10 Legendary Obscene Beasts

Posted by Nishant Shah at Feb 23, 2010 12:05 PM |
In the second of his articles, Nishant Shah analyses a peculiar event of vandalism which has now become the core of free speech and anti-censorship debates in mainland China. Looking at the structure of user generated knowledge websites and the specific event on the Chinese language encyclopaedia, 'Baidu Baike', he shows how, in cities where spaces of political spectacle and public protest are quickly diminishing, the Internet has become a tool for producing new public spaces of demonstration and protest. The story about 'Cao Ni Ma' stands as an iconic representation of the playful processes by which young people in different contexts and cultures engage with the politics in their immediate environments.

User Generated Knowledge sites: The world of knowledge production was never as shaken as it was with the emergence of the Wikipedia – a user generated knowledge production system, where anybody who has any knowledge, on almost anything in the world can contribute to share it with countless users around the world. The camps around Wikipedia are fairly well divided: there are those who swear by it and those who swear against it. There are scholars, activists and lobbyists who celebrate the democratisation of knowledge production as the next logical evolutionary step to the democratic access to knowledge. They appreciate the wisdom of crowds and revel in the joy that in the much discussed Nature magazine experiment, the number of errors in Wikipedia and its biggest opponent, Encyclopaedia Britannica, were almost the same. And then there are those who think of the Wikipedia and other such peer knowledge production and sharing systems as erroneous, unreliable and a direct result of collapsing standards that the vulgarisation of knowledge has succumbed to in the age where information has become currency. Add to this the hue and cry from academics around the globe who lament about falling research standards as the copy and paste generations (Vaidhyanathan; 2008) in classrooms skim over subjects in Wikipedia rather than analysing and studying them in detail from those hallowed treasuries of knowledge – reference books.

As can be expected, the questions about the veracity, verifiability, trustworthiness and integrity of Wikipedia and other such user generated knowledge sharing sites (including Youtube, Flickr, etc.) are carried on in sombre tones by zealots who are devoted to their beliefs. However, the one question that remains unasked, in the discussion of these sites, is  what purpose it might serve beyond the obvious knowledge production exercise.

The Story: In China, where the government exerts great control over regulating online information, Wikipedia had a different set of debates which would not feature in the more liberal countries – the debates were around what would be made accessible to a Wikipedia user from China and what information would be blanked out to fit China’s policy of making information that is ‘seditious ‘and disrespectful’, invisible. After the skirmishes with Google, where the search engine company gave in to China’s demands and offered a more censored search engine that filtered away results based on sensitive key-words and issues, Wikipedia was the next in line to offer a controlled  Internet knowledge base to users in China.

However, another user-generated knowledge site, more popular locally and with more stringent self-regulating rules than Wikipedia, became the space for political commentary, satire, protest and demonstration against the draconian censorship regimes that China is trying to impose on its young users. The website Baidu Baike (pinyin for Baidu Encyclopaedia), became popular in 2005 and was offered by the Chinese internet search company Baidu. With more than 1.5 million Chinese language articles, Baidu has become a space for much debate and discussion with the Digital Natives in China. Offered as a home-grown response to Wikipedia, Baidu implements heavy ‘self-censorship to avoid displeasing the Chinese Government’ (BBC; 2006) and remains dedicated to removing ‘offensive’ material (with a special emphasis on pornographic and political events) from its shared space.

It is in this restrictive regime of information sharing and knowledge production, that the Digital Natives in China, introduced the “10 legendary obscene beasts” meme which became extremely popular on Baidu. Manipulating the Baidu Baike’s potential for users to share their knowledge, protestor’s of China’s censorship policy and Baidu’s compliance to it, vandalised contributions by creating humorous pages describing fictitious creatures, with names vaguely referring to Chinese profanities, with homophones and characters using different tones.

The most famous of these creations was  Cao Ni Ma   (Chinese: 草泥), literally "Grass Mud Horse", which uses the same consonants and vowels with different tones for the Chinese language profanity which translates into “Fuck Your Mother”  cào nǐ mā (肏你妈) . This mythical animal belonging to the Alpaca race had dire enemies called héxiè (河蟹), literally translated as “river crabs”, very close to the word héxié () meaning harmony, referring to the government’s declared ambition of creating a “harmonious society” through censorship. The Cao Ni Ma, has now become a popular icon appearing in videos distributed on YouTube, in fake documentaries, in popular Chinese internet productions, and even in themed toys and plushies which all serve as mobilising points against censorship and control that the Chinese government is trying to control.

However, the reaction from those who do not understand the entire context is, predictably, bordering on the incredulous. Most respondents on different blogs and meme sites, think of these as mere puns and word-plays and juvenile acts of vandalism. The Chinese monitoring agencies themselves failed to recognise the profane and the political intent of these productions and hence they survived on Baidupedia, to become inspiring and iconic symbols of the slow and steady protest against censorship and the right to information act in China. Following these brave acts, Baidu’s user base also experimented very successfully with well-formed parodies and satires, opening up the first spaces in modern Chinese history, for political criticism and negotiation[1].

What is discarded or overlooked as jest or harmless pranks, are actually symptomatic of a new generation using digital tools and spaces to revisit what it means to be politically active and engaged. The 10 obscene legendary creatures, can be easily read as juvenile fun and the actions of a youth that is quickly losing its connection with the immediate contemporary questions. However, a contextual reading, shows that this is symptomatic of a new internet public in a country where physical public spaces of political protest and demonstration are quickly diminishing. In Shanghai, the iconic People's Square, once an area where thousand assembled in order to realise a political dream has already been cut down to five times its original size, to make way for the malls and hotels and multiplexes that now surround the token park in the centre. At the Bund, the presence of the paramilitary, that monitors any form of 'undesriable' activity by the native Chinese can often be frightening. As physical spaces come under abundant surveilance and places shrink to house the demands of the IT city, the young people quickly find new spaces of political engagement and the Cao Ni Ma story is about how this political negotiation is informed by the aesthetics of gaming, viral distribution, irreverence and playfulness that the Internet technologies shape.

[1] A more serious political satire that moves beyond just punning and avoiding censorship was found in the now-deleted entry for revolutionary hero Wei Guangzheng (伟光正, taken from 伟大, 光荣, 正确, "great, glorious, correct"). An excerpt from it is included here for sampling.

Wei Guangzheng

Comrade Wei Guangzheng is a superior product of natural selection. In the course of competition for survival, because of certain unmatched qualities of his genetic makeup, he has a great ability to survive and reproduce, and hence Wei Guangzheng represents the most advanced state of species evolution.

Here is the evolution of Wei Guangzheng's thinking: Since the day of his birth, comrade Wei Guangzheng established a guiding ideology for the people's benefit, and in the course of connecting it with the real circumstances of his beloved Sun Kingdom, a process of repeated comparisons that involved the twists and turns of campaigns of encirclement and suppression, his ideology finally realized a historic leap forward and generated two major theoretic achievements. The first great theoretic leap was the idea of leading a handful of people to take up arms to cause trouble, rebellion, and revolution in order to build a brave new world, and to successfully seize power. This was the "spear ideology." The second great theoretic leap was a theory, with Sun Kingdom characteristics, in which Wei Guangzheng was unswervingly upheld as leader and the people were forever prevented from standing up. This was the "shield theory." Under the guidance of these two great theoretic achievements, comrade Wei Guangzheng won victory after victory. Practice has proven, "Without Wei Guangzheng, there would be no Sun Kingdom." Following the road of comrade Wei Guangzheng was the choice of the people of the Sun Kingdom and an inevitable trend of historical development.


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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.