Firefly Chinese, Blocked on Weibo (the book), and other new projects

After I finished turning my Blocked on Weibo blog into book form last month (it’ll be published next August by The New Press; note: cover needs to be changed and subtitle needs updating), I decided I needed a break and finally watched the Joss Whedon series Firefly for the first time. Of course, as someone who grew up on Cowboy Bebop and other deep space sci-fi, the show was a dream come true, and even if the series isn’t as mind-blowing as it is plain ol’ entertaining, I still blew through it in a couple weeks.

Anyway, so after watching it, I figured no doubt tons of people have already documented and translated all the hilarious usages of Chinese in the show, and as I expected, there are many, most notably Kevin Sullivan’s fantastic Firefly-Serenity Chinese Pinyinary. But the format seemed a bit stale, so I figured it might be nice to update it for Web 2.0 and add video clips, analysis, “ratings” of the actors saying the words, and audio clips so you can learn to pronounce stuff properly the next time you hit ComicCon in your Hoban Washburne Hawaiian shirt. So I started up with Judy He a new Tumblr blog called Firefly Chinese that does all this, tracking the usage of Chinese in the show and Malcolm Reynold’s heroic quest to butcher the Chinese language–one profanity at a time. So hope folks enjoy it.

As for other stuff, I’ve been doing a lot of fun work for China Digital Times, some of which has been translated into Chinese for their site. I’ve also been working on a couple projects with a professor and advisor here at Pitt, political scientist (the title does not do justice to his genius and immense breadth of knowledge about China) Pierre Landry. One is tracking what is happening on social media during the 18th party congress. I started posting some results on Blocked on Weibo, but I’ll be performing more serious quantitative analysis in the months to come once I finish collecting the data. Another project is a paper on comparing official Chinese government statistics versus remote sensing data from the Barometer on China’s Development. Basically, my September was spent combing through geocodes, Chinese town names, and gaining insight into Google’s usage of Chinese mapping data (which apparently they license from a Chinese company, AutoNavi). Fun fun fun. Hopefully we’ll come up with some interesting results and I’ll present some time next semester.

As for other stuff, I’ve been posting more regularly the fun stuff I glean from my Weibo tracking on Twitter (@jasonqng) and I’ve contributed a number of other pieces to Nathan, Eric, and Jasmine’s website Waging Nonviolence. If you need a dose of hope in what citizens can still do when united, go there. I also made the fun Tumblr blog Finding Doraemon just for kicks over the summer while I was in Asia (summer workshop with Deborah Davis, Pierre Landry, and Juan Chen on Chinese survey data at CUHK; followed by wandering Angkor Wat with Hippo Wong; and then studying Mandarin at IUP-Tsinghua).

Ok, I think that brings us up to speed. Now to catch some NBA games…

Hacker News and Blocked on Weibo

Well that was a fascinating weekend. In preparation for a blog post that’s going up on Waging Nonviolence tomorrow about my Blocked on Weibo project, I posted my site to Metafilter Projects on Saturday morning. By the time I checked things later in the evening, apparently  Hacker News had picked it up. So I guess the site is now officially out there. Hopefully I’ll be able to find time to keep up what was just a little side project.

Thanks to all for the great feedback. As always, if you have any suggestions or corrections to the site, do let me know via Twitter or email (Twitter handle with gmail). Look forward to keeping it going.

Translating “Linsanity” into Chinese

All sorts of wonderful (All-Star caliber work from Victor Mair, starting shooting guard of the Language Log linguistics team, on translating “Linsanity” into Chinese“):

Línrè 林热 (“Lin craze”) (663,000 ghits, though I can’t guarantee that all of these are about Jeremy Lin)  The problem is that this focuses on the rage and hoopla over Lin, while Linsanity includes his abandoned, exuberant style of play.

Lín shì xuànfēng 林氏旋风 (“Mr. Lin cyclone”) (10,300 ghits)  This expression is popular among certain circles in Taiwan, but it doesn’t capture the flavor of Linsanity with regard to the wildness surrounding Jeremy Lin.

Lín shì fēngkuáng 林氏疯狂 (“Mr. Lin insanity”) (2,200 ghits) dud

Lín shì fēng 林氏疯 (“Mr. Lin crazy”)  (7,490 ghits) sub-dud; a considerable proportion of these ghits include bào 暴 (“storm”) at the end, hence Lín shì fēngbào 林氏疯暴 (“Mr. Lin crazy storm”)

Lín shì kuáng 林氏狂 (“Mr. Lin mad”) (1,280 ghits) sub-sub-dud

For nearly a week, I was in despair.  Such a fantastic phenomenon as “Linsanity”, yet such an unsatisfying rendering of that into Chinese as Línfēngkuáng 林疯狂!

Finally, however, a new translation of “Linsanity” surfaced, namely, Línláifēng 林来疯.  Brilliant!!  I fell in love with this rendering as soon as I encountered it.  Not only does it capture the spontaneity of Jeremy Lin’s moves and the thrills they evoke in the crowds who watch him, it is constructed in accordance with the rules for Chinese word formation.  Moreover, like “Linsanity”, which is modified from an actual English word, Línláifēng 林来疯 is transformed from a real Chinese expression:  rénláifēng 人来疯 (“get hyped up in front of an audience”).  Perfect!

I was particularly pleased and enormously gratified when I noticed that the number of ghits for Línláifēng 林来疯 had soared from 155,000 two days ago to 683,000 today!  This shows that, when an excellent, idiomatic translation is made, people recognize it and approve of it enthusiastically.  So the problem of how to translate Línláifēng 林来疯 into Chinese has been solved, and beautifully so.

Coded and categorized: analyzing a sample of 219 blocked Weibo words

Thought I ought to cross-post something I just added to my Blocked on Weibo site:

Back in December, after I’d completed searching through half of my 700,000 word list, I decided to look more closely at what kind of words were being blocked. I used the 218 two- and three-character words that I’d uncovered at the time to be blocked only 2 one-character word are blocked: 屄, cunt / ; and ҉, a Cyrillic character that is associated with backwards or bi-directional writing) as a sample and then proceeded to tag them according to whatever categories I began to see developing. (The categories are at the end of this post and on the second page of the spreadsheet as well.)

direct link

As would be expected, most of these three-character and under keywords were names of people (most Chinese names are made up of a one character surname and a one or two character given name). 87 of the 219 were names of people, and the vast majority of those people, 54, were CCP members. Nine of them were involved with either corruption or other controversy in which they were usually dismissed. Fifteen of the people are dissidents of various sorts.  Three are criminals who were neither dissidents nor CCP politicians and are probably listed because their crimes were so gruesome.

Because of the way Weibo censors items, inoffensive words are inevitably caught in the net. For example, “grand justice” (大法官) was blocked because it contains 大法, i.e. Falun Dafa. Other inadvertent blocks included Théodore de Banville(庞维勒) because it contains 维勒, a reference to Uyghurs.

Words related to sex or sexual activity also compose a great deal of the list. This include anatomy like 女阴, slang like 吹箫 (blowjob, but literally blow flute), and “immoral” sex acts like 恋足, foot fetishes. Discrimination that would be considered wildly un-progressive in the West is also on display. Lesbian and homosexual (同性爱) are blocked, as are Islam (伊斯兰) and Muslim (穆斯林).

Finally, the list of blocked words on Weibo is actively adjusted and changed. These words were blocked at the time of their search in November and December, but most of this list has been unblocked since late-January.

Here are the categories I used to code this list:

? – I’m unsure of why it is blocked [1]
person – a fictional or real human with a name
place – geographical location or named geographical body
“clean” slang – slang or abbreviated phrases that are not “obscene”
sex – related to sex, sexual activity, or sexual organs
obscenity – obscene phrases
morality – words dealing with actions that might be considered “immoral”
crime – self explanatory
scandal/controversy/corruption – self explanatory
religion/”cult” – self explanatory
CCP – Chinese Communist Party
princeling – deals with children of CCP members
demonstration – related to a mass protest
dissent – related to ideas or thoughts conflicting with CCP
force / violence – related to weapons, shows of force, or violence
minority – dealing with minorities or ethnic groups in China
nonCCP politics – other political issues not related to CCP
foreign – self explanatory
internet/computer – self explanatory
other media, content, and art – self explanatory
history – either historical figures or events
inadvertant? – it is blocked because a word within it is blocked

[1] If other categories are checked off, it indicates my best guess.

About Twitter and Google censorship: another Waging Nonviolence article

Wrote up a short article for Nathan and Eric’s blog again, this time on Google and Twitter’s recent announcements that they would begin restricting content more tightly in foreign countries.

Nathan pointed me to a very astute comment by Thomas Clark Wilson on WNV’s Facebook page, which I thought was worth reprinting here:

The actual details of what they’re doing will make it easier to circumvent censorship than it is just now. Tweeters in, say, Egypt, don’t just rely on tweets within their own country to organise, but also RTs and such from foreign accounts. Before this policy; censor a tweet in Egypt and nobody can see it. After this policy; censor a tweet in Egypt and some American can still see it, quote it, and send it back into the fray.

Besides, the contention in this article that ‘they might bend to shady censorship requests even though they say they’ll play nice’ has *always* been a danger, this policy hasn’t changed that fact. Yeah it would be super swell if they took a stand an said no to any censorship, but twitter’s a business not a revolutionary tech collective. Recognise it as a tool, an use it wisely.

My response, just for posterity’s sake:

That’s a great point Thomas. Indeed, this isn’t some sort of smoking gun revelation, merely an acknowledgment and reminder from Twitter that they are a business and not some sort of utopia maker.

As for circumvention methods, other ways potentially include setting your home country to say the U.S. so you don’t have restrictions. But we have to assume that Twitter and any governments that would want to utilize Twitter’s restrictions are obviously aware of these limitations that would make the whole thing pointless and would implement things like IP detection. Also, floods of foreign retweets might make it too hard to stomp out every one, but for smaller, budding movements these tools do allow governments to snuff out incohate organizing. And even if a few foreign retweets get out, location shouldn’t matter. They would in all likelihood also be blocked because they would bear the same illegal content as the original local one. This would just be the first step of potential cat and mouse games, with governments likely requesting that Twitter move faster to remove such posts and with Twitter employing more active monitoring–once something has been blocked in a country and it knows the government wants future instances of such content blocked, it could employ some kind of flagging system to warn employees that this is another potentially illegal post and give them a chance to take instant action when requested.

But if none of this comes to be, then Twitter is the good guy, and we have no major reason to expect them to bend over backwards to regimes and governments whose values are so antithetical to those of the Internet’s. But one has to look at the trajectory here–this is a step in the other direction from an open Internet. And wouldn’t it be foolish for Twitter to take such a PR hit without following through on actually providing a credible oand functional option to regulate content in countries? Why make yourself look so bad and buddy up to censorship regimes when you know you’re only going to half heartedly enforce these sorts of things.

But your points are well taken. In the short-term Twitter should still be safe and useful, but this announcement definitely makes the future of Twitter as a revolutionary tool cloudier.

That’s all I got for now. Still working mightily on Blockedonweibo (now reachable via which I hope to start sharing more publicly in the next week or two (once I finish writing up a short summary for Nathan and Eric at WNV), so things will probably once again go quiet here for a bit.

The connection (or lack of one) between the Wukan protests and Occupy Wall Street

Over break I wrote up a short article about Wukan and Occupy Wall Street for Nathan and Eric’s fantastic blog, Waging Nonviolence. It mostly focuses on how Wukan likely isn’t a harbinger for revolution in China–a fact which doesn’t make it any less inspiring. I then examine some of the tactics they used to prove to the Chinese government of their “non-revolutionary” intentions and the successful outcome which came about because of this decision to keep the protest local.

Much credit to the great reporting and commentary by Malcolm Moore of the Telegraph UK, Charles Custer of China Geeks, and Ian Johnson of NYRB, which greatly sharpened my thinking on the topic.

Blocked on Weibo

I guess it’s about time I “unveil” what I’ve been working on for the past few weeks: Blocked on Weibo is a site where I’ll be posting words that you can’t search for on Weibo. I go into more detail on the site, but essentially, I’ve developed a computer script that is searching Weibo as we speak, uncovering words which return the bureaucratese “Sorry, due to relevant regulations and laws your results cannot be shown.” For instance, you might be amused to learn that “Mao bacon” is a banned search term on Weibo.

毛腊肉 (“hair bacon” / mao larou) is a reference to Mao’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Tian’anmen Square, Beijing. The character mao means hair, but is also Mao’s surname. larou commonly refers to bacon, but literally means “preserved meat.” Thus, the preserved meat of Mao: his embalmed body. The term is generally used in a derogatory fashion.

Why it might be blocked: Referring to Mao as a slab of meat is undoubtedly offensive to a government that still officially reveres the Great Leader, though only 70% of the time.

More: Among the top results for 毛腊肉 is a facetious recipe for how to prepare Mao Bacon. The instructions (a rough translation):

A fierce boar from the Huguang province [the pre-Qing name for Hunan and Hubei, where Mao lived—ed]: First, empty the internal organs and wash with 7 kg of salt, 0.2 kg nitrate (?), 0.4 kg pepper. For the deboned meat, use 2.5 kg salt 2.5, 0.2 kg fine nitrate, 5 kg of sugar, 3.7 kg of baijiu and soy sauce mixed, 3-4 kg of water. Optional ingredients that can be added prior include salt and crushed pepper, fennel, cinnamon and other spices; dry and flatten, seal up well and bathe in Chinese medicine for three days, until the surface fluffs up, that way the seasoning penetrates through the meat. Then disinfect it with alcohol and dry in the sun. [followed by various descriptions of how to eat/what it tastes like]

I’m currently finding new blocked words every day. I’ll try to post a new one every day or two. Hope you find it interesting.

Cooking up something on the side + Andrew Morris on waiyuan

Things have been a bit quiet here because I’ve been distracted coding up what I hope will be a fun and hopefully fruitful project. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be ready to declare it fit for presentation to the world in a a couple weeks. Until then, here’s short section from Andrew Morris’s 2002 essay “Baskteball Culture in Postsocialist China,” from the Perry Link-edited collection Popular China. The whole essay is fantastic (if a touch outdated; there’s an updated 2008 version of the essay in the Brown Journal of World Affairs which I’ll get around to as soon as I decide what else to sacrifice now that sleep is all but gone from my life), but in light of last summer’s Georgetown-Bayi brawl and the continued hand-wringing over overseas/NBA players dominating the CBA, this passage recounting the 1998 CBA All-Star Game is still especially relevant:

But the most significant subject of nationalist basketball discourse relates to the recruitment of foreign players to supplement CBA rosters. In the 1990s, each team was allowed two foreign players, and Americans occupied the overwhelming majority of these slots. Members of the basketball bureaucracy seemed to take a very ambivalent stand on the role of the CBA’s foreign players. In one lead article of Basketball, titled “To Fire Up the Basketball Market, We Need More Foreign Players,” the author told of the foreigners’ contributions and reminded readers that the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) itself employed many foreign players.

But many fans do not buy this line. In one fan forum, subscribers protested these Americans’ presence, holding that “second- and third-rate European and American players” could not truly help the development of Chinese basketball since they were only in the CBA to “sell tricks” and make money, and that they were not worth the disruption. One fan was even more dramatic, stating that “[this] is Chinese basketball. Those winning glory for the nation in international competition are the men of China, not these ‘Eight-Nation Allied Forces’ [the foreign armies that invaded the Qing Dynasty in 1900].”

The tensions present in this nationalist narrative finally came to a head at the CBA All-Star Game in Shenyang in April 1998, a contest that for the first time used an ill-advised “Chinese vs. Foreigner” format. The Foreign All-Stars won 83–80 on a last-second three-point shot by Ray Kelly of the Sichuan Blue Sword Beer Pandas, but the victorious side was quickly showered with cans and bottles, a barrage so heavy and prolonged that the state-operated CCTV was forced to cut off its broadcast. The sight of China’s national all-star team losing to these third-rate American “rejects” was evidently too much for these proud fans, whose own Shenyang Army Lions were one of the few CBA squads that did not employ foreign players. Their spontaneous demonstration against the waiyuan presence in the CBA was a clear statement against American hegemony in the Chinese basketball world.

Waging Nonviolence

Waging Nonviolence is an incredibly thoughtful blog about nonviolent movements around the world. A few short articles of mine were posted there yesterday, one about Han Han and internet protests in China, a draft of which I’d posted here previously, and another about parallels between the Zuccotti Park cleanup and Tiananmen. If I can find time in the coming months, hopefully I’ll be able to contribute a few more going forward. Thanks to Nathan for the encouragement to get this started.

Millionaire immigrants: NBA players cross the border to the CBA

With the NBA locked out (though maybe not for much longer?), unrestricted free agent basketball players have dispersed around the world, with more than a handful ending up in China because of the healthy salaries (six-figures to the $2 million+ that Kenyon Martin is earning) that CBA owners have been throwing at foreign talent. It’s always amusing to read about NBA players “coping” with moving to China and doing without the perks accustomed to not just being an NBA player, but also living in a first world country. Heroic stuff, crossing borders to work in a place where you don’t speak the language fluently or at all, leaving behind your loved ones, hoping your employers and host nation don’t capriciously lock you up, take your assets, and deport you. Oh wait…

I’ve been meaning to compile a definitive list of all the NBA signings to the Chinese Basketball Association, but it looks like Guan Weijia at Chris Sheridan’s site has already done it. It looks pretty up to date, reflecting Earl Clark’s decision to come back stateside and the recent signing of Cartier Martin. Until I make any changes or add substantially new information (eg include the non-NBA foreign players), I’d just say go there to check out. Going forward, I’ll try to follow some of my favorites, including Quincy Douby (Rutgers!), K-Mart (can’t wait for the first time a Chinese players accidentally swings an elbow into his chest…), and of course, everyone’s favorite soul-baring Coney Island’s greatest, Stephon Marbury.*

*One of the best pieces of sportswriting from last year was this Deadspin article by Anthony Tao; the Wells Tower GQ article from this year is good too, but there was something electric about Tao’s report, which was one of the first extensive ones about the Marbury in China experiment. At the time it came out, Marbury was (and still is) an absolute wildcard, in the “Tyson Zone” as Bill Simmons would put it, having posted a series of bizarre videos the summer before.