Revisiting China’s “Pun Ban”: Five Points

It’s been almost two months since the news that China was banning puns hit the headlines and media were having a field day coming up with puns on the pun ban. Commentators were quick to point out that the main target of the pun ban was politically subversive Internet language. Nikhil Sonnad has argued in Quartz that the real reason why the “pun ban” was published at this point in time was  to prevent the spreading of puns such as “Marijuana Era” , a joke based on the song “Uncle Xi loves Mama Peng” 习大大爱着彭麻麻 that went viral shortly before the pun ban (also see the China Digital Times for more details). This type of pun, just like the famous Grass-Mud-Horse, Sonnad explains, are much more of a threat to the CCP than the examples mentioned in the issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the administrative body in charge of regulating Chinese media.

I have been trying to write an article for the German journal Mediale Kontrolle unter Beobachtung (Media Control Monitor) explaining the pun ban to a general, interdisciplinary audience, and I figured this would be a pretty straightforward task. Once I started reading up on the SAPPRFT directive, however, I soon got the sense that things were slightly more complicated than I had originally thought based on the coverage I had read in the media.  While I generally still agree that politically sensitive puns are more likely to be affected by the “pun ban” than others, there are also a number of aspects about the the underlying document (officially called the “Notice Concerning the Standardized Use of the Common National Language and Script in Radio, Television and Advertising” 《关于广播电视节目和广告中规范使用国家通用语言文字的通知》 ) that have been somewhat neglected and led to some confusion.

In the last couple of weeks, for example, Chinawatchers on Twitter have occasionally pointed out puns in Chinese media, wondering why those were allowed to be published given the new pun ban:

So I would like to offer some observations about what the directive does and doesn’t say, what it is and isn’t about, plus what it might be about though we can’t be sure without further confirmation from people working inside Chinese media units affected by the Notice. For anyone who wants to take a look at the original text issued by SAPPRFT, the Chinese version is here, and an unofficial annotated English translation by David Moser was posted by Victor Mair on Language Log.

The Notice is not only about “puns”

First of all, as Victor Mair has already pointed out, the directive is concerned with several types of language “deviations,” not all of which can necessarily be called “puns” in English. The main concern of the document is with chengyu 成语, the common four character idioms. Chengyu are not only “idioms” or “set phrases”, however; more importantly, they are allusions to stories and anecdotes found in the classics and other well-known canonical texts. As a general rule of thumb for writing Chinese texts: The smarter you want to sound, the more chengyu you use. It can be a way of showing off your knowledge and education, particularly if you know how to use less common chengyu properly.

There are, according to the Notice, two types of offending chengyu that have found their way into official media, one which substitutes a character or two to change the meaning of a classical allusion (yup, a pun), and pseudo-chengyu completely made up of four characters from scratch that allude to and have become popular Internet memes (see David Moser’s brief annotations on the two examples, 十动然拒 and 人艰不拆 to get an idea what these are about). The latter cannot really be called puns in English; rather, they are entirely new linguistic creations that mimic the chengyu in terms of form and underlying concept (i.e. you got to know the story behind it to “get” it).

In addition to chengyu, the Notice also condemns any other form of non-standardized language and script covered in the “National Common Language and Script Law”《国家通用语言文字法》(2001). This law regulates anything from the inclusion of dialects and foreign language elements in China’s official media and other contexts to the question under which circumstances people are allowed to use traditional characters in public settings. If you read Chinese and want to get an idea of the scope of Internet language phenomena that Chinese authorities potentially take offense with, you can take a look at this article published on the website of the theory magazine Qiushi that covers everything from 木有 and 神马 to 5555 and V587.

Of course, technically, “Uncle Xi” 习大大, Xi Jinping’s commonly used nickname, is a dialect term that should not be used under the 2001 “National Common Language and Script Law”, either. Needless to say nobody is really expecting  a ban on Xi Dada anytime soon.

But it is about Chinese language only

Second, the directive is concerned with Chinese language use only, in the sense that nobody cares if China’s English-language media make puns in English, at least not as part of this particular SAPPRFT intervention. While the insertion of English phrases or the inclusion of English or other foreign-language fragments into Chinese language media is tightly regulated as well, this Notice specifically makes it a point to protect China’s own “great cultural heritage”, so puns in foreign languages would not fit in well and are a different matter altogether.

The official justification, as media were quick to point out, is to preserve China’s cultural heritage as an important source of its soft power (国家文化软实力), cultural confidence (文化自信) and cultural security (文化安全) as well as to protect the youth from utter linguistic confusion brought about by wrongly used chengyu.* While it is easy to sneer at this type of reasoning, such arguments are frequently made by language purists in other countries as well. So while I don’t buy that this is the only reason, I am more inclined to believe that language purism and fear of the decay of the Chinese language play a part. After all, the CCP has always been serious about control over language as a source of power and has become really serious about cultural security since the 21st century.

The Notice says nothing about print media

As the title of the directive already implies, it is only concerned with radio, television, and advertising, saying nothing about print or print-based online media. Why? The most likely explanation is the administrative division within the Chinese bureaucracy itself. It was not until 2013 that the vice-ministerial General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television of the same rank were merged into a single ministerial-level body, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Televion. Despite the merger, there is still a division between press and publishing on the one hand and radio, film and television on the other within the new ministry.

So does that mean that Chinese-language print media will not be affected at all? Hard to say. One other reason that they may not have been included in the first place, aside from the bureaucratic division, is that the “news reading” 新闻阅读 system by which older cadres get to read and criticize an assigned publication** already works more effectively for print media and catches most of these “offenses”. Since the Notice technically does not introduce any new offenses that aren’t already covered under broad interpretations of existing law, print media could still get reprimanded.

And it is only concerned with official Party-owned media

The main concern is not with the language of netizens, but rather the normalization or even legitimization of Internet language by having it slip into China’s official, Party-owned media. Such instances are no longer rare. “Grass-mud-horse” has been used synonymously with alpaca in the culture section of the website of the Guangming Daily and even in a test at Nanjing University. It makes a lot of sense that the CCP is more worried about the normalization of subversive language by having its own media adopt the terminology than it is about Internet language used by netizens only. This does not mean that the Party couldn’t find a way to further extend the ban to cover private Internet users as well, but for the time being, this appears to be a campaign targeted specifically at radio, television and advertising in order to prevent new terms from becoming part of the official language. This brings us to the next and final point:

The Notice is not a new directive, but rather a campaign announcement

The text published by SAPPRFT doesn’t strike me so much as a new directive, but rather as an announcement of a short-term crackdown or campaign that is so characteristic of how Chinese politics are run. Think “Three Illegal Foreigners“, for example. The Notice itself and other comments in Chinese media mention that none of this is actually new but only a “reminder” of existing rules laid down in previous laws and regulations, namely the “National Common Language and Script Law” (2001) and the “Regulations for the Management of Radio and Television” (2013), in light of a new problem that has emerged. So it’s really an announcement that a particular set of rules will soon be enforced more rigorously, with a special focus on chengyu.

SAPPRFT has several concrete instructions for media units; some concerning the “consciousness” or “awareness” of journalists and others prescribing concrete actions. Radio and TV stations are, for example, asked to “thoroughly understand” (充分认识) the importance of using standardized language and script. They are admonished to pay close attention to the necessity of using chengyu correctly. Both of these points sound as if people at radio and TV stations may have been asked, following the issuing of the Notice, to listen to some talks or read and study some speeches, perhaps by Xi Jinping, Liu Yunshan or other lower level officials on the importance of proper language, and its link to cultural security, and boosting China’s cultural soft power.

Of course, radio and TV outlets were also asked to exercise better self-control, i.e. to check more thoroughly that their programming does not contain any character substitutions or other non-standardized language and that it neither uses nor “introduces” pseudo-chengyu or other popular Internet language. Fourth, and this is why we know this is really a campaign announcement, the Notice gives explicit instructions what governments and media at all levels are to do:

In the near future, the administrative supervision center will conduct a comprehensive investigation of all television channels, and will deal strictly with any serious violations.  Provincial level radio and television monitoring centers shall also carry out a comprehensive investigation of programs from all channels and radio frequencies within their jurisdiction, and resolutely terminate the broadcast of any programming that contains non-standard usages of the common language and script. (cited from David Moser’s translation as posted by Victor Mair on Language Log)

It would be interesting to hear from anybody who has been a witness to this campaign at a Chinese radio or TV station. How serious was it? What other documents and additional orders were circulated? How permanent will this enforcement be? I’ve looked briefly in the usual places (e.g. CDT’s Ministry of Truth or the China Media Project), but haven’t come across any leaked information thus far, so I’d be interested to hear from anybody with more information.


*Full disclosure: I happen to have first hand experience of what it means to be “confused and misled as a youth”: I consider myself a victim of the German spelling reform of the late 1990s, which was looming over our heads in elementary school (“we’re teaching you these old rules now, but don’t worry about them too much, in a couple of years, everything will change anyway”), implemented when I was 12, revoked when I was 13, and re-implemented a year or two later, though few of our teachers believed it would prevail, so they randomly taught us either the old or the new rules, sometimes both. Perhaps this makes me more inclined to give some credence to the official justification.

**For more on the news reading system, see David Bandurski and Lin Hui, “China’s Shadow Censor Commissars,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol. 169, no. 2, March 2006.

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