Why have the Chinese been banned from enjoying the delights of wordplay? It's a punny story...

According to the Government, it can cause too much 'cultural and linguistic chaos'

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The Independent Online

The comedian Arthur Smith once elegantly asserted that “the pun exists in a social and political void, caring nothing for the issues of its day, content merely to display itself in its small cleverness”. So with the news that China’s print and broadcast watchdog is banning wordplay from the public domain, I can’t help but sympathise with the good people of China, as children are always amused most of all by a good pun. It really Yangtze heartstrings, doesn’t it?

China’s State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has announced that puns, wordplay and idioms are “contrary in spirit to the promotion and continuance of excellent, traditional Chinese culture”, and that it intends to “crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms” in the mass media and tourist industries. The edict stated wordplay’s capacity for “cultural and linguistic chaos” as its justification, especially in children’s development and engagement with the Chinese language. It looks like the Chinese authorities fear a pun’s potential to be far two meaningful.

I was initially very reluctant to point the finger immediately at Chinese authoritarianism as the root cause for this decision, because it just seemed too obvious. Yet the reasons given by the State Administration are so vague and illogical that I can't see any other reason. What else is this except a slightly bizarre crackdown on disguised political critique?

As long as humans have been capable of agreeing on the meaning of words, our capacity for undercutting order and expectations very often manifests itself in wordplay and linguistic sleights of hand. Frustratingly then, I’m told that China’s is one of the most heavily pun-drenched cultures around, with wordplay utterly inherent in the day-to-day vernacular.


Given the State Administration’s acknowledgment that, “idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language”, it's little wonder this measure seems to have been met with derision on Chinese social media. You might say such punnitentiary measures have hardly scored full Marx amongst the great will of China.

Ultimately, I have found it refreshing that the silly puns which punctuate this article (and there are more to come, I assure you!) are mirrored not only in our Western Twittersphere, but have also been widespread on Weibo and elsewhere. It demonstrates that for any debates past or present on the fluidity and adaptability of language, forcible removal of phrases or idioms is rightly to be derided, if not labelled as totally impossible.

Strict compliance with standard spelling and avoiding manipulating words’ meanings and phrases will surely be an unwinnable battle, especially in a language as rich in homophones and homonyms as Chinese. After all, one man’s homonym is another man’s word that shares a different meaning.

We can only wait to see whether these new guidelines will be observed, and to what extent China’s authorities will make manifest their threats. In the immediate future, the only people who should be worried are any comedians out there considering adding Beijing to the tour dates, because puns about Chinese family trees always make for good one-liners.

Otherwise, for the moment we should treasure our own language’s capacity for wordplay and its rich history, which ranges from Shakespeare’s black humour in having Mercutio announce that “tomorrow…you shall find me a grave man” the day before his stabbing, to James Joyce’s mischievous dirty phonetic poem, “If you see kay…see you in tea” in Ulysses.

Lastly though, I’d like you all to sympathise again with any wry Chinese schoolchildren whose playful word-juggling might be potentially hamstrung by this ludicrous new directive. We can only remind them that at the end of the day, even if they have to keep it to themselves from now on, a good pun is its own reword.