Chinese Corner

Of Rice Bunnies and Grass-Mud Horses4 min read

Punning the system – Anne Henochowicz


How do you say #MeToo in Mandarin? Not how you might expect: it’s all about the rice bunny.

This cute mascot is a linguistic response to a very uncute situation. The first Mandarin variations on the #MeToo hashtag to appear at the end of 2017 include the direct translation #Wǒyěshì (#我也是#) as well as #MeTooinChina (#WǒyěshìzàiZhōngguó #我也是在中国#). Of the many women who came forward to share their stories, one drew particular attention: a graduate student whose former doctoral advisor had tried to force himself on her posted her story anonymously to the Quora-esque site Zhihu in October. In the new year, she republished her story under her real name on Weibo. Shortly after Luo Xixi’s post went viral, her advisor, Chen Xiaowu, lost his job. Women were heartened and #MeTooinChina gained momentum, speaking out about the harassment they have suffered on campus and in the workplace and circulating petitions for their universities to address the issue head-on. Unfortunately, China’s party-state apparatus pounces at any hint of a social movement. Soon women soon found their stories and petitions had been deleted, while #MeToo posts disappeared from search results.

Rice bunny says no to sexual harassment. (@七隻小怪獸 / Weibo)

Enter the rice bunny – the mǐ tù (米兔) – whose name happens to sound just like “me too.” This digital species of rabbit allows women to evade keyword filters and continue talking about harassment and how to stop it. They can even invoke the mǐ tù with emoji ?? or photo collages. Although censors are likely already wise to the loaded pun, they still don’t have a way to automatically delete pictures of rice and rabbits.

Chinese netizens have a long tradition of evading censorship by inventing animals with punning names. The original subversive animal was born from a 2009 clampdown on foul language. That February, a music video emerged extolling the “grass-mud horse,” a clever alpaca that lives in the Gobi Desert. Tones disappear when you sing, so the innocent “grass-mud horse” – cǎo-ní mǎ 草泥马 – becomes a curse: “fuck your mom” (cào nǐ mā 肏你妈). Here’s the music video and the lyrics. Mouseover the words in bold to see the puns:

在那荒茫美丽马勒戈壁有一群草泥马 Zài nà huāngmáng měilì Mǎlè Gēbì yǒu yī qún cǎonímǎ, In the desolate, lovely Mahler Gobi lives the grass-mud horse
他们活泼又聪明 Tāmen huópo yòu cōngming, They’re spritely and smart
他们调皮又灵敏 Tāmen tiáopí yòu língmǐn, They’re naughty and quick
他们自由自在生活在那草泥马戈壁 Tāmen zìyóuzìzài shēnghuó zài nà Cǎonímǎ Gēbì, Freely they roam the Grass-Mud Horse Gobi
他们顽强勇敢克服艰苦环境。 Tāmen wánqiáng yǒnggǎn kèfú jiānkǔ huánjìng. Whose hardship they have overcome
噢,卧槽的草泥马! Ō, wò cáo de cǎonímǎ! Oh, crouching grass-mud horse!
噢,狂槽的草泥马! Ō, kuáng cáo de cǎonímǎ! Oh, crazy grass-mud horse!
他们为了卧草不被吃掉打败了河蟹 Tāmen wèile wòcǎo bú bèi chīdiào dǎbàile héxiè, To save the crouch grass they defeated the river crab
河蟹从此消失草泥马戈壁 Héxiè cóngcǐ xiāoshī Cǎonímǎ Gēbì Those crabs roam the Grass-Mud Horse Gobi no more

The grass-mud horse emerged in the era of former President Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” (héxié shèhuì 和谐社会), when people joked that deleted forum posts had been “harmonized” (bèi héxié). It’s only natural, then, that the grass-mud horse’s arch-nemesis is the river crab – the hé xiè 河蟹. In 2010, the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei hosted a river crab feast at his studio in Shanghai, where hundreds of guests metaphorically ate harmony for dinner. And alpaca plushies soon appeared on office desks as adorable little “fuck yous” to censorship.

Like everything punk, the cuteness of the grass-mud horse has been co-opted by entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck. Appearing more often now as chat stickers and emoji than in subversive videos, memeologist An Xiao Mina has raised the concern that the grass-mud horse has been “defanged.” That may be so, but as the rice bunny demonstrates, the principle of animal puns remains strong. And while the grass-mud horse may just be tongue-in-cheek, the rice bunny is something more: a tool of feminist action, a symbol that women don’t just want to skirt the system – they want to change it. ∎

Mandarin terms are transliterated in pinyin.