Li Nie's Weblog

Bio: I'm Chinese, you will find out later, everything I write about is about China.




Jul 13 2009

The Chinese government launched a campaign of “cleaning unhealthy online information” on January 5th,2009. More than 700 websites have been shut down, most of them containing politically contentious information.  China’s “big brother”1 politics is trying to ensure that the dominance of official ideologies can not be challenged in public spheres.  However, the marketization of media industry has already “caused the Chinese state to lose a significant degree of control over thought work and the management of propagandistic communications.”2 The Internet has now become the voice for both the party-government and the public,  and the government’s effort to repress  public  opinion usually results in  a backfire.  After the government’s action in January, a new wave of anti-censorship protest has flooded China’s Internet. Among all the online contentious discourses, the “grass-mud horse”3 has gained enormous popularity and has become the icon of China’s online anti-censorship protest. This blog project is to explain the “grass-mud horse” phenomenon as part of China’s online protest, showing how CMC (computer-mediated communication) in China’s political environment can contribute to China’s democracy.
China’s Censorship System

To understand China’s Internet culture, one has to know about China’s Internet policy that shapes the online communication and its hierarchal structure, especially China’s Internet censorship that defines the forms of expression. The internet censorship in China is a complex system in constant evolution, both technologically and in terms of the content censored. Basically, China’s Censorship system4 is composed of the Net Nanny, the Great Firewall (GFW), and the Search Engines Manipulation (SEM).

  • the Nanny eliminates content, by forcing self-censorship.
  • The GFW blocks content from access in mainland China.
  • The SEM hides content, making sites unsearchable/invisible.
  • On the one hand, the government prohibits specific contents like “the Tiananmen Massacre,” Falun Gong,” ect; on the other, the vague standard requires self-discipline of netizens and gives the government flexibility in any unpredicted circumstance. Therefore, the gray area of online censorship becomes the site of struggles, negotiations, and conflicts between the government and China’s Internet users. Hence, this is also the area where contentious discourses are produced, consumed, reproduced and gain its political power in public spheres.

    The Chinese scholar Guobin Yang has described China’s Internet control in his latest book The Power of The Internet in China5 as follows: “Power exerts itself through codes, but the codes are designed and implemented by people. The procedure of compiling and handing out the ‘blacklist’ of words is itself a mechanism of controlling Web businesses.”

    This is to say that the censorship system has been constantly facing new challenges posted by political dissents, and no matter how prepared it is, the censorship system is always one step behind. Within the spaces left by the ambiguity of online censorship, political dissents are using creativity, technical skills, and critical analysis to navigate the controlled structures of the Chinese Internet. As the recent trend shows, political parodies, represented by the “grass-mud horse” phenomenon, is a particularly powerful genre of online protest.

    There are many reasons why parody succeeds in China’s Internet. First, parody is a self-protective form of expression in the controlled Internet as all the messages and meanings have to be decoded to make sense. It can easily escape the automatic “keyword censoring” system, and as Hodge and Mansfield6 notes, there is no way that “a government or institution to respond in any official way to a humorous attack.” Parodies on the Chinese websites have little intent to leave people believe that they are just joking and do not really mean it. Rather, the ridicule and the violent language in the parodies are reflections of one’s repressed anger that has no way to be expressed lawfully in public. Expressing political contention through hidden texts also claims the absurdity of online speech control, as Hodge and Mansfield7says: “laughter is a shield which protects critics from being punished for their truths: ‘humor is the only form of revolt left in this country’ (Klein).” Political parodies have not only survived through China’s censorship, they become threats to the government’s legitimacy and authority. The blog will analyze the mechanism of political parodies as “humorous attacks”  by focusing on “the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse”8, the most successful political parody on China’s Internet.

    The Song of the Grass-mud Horse

    The Lyrics of the “Song of The Grass-Mud Horse”

    Song of The Grass-Mud Horse
    I am a Grass-Mud Horse
    Here comes the song
    There is a herd of Grass-Mud Horses(Fuck Your Mom)
    who live in the MaLe Desert (Your Mother’s Cunt)
    They are lively and intelligent
    They are fun-loving and nimble
    They live freely in the MaLe Desert (Your Mother’s Cunt)
    They are courageous, tenacious, and they have overcome the difficult environment
    Oh, lying down Grass-Mud Horse (Oh, Fuck Your Mother!)
    Oh, running wild Grass-Mud Horse (Oh, Fuck Your Mother, hard!)
    They defeated the River Crabs (Harmonism)
    in order to protect their grassland (Free Speech)
    River Crabs (Harmonism) disappeared from the MaLe Desert forever!

    The song is sung by a digital voice of Children Chorus which is a recording of the artist’s own voice.  The artist  has indicated at the beginning of the video that, “The lyrics, chorus and post-production are all done by myself.” The music video is about the life of Alpaca, a domesticated species of South American camelid. The name of “grass-mud horse” is given for the purpose of the parody.

    The phrases here like “grass-mud horse” and “MaLe Desert” share the same pronunciation of rude Chinese curse, while “river crab” has the same pronunciation of the Chinese word “harmony/harmonize.” The word “harmony” is the hottest political word in China since the rise to power of President Hu Jingtao whose campaign slogan is the “Harmonious Society”. The campaign of “cleaning unhealthy online information” mentioned at the beginning is conducted under the name of the “Harmonious Society.”

    Wikipedia9 explains the hidden violent language in “the song of the Grass-mud Horse” as follows, “Note that the comparison with the ‘animal’ name is not an actual homophone, but rather the two terms have the same consonants and vowels with different tones, which are represented by different characters.” However, this is not some simple dirty language that one always comes across on the Internet; this phrase has developed its own identity through its circulation on the Internet. The “grass mud horse” (cǎo ní mǎ) is pointing its finger to political authorities who tend to control the Internet speech: they are “the Chinese Internet Censorship,” The Chinese Communist Party, The Chinese government and all the propaganda discourses that serve the interest of CCP’s authority, legitimacy and reputation. It is easy to understand why Chinese netizens have to express their disagreement and rage to domestic politics through hidden texts. As one comment of the Youtube clip “The Song of the Grass-mud Horse” notes, “where the channels of public speech are distorted, the public speech has to be made distorted.” Given that the government is enforcing strict censorship on the Internet, Chinese netizens have developed creative ways of online communication to not only escape the censorship, but turn it into massive anti-government campaign. Under a “big brother” political system, the “Grass-mud horse” phenomenon has a remarkable significance in ideological communication.

    How Parody Works?

    The National New Report

    Figure 1:The National New Report

    What makes the video music laughable is the content, namely the narrative. The music video of the “Song of the Grass-Mud Horse (Cao Ni Ma)” has a very Chinese look. The logo on the top left site “CJTV” is a humorous representation of the “CCTV”- China Central Television- the leading TV network in China which has usually been referred to as the mouthpiece of the CCP government.

    As Hodge and Mansfield10 state about the semiotics of humor: “Much humor is visual, or involves an interplay between visual and verbal texts, so the appropriate analysis must be semiotic , aware of the functioning of a multiplicity of codes. Jokes normally are allusive, constituted by processes of intertextuality, highly dependent on context for their effect. Every text or occasion of discourse makes its meaning against a background of other text, discourses and practices in a community,and these processes and contexts must be theorized.”

    The texts, codes and symbols in “The Song of Grass Mud Horse” are so familiar for every Chinese that the decoding of the joke can be done in a second. The video has been based on a famous Chinese proverb “指鹿为马”11 (zhǐ lù wéi mǎ) ,

    Figure 2:The Chinese Proverb-Calling a Stag a Horse

    translated as “Calling a Stag a Horse”. The story of “Calling a Stag a Horse” is a Chinese version of Han Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” except that the former is a true story in the Chinese History. In the reign of Emperor the Second of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), the prime minister Zhao Gao was planning to usurp the throne. He had brought a stag to the court and asked everyone whether it was a horse as a way to test how high his prestige among the ministers was and also to find out who dared to oppose him.

    “Calling a Stag a Horse” is perhaps the perfect metaphor of describing the Chinese media system which is full of disguise, lies, exaggerations, manipulative information and talks of the “big brother.” Under the guideline of the “harmonious society”,12 the Chinese media tries to frame all news reports, political discourses, and social issues under a harmonious look. In the year of 2008, the government’s public image had gone through a roller coaster, from the Tibetan crackdown in March, Sichuan Earthquake in May, Beijing Olympics in August to the “toxic milk powder” scandal through the end of the year. The Chinese media system uses censorship, propaganda and all sorts of techniques to cover the domestic political conflicts and fake a harmonious, prosperous look of the society, just like the happy life of the grass-mud horses. This message has been coded through three layers in “The Song of the Grass-mud Horse:” first, the contradiction between the friendly aesthetics of the music video and the violent, ruthless hidden texts; once the audiences realize the meaning of “the grass-mud horse” and “MaLe Desert”, the lyrics, images and all signs that bare political symbolism become funny and satirical; second, targeting specific political ideology- “the Harmonious Society” (the River Crab)-has identified “The Song of the Grass-Mud Horse” as political contention and given itself the power of arousing public anti-government sensation.  Since communism and socialism have failed in China, the CCP have been using nationalism as the prominent ideology to back up its legitimacy: as part of the Chinese nationalism, “the harmonious society” which is derived from Confucius-has become the excuse for the government to make the society “harmonious” at all costs. Media censorship is playing a major part in keeping the harmonious look,  as the lyrics reads,

    “They defeated the River Crabs (Harmonism)

    in order to protect their grassland (Free Speech)

    River Crabs (Harmonism) disappeared from the MaLe Desert forever!”

    Targeting “the river crabs” here not only expresses the public rage towards the government’s policy, but is using the government’s own words to make a satire of its policy; third, the artist has also made a self-reflection by referring to the proverb of “Calling a Stag a Horse”; audiences are posed by the question “how many of us can stand up and tell the truth under a tyrannical ruling?” The artist has also made a comparison of today’s government with the Qin Dynasty which was overthrown by the people not long after Zhao Gao. When all the three have merged into a music video of Children Chorus about the cute Alpacas, the joke is made.

    As we see in the CNN video above, people argue that it is simplistic to see the “grass-mud horse” phenomenon as a represent of “some movement to overthrow the government” and they are doubtful about its contribution to China’s democracy, which is associated with the old question of “how Internet communication can promote democracy in China.” As Guobin Yang and many other Chinese scholars agree, when people think about the interplay between CMC and China’s democracy, “little attention is given to nonutilitarian issue of pleasure, play, identity, and morality.”13 Though parodies, jokes, and other non-political forms of communication on the Internet may not cause direct consequence, they are preparing people with thoughts, emotions, soical and symbolic capitals for upcoming actions.

    Creating an Identity

    Feenberg and Bakardjieva14 argue,

    “what the Internet offers is a flexible communicative space that can be constructed and bent in an infinite number of ways by sufficiently motivated groups of people. The implications and significance of what these groups build depends on the shape that they give to the space they create, and the relationships produced within it.”

    The “grass-mud horse” phenomenon has demonstrated that the creative use of CMC has offered an opportunity for all participants (the artist, viewers, commentators) to actively and interactively pursue an identity through shard feelings, common experiences and knowledge.

    The certain cultural familiarity that allows one to understand the joke and laugh has been called as the “register” by Halliday15, for whom the register “includes kinds of subject matter, kinds of social relationship and context, and specific modes of communicating, all cohering in a socially recognized form.” In “The Song of the Grass-Mud Horse”, the register has been employed in different forms: linguistic ( “grass-mud horse” and “MaLe Desert” as curse, “river crab” as “the ideology of harmonious society”), symbolic (the logo “CJTV” that symbolizes government propaganda; music video, children chorus, animals’ life that represent a harmonious theme of the propaganda), literal( as the “grass-mud horse” reminds people of “Calling a stag a horse” and the historical context of the proverb).

    The register of the joke is shared by the joker (the artist) and the laughers (the audiences), but the realization of the joke is an effort of collaboration between the two who share the hostility towards the joked -the “butt”16– “a person who is subjected to ridicule.” And the power of this joke is realized when a sense of pleasure shared among audiences becomes a feeling of solidarity which overcomes resistance and differences and achieves self-identification among audiences. The audiences’ random feelings of the register have been cooked through the parody and becomes the identity of victims of the government’s policy, and a common recognition of common situation and carnival truth. And this is the ultimate effect of humor17– “a demystifying recognition of conflict, disparity, contradiction.”

    The sense of solidarity, self-identification among participants and a common recognition of common situation have all helped to create what Benedict Anderson calls the “imaged community” where people unknown to each are all connected together at the moment of laughing at the parody, imaging the existence of people out there who gain the same pleasure of watching the music video because of their share suffering, knowledge, reality and memory.

    Following “the Song of the Grass-mud Horse”, Chinese netizens have created all forms of entertaining content of the “grass-mud horse” and the “river crab”,18 there are flashes, new songs, “grass-mud horse” of different cartoon versions, photos, prints of “grass-mud horse” on T-shirts, mugs, toys, etc. Given the government has already announced the ban on the “grass-mud horse”, the images of the “grass-mud horse” spread on the Internet have been far beyond the control of the Chinese government.   The iconization of the “grass-mud horse” has added value to the symbolic and social capital of the “imaged community”, the “grass-mud horse” and “river crab” have been developed to symbols of its community, just like flags, monuments, and national anthems.

    Figure 3:The grass-mud horse dolls are on sale.

    Figure 4: The "grass-mud horse" on T-shirts.

    Figure 5: The "river crabs" on the national flag

    Figure 6:The River Crab with the "Three Represents".

    When Hidden Transcript Goes Public

    In his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts19, Scott explained the dynamics of political discourse in public spheres through two concepts: the hidden transcript and the public transcript. Public transcript is communicated on-stage and subject to power holders’ surveillance. Scott argues that public transcript is guided by ideologies of the dominate, public transcript of the subordinate usually “bears the mark of mortal fear” under tyrannical ruling.(ibid,p4) In regimes like China where the government has enjoyed a long-time monopolistic control over media production, discourses of political resistance, contentions and public opinion usually have to take forms of what James Scott calls “the hidden transcript”20. This discourse takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by power holders- which is meanings and language that are comfortably shared and recognized among the subordinated group. The “grass-mud horse” phenomenon is a process of the hidden transcripts in private spheres become unveiled and uttered in public spheres. The resentment towards political censorship has long existed among Chinese netizens, they also understand the  “harmonious society” campaign is but a political design which aims to avoid naked deprivation of people’s free speech right. But “fear” has limited their resistance to low-profile forms-hidden transcript.

    According to James Scott, “The hidden transcript is the privileged site for nonhegemonic, contrapuntal, dissident, subversive discourse.” (ibid,p25) The hidden transcript is powerful source of resisting the Gramscian concept of “hegemonic cooperation”.(ibid,p21) But the limitation of the power of “hidden transcripts” is its lack of presence in public spheres. On the one hand, Scott argues that “none of the practices and discourses of resistance can exist without tacit or acknowledged coordination and communication within the subordinate group;21 on the other, “it is only when this hidden transcript is openly declared that subordinates can fully recognize the full extent to which their claims, their dreams, their anger is shared by other subordinates with whom they have not been in direct touch.” 22 So for the subordinated group to gain power, they need to make “hidden transcripts” public; in his words, the subordinated group must “carve out for itself social spaces insulated from control and surveillance from above.”24

    This explains perfectly why “the grass-mud horse” phenomenon is happening on China’s Internet. Chinese netizens have been disgusted by government conducting censorship under the name of the “harmonious society.” Resistance on individual levels has been powerless. For example, when contentious comments were deleted in a forum, the commentators could only make their complaints by adding another comments; this kind of resistance has been doomed to fail for its lack of consistence. But “the grass-mud horse” phenomenon, which starts from a music video, has shown us a “snow ball” effect of a well-coordinated communication. Chinese netizens have learned to behave strategically in response to the state censorship and punishment: they create the parodic form that helps to realize the iconization of “the grass-mud horse,” which in turn involves more and more people to participate in the movement. As I argue above, the public resistance has created a solidarity among the subordinated, the subordinates who have not been in direct touch have shared their anger, pleasure and a recognition of the inner conflicts, all of which help to create an identity among the subordinated group.

    Scott notes that “The public declaration of the hidden transcript to powersholders was not just figurative. … The social impact of the public confrontation of the authorities with complaints and demands that were previously sequestered in the safety of the hidden transcript was tremendous.” (ibid,p203)

    This has been proved on the Chinese Internet. On the one hand, after “the first open declaration of the hidden transcript” which breaks the established ritual of public subordination, more and more people are engaged in the publication of the “hidden transcripts.” When the number of people involved in the movement exceeds the censorship’s ability of tracking-down, the unspoken fear of public defiance disappears; on the other, when anti-sensorship discourse becomes public transcripts, the power relation between the dominant and the subordinate changes. The dominant no longer enjoys the hegemonic power in public spheres, as their authority and legitimacy have been defamed on their face. “The grass-mud horse” phenomenon is not only a refusal to comply, to salute, to bow one’s head to the imposed taboo, but to repel of the government’s hypocrisy and stupidness. The long-repressed sentiment in public spheres gives “the grass-mud horse” a chance to grow to a substitute of all their resentment, anger and disagreement towards the government.

    The government has already put enormous efforts to establish the “harmonious society” as the substitute ideology of it former ones, including Maoism, the “Three Represents,” etc.  However, the advent of the theme of “defeating the river crabs (harmonization)” in popular discourse has, to a large extent, put the government’s effort into vain. Thanks to the wide recognition of the “grass-mud horse,” Chinese netizens are taking full advantage of its symbolic meanings in public spheres. The “grass-mud horse” has been used in a series of anti-censorship protests after the initial success of “The Song of the Grass-mud horse”. The most influential campaign is perhaps the mass-photo show inspired by Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei.  Ai Wei Wei is the most prominent contemporary artist in China, and he has been leading an investigation of students who died in the Sichuan Earthquake and was blacklisted by the Chinese government. Ai Wei Wei’s blog on was blocked after he published the number and names of students who lost their lives in the earthquake due to the poor quality of school constructions. Afterwards, Ai Wei Wei has opened accounts on other blogs, Twitter, forums, etc. To verify his blogs, (as to avoid people writing blogs under his name) Ai Wei Wei has put a series of photos of his nude body with a “grass-mud horse” on his blog, so the photos have become Ai Wei Wei’s identity on blogs. Following Ai Wei Wei, more people are engaged in anti-censorship campaign by putting  their photos with the “grass-mud horse” on photo-sharing websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    Ai Wei Wei with the "grass-mud horse"

    Figure 7: Chinese Contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei's. Ai Wei Wei's father Ai Qin is a famous poet who died in the Cultural Revolution. This picture links to the gallery of Ai Wei Wei's art works.

    Figure 8: Ai Wei Wei with the "grass-mud horse"

    C.N.M= Cao Ni Ma

    Figure 9: C.N.M= Cao Ni Ma

    Figure 10: The "grass-mud horse" toys in an office

    “The grass-mud horse” has become the hottest icon of rebellion among young people, just like the image of “Che” and “John Lennon”. Even kindergarden students can sing “The Song of the Grass-mud Horse” which is a nice mark of the “bad boy”. “The grass-mud horse”, the Chinese curse, now can be seen everywhere in China. It has been used to criticize all kinds of “authority” talks. The symbolism of the curse also gains people’s respect in public spheres, as it marks the break of the silence of people’s long repressed desire-to speak the truth aloud.


    This blog project has explored the interesting phenomenon of the “grass-mud horse” on the Chinese Internet. If we understand how the ambiguity of China’s Internet censorship can shape expression and encourage creativity, we can admit that the “grass-mud horse” phenomenon is far from an incident. The dynamics of the development of CMC on China’s Internet lies in a complex of contention, resistance, digital creativity, censorship, hegemonic propoganda and repression. The “grass-mud horse” phenomenon is co-created by two opposite forces. And the significance the the “grass-mud horse” phenomen is also double-sided, as it gives the opportunity of unification among all the participants (the repressed) and undermines hegemonic power of the dominant (the repressor). The Internet has changed China and will continue to. To end with Chinese scholar Zixue Tai’s words, “the important question to ask is not whether the Internet will democratize China, but rather in what ways the Internet is democratizing (or will democratize)communication in China.”25


    1 About the hegemonic power on Internet, Zixue Dai argues that, ” Admittedly, big corporate powers and “big brothers” are as present as ever in cyberspace, but it must also be recognized that the Internet has brought about a level of empowerment for individual users that was unthinkable in the pre-Internet age.” The Internet in China, Cyberspace and Civil Society,Zixue Tai, 2006, Routledge, New York and London, p170

    2 ibid,p111

    3 Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, who oversees a project that monitors Chinese Web sites, said in an e-mail message that the grass-mud horse “has become an icon of resistance to censorship.” The Beijing Film Academy professor and social critic Cui Weiping has been writing a blog that gives detailed analysis of the “grass-mud horse” phenomenon.

    4 For more information about China’s Internet Censorship, please visit this blog.

    5 The Power of The Internet in China, Citizen Activism Online, Guobin Yang, 2009,Golumbia University Press, New York, p49

    6 Bob Hodge and Alan Mansfield, p199, “Nothing left to laugh at…”:humour as a tactic of resistance”, in Language and the Nuclear Arms Debate: Nukespeak Today, Paul Chilton, 1998,Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, p. 197-211

    7 ibid

    8 The cartoon version of “the Song of the Grass-mud Horse” can be found here.

    9 The “Grass-Mud Horse” phenomenon has attracted a lot of media attention in the west, the New York Times, CNN, Wikipedia, Asia Newsweek, Global Voice, etc all have related reports.

    10Bob Hodge and Alan Mansfield, p199

    11 The story of “Calling a Stag a Horse” in English.

    12The construction of a Harmonious Society is a socio-economic vision that is said to be the ultimate end result of Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s signature ideology of the Scientific Development Concept. For more information, please go to and

    13 The Power of The Internet in China, Citizen Activism Online, Guobin Yang, 2009,Golumbia University Press, New York, p155

    14 Feenberg and Bakardjieva,Maria(2004), Virtual Community: no ‘killer implication.’ New Media&Soceity 6(1),37-43

    15 Halliday, M.A.K. (1978), Language as Social Semiotic: the social interpretation of language and meaning. Edward Arnold: London. Hodge and Mansfield refers to the concept of “register” and argues that “the value of the concept of ‘register’ is that it allows us, as part of our social knowledge, to read off contexts and kinds of participants from qualities of a discourse.”

    16 Bob Hodge and Alan Mansfield, p201

    17 ibid,p202

    18 As in Figure 6, the crab has three watches on it. The Chinese pronunciation of “wearing a watch” is similar to that of the “Three Represents”, the slogan of former President Jiang Zeming’s political campaign. For more information, please check here.

    19 James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Yale University Press, p4.

    21 ibid,p118

    22ibid, p21

    24 ibid, p118

    25 Zixue Tai,2006,p184

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