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The Language of Politics: China
January 22, 2013 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - Comments Off on The Language of Politics: China

Last week we looked at the strange French dialect spoken only by the government of François Hollande, at least according to The Economist. This certainly isn’t the first time that politicians have been accused of talking a good game. George Orwell said that “in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.  Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

But if the particular regime gets repressive enough, it will drive its own citizens to similar constraints. That’s certainly the case in China, where protests over the lack of press freedom came to a head earlier this month at Southern Weekend (also referred to as Southern Weekly), a lively Guangzhou weekly.  Protesters lined up against police and government censorship, and Chinese officials have been scrambling to keep this matter from public attention.

Kai-Fu Lee was the founding president of Google China until 2009. His Sina Weibo microblog has a big following. Last week, with regard to the Southern Weekend protest, Lee’s post showed only a picture of a tea set captioned “From now on, I will only talk about East, West and North. And I will only talk about Monday through Friday.”

As deciphered by The Economist, “Taken all together, the cryptic message would make perfect sense to many of the millions who follow his feed. The phrase ‘to be invited to tea’ is a common euphemism for a non-voluntary chat with the police, and the fact that he could now talk about everything except for ‘South’ and ‘Weekend’ left little doubt as to what he might have been warned against chatting about.”

The China Media Project offers up another example, this time a story on porridge written in support of Southern Weekend protesters.  Journalist David Bandurski calls it “a classic example of the time-honored practice of conveying deeper meaning through sublime and ambiguous writing, or chunqiu bifa (春秋笔法).”

“The piece is a loving tribute, yes, to porridge. In particular, to the porridge of the south. But it is really a song of love and support from The Beijing News to similarly embattled colleagues at Southern Weekly.”  Both papers are part of a new wave of publications more interested in testing boundaries than an entrenched old guard media.

Bandurski explains, “In Chinese, the word for “porridge,” zhou (粥), is a homophone of the first character in “weekend,” zhoumo (周末), the second half of Southern Weekly‘s publication name. The shorthand for Southern Weekly is nanzhou (南周), which sounds very similar to “porridge of the south,” or nanfang de zhou (南方的粥).”

From The Beijing News article: “Just a bowl of porridge, but in this bitter winter, we gather round this bowl of porridge and warm ourselves. This food bears the weight of hope.”

Sublime? Yes. Ambiguous? Not very. So how did this porridge piece get by the government censors? Are they only interested in enforcing the letter of the law, or is it a deep game, with officials allowing a little steam to vent for the intelligentsia? Stupidity is probably a safer bet. It usually is. Reader thoughts?

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