employment! The writer split a sentence into its component radicals, which can’t be processed as meaningful words by internet filters, only by the canny human eye. The sentence ought to look like this:


And it means:

“I don’t know when, but I heard that the forums were being filtered, whereupon I decided to learn Chai Zi. Eventually, I developed schizophrenia.”

Super-snark! Some of the comments are amusing, comprising as they do of communal eye-rolling, giggles, and the occasional complaint of astigmatism. (It’s very jarring for Chinese readers to read the split-word sentence – this may not be a good approximation, but it’s a little like reading re    a l     l yi      r r e      g  u l      a r  l   y e     x p      an  d    e dt   e  x t).

The point here is that resistance on the Chinese internet has had to get incredibly creative with the Chinese language in order to get around the censors. And because of some of the more unique characteristics of the language – it’s pictographical, tonal, contextual – resistance has come in remarkable forms. Chai Zi is one. Substituting banned words with similar-sounding but materially different words has been another tactic. An example I like: the government likes to say that it filters the internet to promote ‘harmony’ (和谐, HE2 XIE2), and bans ‘unharmonious’ blogs. Chinese bloggers, however, say sardonically of a banned blog that it has been ‘river crabbed‘ (河蟹, HE2 XIE2), because the word for river crab, while comprised of entirely different words to the word for harmony, nonetheless sounds exactly the same. And because of the deeply contextual nature of the Chinese language, words don’t even have to sound exactly the same to convey the snark – they must merely comprise of similar sounding words. One can substitute the perfectly bland and innocent words 草泥马, CAO3 NI2 MA3, with the similar sounding (but tonally different) 肏你妈, CAO4 NI3 MA1. It’s just that one refers to a kind of highland llama, vaguely reminiscent of an alpaca, and the other says ‘fuck your mother’.

If this doesn’t make you want to learn Chinese… Well, at any rate I love this stuff (Disclosure: it’s kind of like a contemporary echo of some themes central to my PhD thesis, so perhaps I’m biased). More soon, and happy 2010!


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