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Feb. 12, 2014, 10 a.m.

From Nieman Reports: How chunqiu bifa’s puns and homophones let Chinese media play cat-and-mouse with censors

“Am I doing enough? Am I pushing the line rather than just flirting with it? Speaking truth to power is the media’s reason for being, nowhere more so than in China.”

Editor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and online. There’s a lot of great reading in there on a variety of subjects, but the primary focus is on the state of journalism in China, with a number of terrific reports from both Chinese journalists and foreign correspondents posted there.

This week, we’ll be sharing excerpts from some of those stories that would be of the most interest to Nieman Lab readers. Here, Yang Xiao, a 2014 Nieman Fellow and Beijing correspondent for China’s Southern People Weekly, writes about the linguistic tricks Chinese journalists use to express their opinions and asks if they’re just another form of self-censorship.

nieman-reports-winter-2014-coverIn China, May has 35 days. All mention of June 4th, the day in 1989 on which the Tiananmen Square massacre took place, is forbidden. So Chinese journalists and bloggers get around the ban online by talking about what happened on May 35th.

Twenty-five years after Tiananmen, the practice highlights two aspects of China’s liberal media: the familiar story of oppression and the increasingly popular tactic of circumventing censorship through the venerable Chinese tradition of chunqiu bifa, expressing critical opinions in subtle linguistic ways. In early 2013, for example, when journalists at the liberal Southern Weekly went on strike to protest government censorship of their New Year’s editorial, other publications supported them via chunqiu bifa.

One story in the Beijing News lifestyle section extolled the author’s love of “southern porridge.” In Chinese, the word for ”porridge” is zhou, a homophone of the first character in the ”Weekend” part of Southern Weekend’s name. Readers knew the author’s fondness for southern porridge was really a fondness for the beleaguered newspaper.

When I worked at the state-run Xinhua News Agency from 2004 to 2008, I became fairly adept at chunqiu bifa. I used puns, metaphors and homophones — any kind of linguistic trick I could think of — to express my approval or disapproval. Later on, at Southern People Weekly, one of China’s most influential national newsmagazines (part of the Southern Media Group that also includes Southern Weekly and another liberal paper, Southern Metropolitan Daily), I wrote a lot of sensitive features that relied on my chunqiu bifa skills.

At first, I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game with censors. I thought, ”There will always be someone who can read between the lines.” But now, I worry that this kind of expression will create in me a vicious circle of complacency, in which I know my efforts to speak freely will be fruitless but can console myself with at least having tried. I fear that, in China’s increasingly complicated and ambiguous media environment, chunqiu bifa may be changing from a means of dissent into a tool of inadvertent self-censorship that may ultimately deprive us of the ability to face the truth.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

POSTED     Feb. 12, 2014, 10 a.m.
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