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Applied Linguistics Review

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River-Crabbed Shitizens and Missing Knives: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Trends in Chinese Language Use Online as a Result of Censorship

Audrey M. Wozniak
Published Online: 2015-02-27 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2015-0005


In today’s digital age, the online public domain, particularly social networking websites, is the new frontier for the battle between censors and dissidents. This paper examines linguistic trends in the ways in which Chinese web users exploit Chinese phonology, morphology, and orthography to avoid notice by online censors through the lenses of pragmatics and critical discourse analysis. The linguistic transformations can be divided into 1) phonologically derived transformations, e.g. the well known “river crab” (héxiè, 河蟹) in place of the word “harmony” (héxié, 和谐); 2a) character suggestion (phono-orthographical) e.g. referring to former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (Wēn Jiābǎo, 温家宝) as “Teletubby” (tiānxiàn bǎobǎo, 天线宝宝) because of the two names’ shared character 宝 (bǎo); and 2b) character suggestion (morpho-orthographical) e.g. the made-up word 目田 (mù tián, “eye field”) being substituted for 自由 (zìyóu, “freedom”). Consequently, introducing multiple linguistic transformations, in particular introducing elements of foreign languages and ideograms, drastically increases the level of encoding. This paper presents examples of combination methods, including Chinese-English compound words that connote disparate yet interdependent meanings in multiple languages meanings, as well as the youth culture phenomenon of Martian language, or 吙☆魰 (火星文, huǒxīng wén). In characterizing the ways in which web users manipulate Chinese language, this paper aims to demonstrate that these transformation techniques are inherent to the Chinese language as well as a byproduct of the relationship between web users and censors, reflected in the encoded subversive messages heavy reliance on political and cultural references. Thus, interpreting the output strings of subversive messages requires both linguistic knowledge and social context.

Keywords: sociolinguistics; censorship; the Internet; China; pragmatics


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About the article

Audrey M. Wozniak

Audrey M. Wozniak is a Fellow of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation and a graduate of Wellesley College. Her research interests include politics and communication, particularly in regard to media and censorship.

Published Online: 2015-02-27

Published in Print: 2015-03-01

Citation Information: Applied Linguistics Review, Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 97–120, ISSN (Online) 1868-6311, ISSN (Print) 1868-6303, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2015-0005.

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