China's Weibo bans sound-alike expressions used to evade censorship of banned words

'Narrow-necked bottle' sounds like Xi Jinping, and '535' means May 35, for the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
By Gao Feng for RFA Mandarin
China's Weibo bans sound-alike expressions used to evade censorship of banned words The logo of Chinese social media app Weibo is seen on a mobile phone in this illustration picture taken December 7, 2021.

Chinese internet giant Sina Weibo says it is banning the use of puns, homophones and other word-play claiming to be "typos" by people wanting to get around automated blocks and filters and refer to politically sensitive topics behind the Great Firewall.

"In order to clean up cyberspace and maintain a civilized and healthy online community, this site will focus on rectifying violations of the site's policy regarding the use of homophones, variants, and other "typos" to publish and disseminate low-quality content," the platform said in a July 13 statement on its official Weibo account.

Weibo said it will "intensify investigations and ... illegal behaviors" around puns and soundalike phrases, and "standardize the use of Chinese characters."

Mandarin Chinese has tens of thousands of characters but only about 400 pronunciations, lending itself readily to puns and soundalike expressions.

Social media users have long made use of this capacity by substituting in different characters that sound similar to banned phrases, which include references to ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and sensitive keywords like June 4 (for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre) and anything else the authorities don't wish to see online.

"This platform calls on the majority of netizens to express their views in a civilized manner and standardize the use of Chinese characters when participating in community discussions," Weibo said. "If you find relevant illegal content, please report it ... and we will deal with it in a timely manner."

More recently, the phrase "narrow-necked bottle," which uses characters with the sound "xi jing ping" has been used to reference CCP leader Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, the Chinese name of the Dutch financial institution ABN-AMRO, which directly translates as "Dutch bank" has come to mean "Henan banks," because of the similar sounding Mandarin words for the Netherlands and Henan. The term references recent protests by locked-out depositors in the central Chinese province.

While not a pun, the phrase "535," or May 35th, has also long been used to reference June 4, or the Tiananmen massacre, Hunan dissident Ouyang Jianghua told RFA.

"June 4th is a sensitive word, so we write May 35th," Ouyang said. "Do the math. There are only 31 days in May."

The letter "S" has long been used to express the Chinese word for "death." It was unclear whether acronyms, which often depict expletives or insults, like "NMSL" for "ni ma si le," which means, "your mother is dead," would also be targeted.

Independent political analyst Wu Zuolai said the use of homophones also brings cheer to some people's day.

"This phenomenon is a cultural phenomenon that makes people laugh," Wu told RFA. "Netizens use numbers, homonyms, or other well-known ways to obscure certain expressions."

"It has caused mayhem when it comes to the use of Chinese characters. Nobody uses Chinese characters normally any more," he said. "If you write the truth, you offend the government."

Wu said the move was likely in response to the successful circumvention of censorship during the Henan rural bank protests of recent weeks, as well as the Shanghai COVID-19 lockdown.

"People gathered or protested offline in many ways, which aroused the vigilance of the authorities," Wu said. "The [CCP] 20th National Congress is about to start, and people could use a lot of deformed characters and homophones to poke fun."

"This would deconstruct the authority of the CCP and make a mockery of serious and high-minded mainstream voices," Wu said, adding that he expects people to come up with other ways to communicate their thoughts despite the crackdown on puns.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.