China's mondegreen war on net-censorship

Quinn Norton reports from the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference, where Rebecca MacKinnon (one of the smartest people in the world on the questions of technology and democracy in China) discusses the state of China's fight against censorship, and what the rest of the world can learn from it.
Rebecca explains the current viral anti-censorship protest video: The song of the grass mud horse. (In this case an alpaca)

It features videos of alpacas while child sing about the grass mud horse, but the difference in tones between "Grass mud horse" and "Fuck your mother" is just a subtle tonal change. Since song tones override speaking tones in Chinese, it's a sweet choir of children singing "Fuck your mother." They sound very sweet. The alpacas are fluffy, but slightly creepy.

Definitely best misheard lyrics since "wrapped up like a douche bag in the middle of the night"

This video is coming to represent the fight against censorship. If you type in obscene or politically sensitive words often the software or the server will bounce you to an error message, so people use puns and slight changes in language to defeat the software, but everyone knows what you're really talking about. This is very like how people got around filtering in Napster oh so long ago now.

There's another older meme about a rivercrab wearing three watches. (Ethan mentioned this last year.) It's another homonym pun. It's a play on two government mottos: the "harmonious society" and the "three represents." Harmonious becomes rivercrab, and three represents becomes wear three watches. A rivercrab wearing three watches seems to be a bit about going along with the government plans.

Lessons from China for the World, Rebecca MacKinnon (Global Voices)


  1. I’m interested in the Chinese translations of “grass mud horse” and it’s homonyms.

    Is Grass mud horse, 草泥馬 (cǎo ní mǎ), supposed to be 操你媽 (cào nǐ mā) or 肏你媽 (also cào nǐ mā)? Can any native Chinese speakers help me?

    Here’s one link to the video, there are plenty out there if you search for “grass mud horse” or “草泥馬”

    I think the one that was originally linked to might have been an actual CTV news report about alpacas.

  2. stuckinkiel, I think 操 is just used as a slightly less filthy alternative to 肏.

    For the benefit of other readers, 肏 (meaning, as we’ve seen, “fuck”) consists of å…¥, meaning “entry”, and 肉, meaning “meat”. Delightfully graphic :D

  3. Ah, we’ve done something very similar before.

    d00d, 1tz 4w5um th4t ch1n353 p30p|3 4r3 f1ght1ng c3n50r5h1p w1th th31r 0wn l33t sp34k.

  4. There’s backstory to the mythical “grass-mud horse” that might help illuminate its role in protesting censorship. It’s one of the Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures, along with the fÇŽ kè yóu, or French Croatian Squid.


    And a discussion of its significance in a larger cultural and intellectual context. Also, lyrics!

  5. Interesting to see the parallels with other despotic regimes. In Brazil (and I’m sure in many other countries), revolutionary artists under the dictatorship wrote many lyrics that were revolutionary without running afowl of censorship limits by using puns and other tricks.


    The most famous example. The interesting thing is that these artists are today some of the most famous ones in Brazil, and these songs are still some of the most popular. The dictatorship and its censorship led to a musical and artistic revolution. To this day, some of Brazil’s best artists are sons and daughters of the fight against the regime.


  6. I really wish I can translate the songs and share with you guys but believe me, any translation spoil 99.99% of the fun.

    – some chinese guy

  7. @ stuckinkiel

    “Is Grass mud horse, 草泥馬 (cÇŽo ní mÇŽ), supposed to be 操你媽 (cào nǐ mā) or 肏你媽 (also cào nǐ mā)? Can any native Chinese speakers help me?”

    Yes, you are 100% right on this.

    Another funny rap version of Grass-mud-horse song:

  8. 肏 is more insulting but fewer people understand it. 操 is more universal. But both of them mean “fuck” in this context. (操 can be used in many different ways, like marching 步操)

    – same chinese guy as #15

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