When Chinese Internet Users Call Xi Jinping Daddy

New Entries in the Grass Mud Horse Lexicon

Internet censorship in China has inspired the invention of a menagerie of online creatures: the river crab, the elephant of truth, the monkey-snake. Each beast’s name plays on a word or phrase that has at some point angered Chinese Internet users, often because it has originated in a piece of state propaganda. The river crab, or héxiè, is the embodiment of the doctrine of “harmony” (héxié), promulgated by former president Hu Jintao. The elephant of truth (zhēn xiàng) is a shy creature who must be coaxed to reveal the truth of a matter (zhēnxiàng) when there is an official cover-up. A monkey-snake (hóu shé) is a mouthpiece (hóushé) for the Chinese Communist Party.

The most notorious of these creatures is the grass-mud horse, a snaggletoothed alpaca born during a period of heavy policing of dirty words in 2009, whose dewy eyes and snowy coat belie the profanity that begat him. In Chinese, “grass-mud horse” is cǎonímǎ; change the tones on its three syllables and they say instead: “fuck your mom.”

At China Digital Times, we have been keeping track of the grass-mud horse and its many companions in our Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon, a wiki of over 350 memes, nicknames, and turns of phrase that play at the border of political acceptability. Pronouncements and slogans from government officials and the state media, once they have been coopted and subverted by netizens, also make it into the Lexicon. (The river crab is an early example of this type of appropriation.) As Perry Link and Xiao Qiang have argued, this playful netizen language counters official rhetoric, creating an alternative to the party-state’s narrative.

Several years into the wiki project, our team began to publish distillations of the Lexicon in ebook format, so that readers could easily reference the most pertinent of the terms we have collected. The latest edition of Decoding the Chinese Internet: A Glossary of Political Slang includes 25 new entries. We look on Weibo, WeChat, “old-fashioned” bulletin board systems, and beyond for new words and memes.

Here’s a taste of some of the new additions to the ebook:

Daddy Xi

Familiar name for President Xi Jinping, found first in state media and later in tongue-in-cheek netizen discussion.

Xi has appeared as a cute cartoon character, and fans made a music video montage of Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan. Chinese state media have taken to calling the president Xí Dàda, a term of endearment from the Shaanxi dialect of Mandarin, translated as “Uncle Xi” or “Daddy Xi.”

Online, netizens don’t always feel the love for Daddy Xi. “Today’s predictions were wrong,” cartoonist Tango (@tango2010) wrote on Weibo on June 15, in the midst of the Chinese stock market’s nose dive. “The stock market didn’t give face to our Daddy Xi.” Tango accompanied his quip with a drawing of a forlorn Xi Jinping, his mouth a frazzled red line zigzagging down a stocks chart. Tango’s post was deleted by Sina, but netizens have continued to snark about Daddy Xi.

Cutlassfish Zhou

Nickname for nationalistic blogger Zhou Xiaoping, bestowed on him by netizens to remind the Internet of Zhou’s loose approach to facts.

Courtesy badiucao
“Cutlassfish Zhou”

At the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art last October, Xi Jinping exhorted artists to use their talent to serve the nation. He took the opportunity to single out two bloggers for their “positive energy,” Hua Qianfang and Zhou Xiaoping. Both are 30-something nationalists known for unvarnished anti-Westernism. Zhou Xiaoping made his name last summer with his blog post “Nine Knockout Blows in America’s Cold War Against China,” which was picked up by the state-backed newspaper Guangming Daily. In it, he compared the defamation of China by the U.S. to Nazi anti-Semitism.

Zhou is prone to grand pronouncements with little research to back them up. Two years ago, he became infamous for leveling an absurd, and false, accusation against Chinese-American businessman and Weibo celebrity Charles Xue. Xue, known by his username Xue Manzi, would post about his liberal views on China’s social and political issues. This made him a target for public chastisement, which came in August 2013. While on business in Beijing, Xue was detained for allegedly “soliciting prostitutes.” But when he appeared on national TV days after his arrest, he apologized to the country for his online behavior, not for his lewd offline dalliances. “My irresponsibility in spreading information online was a vent of negative mood, and was a neglect of the social mainstream,” he confessed. Zhou Xiaoping took the opportunity to complain about another of Xue's “offenses,” one overlooked by public security and CCTV, in an infamous blog post:

To promote sales of water purifiers, Xue Manzi [Charles Xue] claims China’s water is poisoned. Because of this, Zhoushan’s cutlassfish farms cannot sell anything, leaving countless fish farming households to face bankruptcy. Xue is guilty of a most terrible crime. Who will punish him?

In fact, no one punished Xue for this particular offense, because it just so happens that cutlassfish can’t be farmed. And so Cutlassfish Zhou came to be.

Grass-mud horse-isms must sometimes morphe to skirt censorship. “Cutlassfish Zhou” (Zhōu Dàiyú) has been blocked from Weibo search results for months—put the term in the search box and all you’ll get is the message: “Due to the relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results for ‘Cutlassfish Zhou’ cannot be displayed.” But “Cutlassfish Brother” (Dàiyú Gē) hasn’t been totally wiped from Weibo yet.


The creation of a new social media account after the censors deleted your last one.

There are different levels of censorship on the Internet in China. Since the onus is on Internet companies to block pornography, “calls to action,” and other material deemed “sensitive,” they must strike a balance between pleasing the government censors and allowing some life on social media platforms. Deleting posts is still manual labor, so the first line of defense is to block keywords from search results. There are, however, thousands of people at companies like Sina whose main task is to delete offending posts. And a user who continues to offend may find one day that their account has been completely wiped out. When that happens, the user’s posts and followers are lost, too.

But there is still hope. Many users whose accounts have been shut down will “reincarnate” (zhuǎnshì), creating a new account, usually with a similar username to help their old followers find them again. The political cartoonist Kuang Biao has reincarnated 47 times on Weibo, most recently on May 10. This latest incarnation still holds strong. Earlier this month, Kuang Biao posted an illustration of a “Real Name Cleaver,” a commentary on a draft Internet security law which would enforce real name registration, especially on messaging apps. The knife is engraved with common surnames and the name of its creator, “Daddy Kuang.”