Civil Liberties

The Grass-Mud Horse vs. the River Crab


Online dissidents in China have invented a mythical creature called the "grass-mud horse" whose name is innocuous in print but sounds an awful lot like "Fuck Your Mother" (or, as The New York Times puts it, "an especially vile obscenity") when pronounced in Mandarin. The joke is on the government's Internet censors, who are using an anti-porn campaign as an excuse to squelch unapproved opinions. The superficially juvenile grass-mud horse stories, songs, YouTube videos, and dolls are ostensibly neither smutty nor political, but the underlying message is pretty clear:

An alpaca-like animal—in fact, the videos show alpacas—[the grass-mud horse] lives in a desert whose name resembles yet another foul word ["your mother's cunt"]. The horses are "courageous, tenacious and overcome the difficult environment," a YouTube song about them says.

But they face a problem: invading "river crabs" that are devouring their grassland. In spoken Chinese, "river crab" sounds very much like "harmony," which in China's cyberspace has become a synonym for censorship. Censored bloggers often say their posts have been "harmonized"—a term directly derived from President Hu Jintao's regular exhortations for Chinese citizens to create a harmonious society.

In the end, one song says, the horses are victorious: "They defeated the river crabs in order to protect their grassland; river crabs forever disappeared from the Ma Le Ge Bi," the desert.

Here is a translation and exposition of "The Song of the Grass-Mud Horse."