Chinese Censorship: Fǎ Kè Yóu, River Crab


Chinese Censorship: Fǎ Kè Yóu, River Crab

Jun 7th 2011, 16:54 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK

"THE Travelogue of Dr Brain Damages", a show of Kenneth "Tin-Kin" Hung's artwork, opened recently in Manhattan. Mr Hung's garish and busy large paintings feature images of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders juxtaposed with icons of Western culture, such as Marilyn Monroe and the Mario Brothers (of Nintendo fame). These pieces are arresting, and I wish Mr Hung success, but most Western viewers will fail to understand some of the games the artist is playing. His work depends heavily on Chinese puns about internet censorship.

The Chinese have played with homophones and near homophones (usually differing only by a tone) for a long time. (They're a staple at the Chinese New Year.) More recently, this feature of Chinese has been particularly useful for evading the censors. When the authorities banned the phrase cào nǐ mā, or "fuck your mother", from the Chinese internet, in the name of combating vulgarity, the Chinese were quick to coin an internet hero, the Grass Mud Horse, whose name is a near homophone: Cǎo Ní Mǎ. Maorilyn Maoroe can be seen with him above. He is an opponent of the River Crab, a pun on "harmonious", the official description of the society censorship is meant to promote.

The Grass Mud Horse is just one of ten mythical creatures all designed to talk about naughty stuff through puns. Mr Hung includes a painting of another of them, the great French-Croatian Squid, whose Chinese name requires a little English to get the pun. He is Fǎ Kè Yóu, and wears a Mao jacket while blowing an inflationary bubble with chewing gum. (The vowel in ke is a sort of "uh" sound, so this sounds roughly like "fah-kuh you".) Perhaps my favourite character, for the absurdity of his English name, is Intelligent Fragrant Chicken, which is one tone off from dǎ fēi jī, slang for masturbation.

The Chinese writing system is hugely difficult, so much so that Chinese natives struggle to write even common words. It is also so difficult for foreigners to learn that it probably constrains its spread as a world language. Defenders of Chinese writing say that the characters are needed to disentangle the many homophones in the language, but of course Chinese people speak (homophones and all) without too much trouble, and without the aid of characters. The real reason to keep the Chinese characters is the cultural and aesthetic value they store for China.

Typically this has meant a very traditional kind of "value"—connection with the past, and with the nation. But Mr Hung's work shows the plasticity of all symbols. He notes that for China's ageing one-child children, the internet has become an essential part of life—more central, in fact, than for your average Western member of Generation Y. It's going to take more than an imposing River Crab to keep them from enjoying Intelligent Fragrant Chicken, or from exclaiming the odd Grass Mud Horse out of frustration.

"The Travelogue of Dr Brain Damages" is on view at Postmasters Gallery in New York until July 2nd




....before reading this I thought I didn't understand the Chinese.


Sorry. Mr. Hung's sensibility is like fish sauce to me. And please, this is Mr. Hung, not all things Chinese. Sigh...


Grass Mud Horse... AWESOME


I do not possess a level of knowledge on the subject that properly qualifies me to be a decent expert. I speak here as someone who speaks and writes Chinese as a native language.

The Chinese written character is made up of "components". Each component can be an entire character itself, or it can be one, two, or more of the root components that form a character.

If you grew up with the language, you don't "struggle" with learning to write the characters, as the present article suggests, any more than you struggle to memorize the rules on conjugations and declensions of gender, tense, case, mood, mode, and on top of all that a different preposition for every noun and verb. None of those things are on the "to learn" list when you learn Chinese. All you have to learn are the characters in their written and spoken forms.

In spoken form, the characters can get tricky, as not only do you have to learn their sound, you have their tone. Quite often the differentiations in tones are so fine they are indistinguishable, although I read Pavarotti had no trouble on the occasion when he performed Turandot in Beijing and learned a few lines in a Chinese Opera for sport.

An example of a character formed by two components is "goal". It consists of the component "point to", and the component "heart ". So a "goal" is "where the heart points to".

Thus it is a very efficient language in the sense that a 5-year old learning to write the character "goal" will simultaneously learn the meaning of "goal".

And so it goes for thousands of characters.

In the course of the evolution of the written form, some of the root components have become highly stylized for esthetic reasons, and in the Communist Regime's effort to simplify the characters, many have become hard to trace to their classic form.

Thus on the present subject of Chinese puns, imagine the word play between and among literally thousands of words that sound the same or almost the same but are different words altogether in the written form. And add the regional dialects, each of which has its unique identifying accents quite different from all the rest , not unlike, for example, the "Appalachia accent" or "Maine accent" in USA . You have an inexhaustible gold mine for punning humor, which Chinese delight in.

All said, there is a standard of taste. There is refinement and crassness in all cultures and all languages. One needs to have enough sense and taste to be able to tell what are 5 cents trinkets belonging to a tourist shop and what are not. But if you are like me when I first arrived in America, I couldn't when it came to all things American.

As Booth113 said: AWESOME


Is The Economist (print/online) censored in China?


What I can say about the two paintings are "Ugly and Insane"! What a distorted character the painter can have?


"Is The Economist (print/online) censored in China?"


You're not allowed to ask that.


I nearly laughed to death by reading this..As a chinese, this is the first time I read from an article in other languages on these insider's jokes..GJ!!


Interesting,seriously and luckly economist(print/online)isn't censored in China.And I have to say that this blog is really a little embarassed

Dian Cecht

It is so nice to see an emperor like Mao having the mickey taken, by such a genius as Mr.Hung. I wish I could write Chinese characters to honour Hung as he deserves. Chinese, a wonderful script and a wonderful people.


The Economist is not censored in China, but I don't think it is much respected because of its much slanted and biased views.

Nothing wrong there, the Economist typically presents Western views of the world, particularly the British view of things, as it supposed to be.


I'd loved this article and will recommend it to all my friends.


Faux King Fun Knee

Robert North

Now THIS is ART!!!


Hey! Who says Chinese lack imagination?


Sad to see that the first thing that comes to the little minds at The Economist when discussing the joys of Chinese puns is "censorship"... This is keeping in with TE's task of doing its puny little best to destabilize China. You gentlemen are funny, but not for the reason you think you are. Keep it up, your credibility in China must be below negative.

Strictly speaking

The Economist online is only censored very rarely in China, but it does happen. E.g. Tibetan riots in March 2008 saw blockage of anything related to that story at the time.

Print censorship is a bit more common, but still fairly low-key. At some outlets (e.g. airports) you will occasionally find pages torn out if they contain unflattering articles on China. Recently I also noticed a pretty childish use of black marker to block out the name "Taiwan" on a map of East Asia on one of pages. You just roll your eyes and read on...

greg ole

Hilarious story. Just wanted to confirm that The Economist absolutely IS censored in Mainland China. This is usually done by the crude method of tearing pages out of the magazine related to China sometime before it heads to store shelves. This is even true in the most developed areas of Pudong, in Shanghai, where I have lived. You may be able to bypass the censors with a personal subscription to The Economist - I have read uncensored versions in the libraries of schools with a subscription - but it can sometimes be impossible to find an uncensored version in store shelves.


"The real reason to keep the Chinese characters is the cultural and aesthetic value they store for China."

this can't be. i can read chinese, as a westerner, but pinyin - which is probably the best alphabetic system you could come up with for writing chinese language - is good only for describing the pronunciation of the national dialect. reading a long text only in pinyin is really painful, because you're constantly disambiguating homophones. i don't know if anyone could get used to it.

and, like i said, it's just the national dialect, the putonghua. pinyin doesn't describe local dialects at all, while the chinese writing system is intelligible whatever dialect you speak. forcing an alphabetic writing system on china would probably destroy the profligacy of local dialects that is a part of chinese culture, if it could succeed at all.

Tang Yuan

This art says more about the Generation Y artist (and the unfortunate social-networking addicts like him) than about Pokemon or Mao.

The internet has levelled the playing field for the provision of information. Never before has it been equally easy to learn about your friend's LOLcats,, natural disasters, revolutions, dinner and global leadership scandals. Unfortunately, it appears that Generation Y (and the artist in question) is using this levelled media-playing field as a primary source of information on current affairs.

The result is a dangerous misconception that because topics as diverse as The Cultural Revolution, Justin Bieber, your friend's drunken night out and adverts for Pokémon are awarded equal Facebook space (or equal Twitter characters) that they're on the same level intellectually and in terms of importance. They're not. Generation Y, including this artist, is using this aspect of the "generational gap" to rebel against their elders (usually under the guises of "Internet freedom", "freedom of speech" or "democracy").

Newspapers, books, word of mouth, radio and even TV allow editors to emphasise what they believe is important. Social networking damages youths because it treats big and small with equal importance (degrading Mao and giving rise to infamous LOLcats).


"Defenders of Chinese writing say that the characters are needed to disentangle the many homophones in the language, but of course Chinese people speak (homophones and all) without too much trouble, and without the aid of characters. The real reason to keep the Chinese characters is the cultural and aesthetic value they store for China"

A language is not only there to be spoken. It is there to be read and written too. It is probably possible to abandon the character system if Chinese language is to be spoken only. If total Romanization is applied, the Chinese text will be really hard to read. Maybe it is still readable, but with much more difficulty. Also keep in mind that oral conversation is always simple and usually don't have complicated logic. Thus the fact that Chinese people speak Chinese without the aid of characters really doesn't imply it will be the case for reading.

Having two systems (pronunciation and characters) is always regarded to be redundant for many Chinese learners as a second language. It might never occur to a Chinese if he or she never learns a foreign language, such as English, because it is so natural for them that a language has two systems. I have to admit, to some degree, this duality really creates a steep learning curve even for native speakers. But on the other hand, it really shows this is a very clever device for information efficiency. If you have ever read any slides, posters or books, you might have realized that a graph, diagram or table makes you understand something 100 times easier than reading the text no matter how elegant the language is. I know this is a bad analogy but Chinese characters serve this function. While other languages are slaves to the somewhat convenient "what you say is what you write" principle, the Chinese characters bear only partial or very little information about the pronunciation. In contrast, the Chinese characters carry more semantic and graphical information and these informations (strokes and parts) are organized in a 2D fashion (while English words for example is composed of letters which are organized in a 1D fashion).

There are more to go. But I will stop here. I will not say Chinese language is perfect and maybe it is far from perfect and not as good as English or other language in certain aspects. But I would think statements quoted above really lacks some true and deep understanding of the Chinese language. Don't say it is bad just because it does not "make sense" in your mind set or view of the world.

Veritatem Cognoscere

I agree with your statement that pinyin can be convenient for short phrases and such but it would seem unbearable to read from, say, a newspaper or a book.

Yes, the Economist is blocked from China, I had to use a proxy server to bypass the great firewall of China to get my Economist fix.
But I'd recommend some readers to take some mandarin. It makes this go from amuse/bemusing to absolutely fabulous hilarity.

Tang Yuan,

Thank you for a great post.

Generation Y is also the breeding ground for a reverse xenophobia that is forming in the Western psyche, if what is gleaned from TE posts and comments represents a cross-section of that psyche. "Reverse" because it was China who was the practitioner of xenophobia in the 19th and early 20th century, when the object of the phobia was the West.

Most "Western" media rely heavily on information from and about the Y generation, using what is available on the Internet. That is fine. The Internet is one of many good sources. Taking what comes from a single source as the sum total of all things happening in China, however, is a mistake. A bit of irony here is some in the Y generation do not even know to write Chinese characters very well, their need to learn having been hijacked by the ease of use of "pin-yin" alphabets on the computer keyboard.

Xenophobia is self-defeating to whoever who practices it. One would expect this phenomenon has gone out of style after WWII. Amazingly it hasn't. The change that has seemingly occurred is the chairs have reversed as the music continues.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, China was a country in ruins. Contributing to the ruins was a national attitude of self-corrosive ignorance. The slogan was: "All things foreign are bad. Down with foreign devils". The foreign devils didn't go down. It did.

Now it appears China gets to gloat as the West adopts its historical mistake.


this is another article that contradict with what some people said about "Mao is an idol of Chinese" or "People will be arrested because of the negative comment on the government", its far not that serious as what western media said about "Chinese political tension". In China, everyone can comment freely about Mao or about the current "harmonious" concept Chinese government promote. They even make jokes about it!!!


It's impossible to completely understand a text if Chinese were "romanized". Here's an example:


In pinyin:

Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.It's impossible to completely understand a text if Chinese were "romanized".

This is a story about a man who loves to eat lions. One day he captured 10 lions at the market and when he tried to eat them he found out they're all made of stones.

Now how do you read/understand that without characters?

And BTW, online version not censored at all here. No proxy required.


The Chinese govt may agree with the writer about "arresting" pieces with their "Fǎ Kè Yóu" attitudes, and it may not be a "Hung" jury! But really nice to learn of the irreverence prevalent amongst the Chinese.



Chinese don't lack imagination, neither humour. Chinese only have imagination and humour that others don't understand.

Once I tried to translate many jokes from Chinese to French, and then I told to my friends. They only got a few of them.

And I gave up.

B.T.W.,these two "paintings" are really ugly.


Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

1,Cao Ni Ma
2,Fa Ke You
3,Ya Mie Die
4,Ju Hua Can
5,Chun Ge
6,Ji Ba Mao
7,Wei Shen Jing
8,Yin Dao Yan
9,Da Fei Ji
10,Qian Lie Xie


Mr. Hung's art is stupid and playing with homephone is so childish. Come on. Economist, please don't promote stupidity on your magazine.


@ bigtisas

Wee Knot Stew Pit. Yew More On.


Fǎ Kè Yóu just mean fuck you, none of the great French-Croatian Squid's business. 


HongTianJian/Tin-Kin Hung Is Not A Good Man, But The Dollars Also Sooo Easy To Cheat.  

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