How May 35th Freedoms Have Blossomed With China's Martian Language
from the say-what? dept
In recent years, the Internet news from China has been pretty depressing, as Xi Jinping tightens his control over every aspect of the online world. But the Chinese are a resourceful people, with thousands of years of experience of circumventing imperial oppression. For example, one of the many taboo subjects today is the “June 4th incident“, better known in the West as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A New York Times article published in 2011 explains how people in China managed to refer to this forbidden date online:
You might think May 35th is an imaginary date, but in China it’s a real one. Here, where references to June 4 — the date of the Tiananmen incident of 1989 — are banned from the Internet, people use “May 35th” to circumvent censorship and commemorate the events of that day.
Inevitably, the authorities soon spotted this trick, and blocked references to May 35th too. But as the author of the New York Times piece, Yu Hua, explains:
May 35th freedom is an art form. To evade censorship when expressing their opinions on the Internet, Chinese people give full rein to the rhetorical functions of language, elevating to a sublime level both innuendo and metaphor, parody and hyperbole, conveying sarcasm and scorn through veiled gibes and wily indirection.
The latest, most highly-developed form of that “May 35th freedom” is described in an article on Quartz, which explores an invented Chinese language known as “Martian”:
Martian dates back to at least 2004 but its origins are mysterious. Its use appears to have begun among young people in Taiwan for online chatting, and then it spread to the mainland. The characters randomly combine, split, and rebuild traditional Chinese characters, Japanese characters, pinyin, and sometimes English and kaomoji, a mixture of symbols that conveys an emotion (e.g. O(∩_∩)O: Happy).
Martian is an extension of the May 35th approach, but with additional elements, including fairly random ones. That makes it hard for the automated censorship systems to spot forbidden topics, since the Martian elements have to be decoded first. Naturally, though, the human censors eventually work out what the Martian terms mean, and add them to the blacklists for automatic blocking. However, according to the Quartz article, China’s censorship system is not monolithic, and just because a post written in Martian is blocked on one service doesn’t mean it will be blocked on another.
It’s the continuing existence of those small spaces for free speech, coupled with the never-ending ingenuity of Chinese Internet users in coming up with Martian-like linguistic camouflage, that allows controversial material to be posted and circulated, despite the massive censorship machine.