China’s government heavily censors its internet — and amid recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, online freedom of speech in the country has deteriorated even further.
Netizens have long gone without YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, but one website stands as China’s largest social media network: Sina Weibo.
The site, which operates much like Twitter, has 10 million “core” users. But even they face restrictions.
We chose 16 weird terms that Weibo banned at one point — and likely still does.
1. “Fifty cents” (wumao)
Short for “50 Cent Party,” this pejorative term refers to internet commenters hired by the government to post favourable comments about the Communist Party and China in general.
These hired guns supposedly earn 50 cents for every post. The Chinese government has implicitly acknowledged their existence, and people often use the term as a snarky response to any pro-China sentiments online.
2. “Four gentleman” (si junzi)
This refers to four plants: orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum, and plum blossom, which represent a Confucian concept about virtuosity. Roughly translated into English, the teaching means “gentleman.” Chinese paintings commonly show the four flowers together.
During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, four men, referred to as the si junzi, stood on the students’ side. Using the term signifies deep respect.
3. “Victoria” (Weiduoliya)
In Roman mythology, Victoria was the goddess of victory. So does Weibo block the name because of that? The lingerie models? No, it’s blocked for Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.
Every June 4, Victoria Park acts as the site for a candlelight vigil commemorating those who died in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Other demonstrations frequently use the park as a home base, too.
4. “May 35” (Wuyue sanshiwu)
Since May has 31 days, the date “May 35” would technically be June 4 — the day the army arrived in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 to deal with demonstrators.
Since June 4 is obviously blocked on Weibo, users found other ways to discuss the date: “day four,” “the beginning of June,” and even phonetic translations of the words “six” and “four.” All of them have been, or still are, blocked.
5. “Meow” (mimi)
Known to Westerns as the sound a cat makes (or an oboe-like folk instrument), “meow” in Chinese is roughly the equivalent to “tits” in English.
6. “Dew point” (ludian)
Certainly not blocked for its scientific meaning, “dew point” is slang in China for “reveal a little bit (of skin).”
7. “Rich woman” (fu nu)
Often used to criticise the wealth of the wives, mistresses, and daughters of corrupt businessmen and government officials, Weibo blocks the term because of a specific woman: Guo Meimei.
In June 2011, Meimei had been posting about her glamorous lifestyle for months: horseback riding, Hermes purses, an orange Lamborghini, and so on. But she listed her job title as manager of the “China Red Cross Chamber of Commerce.” When netizens realised the disconnect, they began wondering where their donations had gone.
While the government maintained the existence of her alleged organisation, the real Chinese Red Cross launched an investigation, which turned up irregularities. The scandal shook the entire country’s confidence in charities.
8. “Never forget” (wu wang)
These two words begin a classical Chinese idiom, known as “chengyu.” Literally translated, it means “don’t forget that you’re in Ju.”
Ju was a Chinese city in the Qi state during the Warring States Period, a centuries-long struggle between the various states of China. Ju suffered heavily.
Turning this phrase now intends to motivate the group on a losing side of a battle — rooting for the little guy, if you will.
9. “Empty stool” (kongdeng)
This references the empty chair that sat between two people during the 2010 Nobel Peace Price ceremony.
The recipient was Liu Xiabao, a Chinese writer, professor, and human rights activist. He was, and remains, in prison. In one of the most iconic images to come from the day, chairman of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, placed the medal on Xiabao’s empty chair.
Netizens started using the phrase “empty stool” as a tribute to Xiabao.
10. “Hair bacon” (mao larou)
Strange as it seems, this phrase references Mao Zedong’s body on display at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The Chinese character for “hair” is also Mao’s surname. And the character for “bacon” literally means “preserved meat.”
Thus, “hair bacon” means the “preserved meat of Mao.”
11. “Calico cat” (sansemao)
Searching for any colour cat is actually blocked on Weibo. They reference Chinese revolutionary Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1961 proverb: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black of white; so long as it catches mice, it’s good.”
In the statement, the mouse represents economic prosperity and national advancement, while the cat is the system used to achieve it. Xiaoping likely meant it as a mockery of China’s China’s socialist system.
12. “Canadian French” (Jianada Fayu)
In traditional Chinese, the characters for “Canadian French” inadvertently contain another character meaning: “national constitution,” which also happens to be an abbreviation for Falun Dafa, a.k.a. Falun Gong, the outlawed cult.
The author uses this as an example of the Scunthorpe problem, in which algorithms block innocent terms that simply contain banned words.
13. “Dry your mother” (gan ni ma)
The characters for this phrase can mean “grasp you” or “grasp your mother,” too. All are ostensibly the equivalent of English’s “f— you.”
The American rock band’s name contains the word “tank” — one of the many military-related terms banned on Weibo. It’s the Scunthorpe problem all over again.
15. “River crab” (hexie)
This actually refers to the mitten crab, an edible crustacean common to China’s eastern coast.
Despite its invasiveness, Weibo bans this animal’s name because of its similarity to the Chinese word for “harmony.” Communist party leader until 2012, Hu Jintao, made that his chief message. Skeptical of his agenda, people quickly started using “river crab” as a sort of code to discuss the situation online.
16. “Colour of leopard” (sebao)
The English equivalent is “animal print,” or “leopard print, and the author has no idea why Weibo bans it.