Maybe you’ve heard of the grass mud horse, the rare breed of alpaca that dwells in China’s Mahler Gobi dessert. It’s a noble beast constantly attacked by devious river crabs who attempt to disrupt its peaceful existence. It’s also one of China’s–and perhaps the world’s–most hilarious and subversive memes. Here’s what you need to know:
1. In Mandarin, the grass mud horse’s name is pronounced “cǎonímǎ”. This sounds an awful lot like “càonǐmā”, which means “fuck your mother.” And the “Mahler Gobi,” pronounced “Mǎlè Gēbì”, sounds very similar to “māle ge bī”, or “your mother’s cunt.”
2. The pun doesn’t stop there. The river crab–“héxiè”–sounds like the Mandarin word for “harmony”–“héxié”. The harmonized internet is a euphemism used by the Communist Party to talk about the censored internet. So the grass mud horse is a symbol of resistance against the notorious Great Firewall.
3. Serious as it is, the grass mud horse also catchy and funny. As in the West, animals make for perfect internet meme. If the English-speaking world has the lolcat, Chinese frustrated with the vagaries of a censored, controlled web have the grass mud horse. There are grass mud horse comics, animated cartoons and even plush dolls.
4. Like the lolcat, the grass mud horse has spawned into a number of meta-memes. The story of the grass mud horse and the river crab was expanded to include the ten mythical creatures of Baidu (Baidu is China’s Google-like search engine). Some of these creatures included the French-Croation Squid, pronounced “Fǎ Kè Yóu”, and the Intelligent Fragrant Chicken, whose name sounds like the Mandarin for “jacking off.” Netizens even developed a new Chinese character to represent the grass mud horse more concisely.
5. So what’s the big deal? Like the lolcat, the grass mud horse has been going strong for years, and it just won’t die. What might be annoying and hilarious in a higher freedom context is powerful a lower freedom one. It turns out memes can be an effective tool against internet censorship, and the grass mud horse is just the tip of the iceberg. China’s internet community are experts at turning sensitive political and social issues into poignant, catchy meme that’s incredibly difficult for censors to stop. I can haz net freedom?
An Xiao Mina is an American designer, researcher and artist. She focuses on the role of technology in building communities and empowering individuals. Her work has been featured in diverse venues like the Brooklyn Museum and Shanghai’s Xindanwei, and she has contributed writing to publications such as Wired and The Guardian.