Of all the things China is cracking down on lately—government corruption, the pro-democracy movement, smoking in public—this pun takes the cake: The nation’s media watchdog just handed down an edict forbidding wordplay in commercials and broadcasts.
The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), which only weeks ago was compelled to issue a blanket ban of streaming entertainment that includes scenes of adultery and violence, is now taking steps to “regulate the use of the national common language of the notice.” In other words, content producers are now responsible for preventing a dialect spoken by roughly a billion people from evolving in any way.
In particular, they’ve been warned not to mess with traditional idioms in cutesy or humorous ways, and the SAPPRFT noted that “willful violations … should be dealt with severely.” A shame, given that the homophone-rich Chinese vocabulary, as the Guardian points out, “is perfectly suited to puns.” What reasoning could lie behind this display of humorlessness?
On the one hand, puns are a threat to China’s national “soft power” and “cultural confidence,” both of which would presumably be strengthened by a more homogenized mother tongue. But “linguistic chaos” seems to be a problem all its own. The memo cites a cough medicine ad, among others, as “contrary to the spirit of the public” and potentially damaging to children.
Then there’s the matter of verbally inventive political critique. Chinese Internet rights activists have adopted the “Grass Mud Horse”—a fictional alpaca-like creature whose name, Cǎonímǎ, roughly translates to “fuck your mother” in Mandarin—as an anti-censorship meme. And back in 1989, because the Chinese word for “bottles” sounds similar to communist leader Deng Xiaoping’s given name, students demonstrating at Tiananmen Square smashed them in protest.
Seems like all broadcasters can do now is have their pun while they can.