I accidentally the whole grass mud horse

Internet memes are running wild; and not only in the English corner of the Internet, but also in the Chinese one.

Currently there is much talk about the grass mud horse from China. Many commentators concentrate on how this defies Chinese censorship (e. g., the oh-so-politically-correct New York Times), but nobody seems to be interested that much in the details of the Chinese language, which make this pun possible (and so hard to anticipate).

As I once tried to learn Chinese for one semester (and then stopped due to the mind-boggling difficulties of that language†), I felt like delving deeper into this specific pun. As I am fond of puns in general, this seemed appropiate on a Friday afternoon.

First of all, you may have heard of it: the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) deems it necessary to censor the Internet. This may seem to be shocking and of course typical for a dictatorship, unless you realize that the democratically-elected government of Germany does basically the same. The difference is mainly in scale: the Chinese mean business, and they don’t do things half-heartedly.

Citizens of China are not so happy about this. And many of them regard this as a challenge. Therefore circumventing censorship is very common there, and somehow regarded as a sport.

This is how the grass mud horse came to life: grass mud horse is pronounced cao ni ma, while f*ck your mother is pronounced cao ni ma.

Or more precisely, grass mud horse is cǎo ní mǎ (cǎo: grass, ní: mud, mǎ: horse), while the curse is cào nǐ mā (cào: f*ck, nǐ: your, mā: mother). The only difference in pronounciation is the tone the syllables are spoken in. The accents indicate the tones: cǎo is spoken in a falling then rising voice (so-called third tone), while cào is spoken in a falling voice, and quickly and sharply (fourth tone). For completeness: mā is spoken in a steady voice and as a long syllable (first tone), while ní is spoken with a rising voice (second tone). These are the four tones of Mandarin. There are also syllables which are not accentuated, those are written without accents. For example, the more complete form of your mother would be nǐ de mā, where the de is not accentuated at all. This tonal business seems to be quite clear, and the Latin circumscription wonderfully logical, doesn’t it? Ah, this is how the Chinese language gets you: it seems easy at the beginning, but then … For example, when two syllables of third tone follow directly, the first one is pronounced in the second tone. Therefore, nǐ hǎo becomes ní hǎo (meaning hello).

So, the Chinese language is a polytonal language. This means that the tone you speak a syllable in can completely change the meaning. This is wonderful for making jokes (cf. the Discworld novel Interesting times), but can be real troublesome for the learner of Chinese. Therefore, all students of Chinese must learn the correct pronounciation of every word they learn.

And now comes the cruel part: the Chinese don’t really bother that much with it. If two Chinese talk to each other in real Chinese, not the language that you learn at the university, they don’t accentuate the syllables that much. They speak all tones rather flat. This is the reason why puns work so well: cǎo ní mǎ and cào nǐ mā simply sound the same. If a foreigner talks Chinese and accentuates all syllables laboriously, this sounds extremely funny to a Chinese.

So, on the Chinese Internet you are not allowed to swear; the government does not want it, and applies censorship, with the goal of harmony. So you don’t swear directly, but instead use puns that imply swearing. This is how the grass mud horse (cǎo ní mǎ) came to life: it can easily be misunderstood as f*ck your mother (cào nǐ mā). If you speak it quickly, both become cao ni ma.

And this isn’t easy for Censors to anticipate. The Chinese language is plagued by a ridiculous amount of homophones. The English language has its homophones (Mary, marry a merry man; I heard the herd trampling step by step in the steppe); the German language has enough of them (lieber arm dran als Arm ab; Tausende standen an den Hängen und Pisten); but they are simply dwarfed by Chinese. Many syllable have dozens of meanings. There is a poem by Zhào Yuánrèn, which clearly demonstrates this madness:

   Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
   Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
   Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
   Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.

A marvelous work of poetry, isn’t it? No Chinese could understand this in the Latin transcription, and not even with correct accentuation. You must read the Chinese ideograms to understand it:

石室詩士施氏, 嗜獅, 誓食十獅。 氏時時適市視獅。 十時, 適十獅適市。 是時, 適施氏適市。

Much clearer, isn’t it? Well, the only ideogram that I recognize is 十, pronounced shí, meaning ten (or topmost; even with ideograms, often there are several meanings). [If you see only garbage instead of Chinese, I'm sorry; but modern browsers should support Unicode, don't you think?]

So, while the Chinese script seems to be a cruel invention to punish and torment European or American students of the Chinese language (you need to know about 3000 ideograms in order to read a newspaper), it is in fact absolutely necessary. You cannot write Chinese in Latin script, not even with accentuations; there would be to many possible misunderstandings. And contrary to spoken Chinese, you cannot ask the writer what he means (and some Chinese have the habit of drawing ideograms into their palm using their finger, in order to clarify what they are talking about).

Oh, and there are two different ways of writing Chinese: Simplified Chinese (Kurzzeichen in German) and Traditional Chinese (Langzeichen in German). Simplified is used in PRC and Singapore, Traditional in Taiwan, Hongkong and Macau. I’m using here Simplified Chinese only, it’s the only system I learned, and it is already hard enough. Furthermore, as we are here concerned with censorship in the PRC, it’s the only one that counts.

So, on to Chinese script. The grass mud horse, cǎo ní mǎ, is written 草泥马. 草 means cǎo/grass, 泥 ní/mud, 马 mǎ/horse. The curse, however, is written 肏你妈. 肏 means cào/f*ck, 你 nǐ/your (or you), 妈 mā/mother. The funny thing is: 肏 even has its own Unicode code point, U+808F. Good job, Unicode consortium.

The problem is: when reading written material on the Internet, 草泥马 looks completely inconspicuous. After all, it means grass mud horse. Given the way Chinese like to name things, places, animals, this is nothing special. Only when you pronounce it, and then think about it, the alternative meaning becomes clear. You need to switch context, or mental planes. This is extremely hard to anticipate, and therefore I am convinced that many more of these puns will come up. After all, we are talking about the Internet here, and we all know how memes come up and live on. By the way, your mom is (you may have guessed it), 你妈, pronounced nǐ mā.

So, now you are prepared to hear the Song of the Grass Mud Horse on YouTube. It contains several more puns, but let’s keep those for another day.

Enjoy the weekend.


† When I started learning Chinese (just out of curiosity), I was aware that the Chinese script is extremely hard to learn. However, at the beginning I was under the impression that at least the spoken part of the language is fairly easy. We had a Chinese teacher (i. e., born in China) who had been living for many years in Germany. She always insisted that Chinese is a far easier language than German. She was a very talented teacher and led us to believe that we could speak Chinese quite well after only a short time (sure, discussion in class was drawn-out, but we could understand each other). However, this impression was shattered when a Chinese friend of her came by and gave her something; they had a quick chat, and nobody in class, even the high achievers, understood a single syllable.
When learning the language from a textbook, we advanced at a quick pace. All the while Chinese seemed rather easy to me; there is almost no grammar. Well, until we reached chapter 11: measure words.
At that point, it became clear to me: the Chinese like to 肏 with you.

About Daniel Tiggemann

Software-developer living in Cologne, Germany. Was once a physicist, specialized in computer simulations and parallel programming. Now more into JavaScript, web frontend development, and especially mobile computing.
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