I recently sat down with Ethan Zuckerman’s lecture on social change and social media, which I recommend for its insights on that subject, but the thing that most struck me was an interesting language-related anecdote he relates (around minute 36 ). He’s discussing how Chinese bloggers have dealt with internet censorship, and he says that Chinese blogging services censor certain words and phrases at a system-wide level, automatically. So to begin with when someone would try to write something and notice they’d gotten censored, they would write, hey look, I’ve been censored. This calls attention to the censorship, as as far as the censors are concerned, this won’t do at all. So then the word “censored” becomes censored. The message that comes up when you get censored says something like ‘this content has been removed for the benefit of societal harmony’, so activists instead start saying ‘my blog just got harmonized’ to mean they got censored. Soon enough, the censors catch on, and bloggers then start saying ‘my blog just got river-crabbed’ – because in Mandarin Chinese, the word for river crab sounds a lot like the word for harmony. So the long and short is, the word river crab now essentially means censorship within Chinese activist circles. There’s another similar wordplay that makes llamas a shorthand for ‘grass mud horse’, which sounds a whole lot like a very rude insult. So you have a situation where you can find videos online circulated by activists where images of llamas and river crabs running around is actually political commentary.
I love this anecdote for several reasons, firstly, because it’s an interesting example of how languages evolve, and the fact that oftentimes new words are invented or old ones gain new meanings on the basis of such stories, in which both specific historic events and individual creativity play an important role. For another thing, it’s a very good reminder of the importance of context. In the current moment, the videos Ethan refers to (with the llamas and river crabs running about) are only going to make sense to people who are in the know, which is not even all Chinese speakers, but a specific subset of them. Without hearing that story first, most people would look at such a video and take it as some kind of Dadaist parody or maybe a children’s cartoon and be done with it. In order to understand it, you need specific information about the community it comes from, you need some ability to understand the language and cultural cues. That’s in the current moment.
What about a thousand years from now? What are the odds that a thousand years from now, someone who found such a video would also find record of the story about censorship and rock crabs and understand what the video was really about? It’s hard to know whether digital material will survive longer than printed material has, but in general, it’s a very small amount of things that survive long periods in time, so when you study the past your resources are much more limited. I’m in a class right now studying a medieval Arabic literature , which for the time being we are calling Aja’bi literature (literature of the marvels), though the term is disputed, and hearing this anecdote made me think that when we approach such texts, we have almost no way of knowing whether we have the right information to interpret what we’re looking at, or whether we are like the poor future scholar who stumbles upon Chinese activist videos, and thinks ‘what is the deal with all these river crabs?’ It’s not a reason to just throw up your hands, but just, a reminder: context is important.
By the way, I actually went looking for some examples of such videos and other external references and I think I have found a couple. Here’s an article on dissident artist Ai Weiwei organizing a ‘river crab feast’ at then soon-to-be-demolished, now actually demolished studio. I just used Google translate to translate the word river crab into Chinese- 河蟹 – and copy-pasted it into a search. Viola this first video:
At first I thought I’d screwed up, since it really doesn’t have the kind of vibe I expect of a protest song. Kind of sounds like a bad video game soundtrack, and there aren’t any river crabs visible in the picture. But look again – the top right it says ‘Harmony or Die’. I Google translated the title of the song and got : Green Dam Green Dam ★ crab you and your family. Green Dam, which is also a tag (in English) for the video, is name of a Chinese censorship application ‘Green Dam Youth Escort‘ that the government attempted to install on every computer in the country. The idea is that it automatically removes content that might be damaging to the youth (you know, porn, things like that), but what it actually does is remove politically sensitive material – and tracks individual users who attempt to post or read such things. It sounds like the attempt was a failure, but it’s a pretty scary idea. The Wikipedia article I just linked to btw has an image of a cartoon called ‘Green Dam Girl’ who wears a hat with a crab on it. I think that explains the girl in the green outfit. I also managed to dig up the lyrics to the song. Here’s verse #1, thanks to Google translate, which is decidedly a crappy translation but I think gets the basic gist:
Too much harmony and bad websites
Thunder down the young people to a one
The connotation picture full of crazy to pass
Workers mouth video comic fly sky
A push on the back of what the most annoying
Wretched uncle quickly Tuisan
The fighting capacity of 40 million
Annoy people at risk
Bloom escort invincible Green Dam Girl
Crab furious strong function
Hard to shield raid
No matter how do you hide
This information is bad has been shielded light
Green Dam Green Dam ★ Meng kill you
Crab world playfully attributes outbreak
Please your eyes do not open eyes too much
Could envy envy you
Green Dam ★ Green Dam with four strong gas
Do not be afraid Do not be afraid my temper is not very big
Please you obey
Or immediately crab your whole family ☆
Another indicator that this song is a political one is that two of the related links are to different animations of another song, which has ‘Grass Mud Horse’ in the title and feature llamas and crabs. I don’t have the lyrics for that one (yet), but I think it’s a pretty dead ringer that these are some pretty strongly worded critiques.
One of the Grass Mud Horse songs:
Another one of the related links goes to a girl wearing a surgical mask dancing along to the song. With some more searching around, I found that the song Luka Luka Night Fever referenced in the title of one of the videos is a song, I think in Japanese, which is unrelated to the political reference. So basically somebody took a popular Japanese pop song (TV show theme song? something like this is my guess), and rewrote the lyrics to make it a pretty disturbing message about freedom of speech in China: shut up or they will make you and your family disappear. The thing I find interesting about the dancing girl video is that it’s not the Japanese pop version she’s dancing to. It’s the Chinese political commentary one. So then maybe this girl’s video is a political statement, but then, why the dancing? And why the surgical mask? To make herself somewhat more anonymous? Looking at the post again, it appears that the guy who put it up just combined the Chinese political song and the dance video, which was originally to the Japanese song. So probably not a political statement, but I kind of prefer to imagine it as a dancing fuck you to the powers that be.
Here she is in all her glory: