A few months ago, people were posting a lot about the Netherlands on Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Wake up, sleeping people of the Netherlands!” said one post. Others lamented that the people of Amsterdam wanted their tulips back.
These Chinese social media users aren’t expressing a nascent interest in all things Dutch. They’re talking about recent protests over frozen bank deposits in the province of Henan. Ordinarily, discussions about a controversial topic like this would be censored on Chinese social media, and posts containing the word “Henan” could be blocked or deleted. But “Henan” (河南) sounds a lot like “Helan” (荷兰), the Mandarin word for the Netherlands. By swapping the names around, people were able to get past the censors and keep the conversation going.
I love this article. The use of homonyms and puns to work around online censorship by Chinese citizens is as innovative and heartwarming as its necessity is horrifying and tragic. If you’re wondering exactly how similar 河南 (“Henan”, the name of the Chinese province in which authorities abused social distancing laws and used violence to prevent rural bank customers from withdrawing their own money) and 荷兰 (“Helan”, The Netherlands) sound, have a listen for yourself:
Unless you speak Mandarin already, you’ll might struggle to even pinpoint which is which in that recording.
This clever and imaginative use of language to try to sidestep surviellance feels like a modern adaptation of cryptolects like Polari or rhyming slang as used in the UK for the same purpose. But writing in Han characters online seems to provide an amazingly diverse way to encode meaning that an in-the-know human can parse, but an automated machine or an uninformed human censor can not. The story about the use of the word for “paratrooper” on Chinese social media, touched upon in the article linked above and expanded elsewhere, is particularly enjoyable.
Anyway, after you’ve read the article and you’re ready for a whole new rabbit whole to explore, I’d like to kickstart you by introducing you to Totoiana, a Pig Latin-like (second-syllable onwards, then first syllable) dialect spoken with fluency exclusively in a single Romanian village, and nobody knows why.