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Weibo Vows to Crack Down on Homophones and ‘Misspelled’ Words to “Stop Spread of Harmful Information”

Creative language targeted by Weibo. Is this great Chinese online tradition in danger of dying out?

Manya Koetse

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Chinese social media platform Weibo announced that it will crack down on the use of homophones and ‘misspelled words’ by netizens in order to create a more “healthy” online environment and stop the spread of “misinformation.”

The announcement became a trending topic on the platform on Wednesday, receiving over 180 million views.

Weibo Administrators posted the announcement on Weibo on July 13, writing:

In order to create a clear and bright cyberspace, and to maintain a civilized and healthy social ecosystem, we will launch a focused regulation on the illegal behavior of using of homophone characters, variants of words, and other ‘misspelled words’ to spread harmful information. The main details are as follows:

1. We will increase our efforts to inspect and clean up the use of ‘misspelled characters’ to spread harmful information and other violations.
2. We will strengthen the platform’s mechanism of language [wording] supervision, and will refine the keyword identification model.
3. By establishing a positive incentive mechanism, we will reinforce the way to publicize (..) and guide platform users to use standard Chinese characters.

We call on the numerous netizens participating in community discussions here to express their viewpoints in a civilized way and to use standard characters. If you detect content that is in violation of this, we welcome you to report it and we will promptly take care of it.

Chinese netizens often use Mandarin homophones of censored or sensitive terms in order to avoid detection by Weibo’s censor teams and keyword-matching algorithms so that they can still continue discussions of topics that would otherwise be blocked or taken offline.

The use of homophones on Chinese social media is as old as Chinese social media itself. One of the most well-known examples is the use of the 3-character phrase ‘cao ni ma’ (草泥马), which literally means ‘grass mud horse’, but is pronounced in the same way as the vulgar “f*ck your mother” (which is written with three different characters).

In the earlier years of Chinese social media, the ‘grass mud horse’ became some sort of mythical creature (神兽) that resembled an alpaca. Everyone knew that it was actually a big middle finger to the cyberspace authorities; it was netizens’ way of showing that they could use creative language as a weapon against censorship.

Throughout the years, homophones and other creative use of language have been a recurring tactic to go against censorship of sensitive topics and events.

This week, for example, some Chinese netizens started using the characters for the word ‘Helan’ (荷兰), meaning The Netherlands, which sounds very similar to the province ‘Henan’ (河南) to discuss the Henan bank protests. As reported by Leen Vervaeke in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, the replacement of the much-censored ‘Henan’ topic by the term ‘Holland’ sparked some affiliated code language, like Zhengzhou becoming ‘Amsterdam’ and bank deposits becoming ‘tulips.’

Although Weibo Administrators make it sound like the crack down on homophones is a new effort, it actually is not. In order to catch up with creative netizens, censors have since long been targeting ‘misspelled’ words and homophones.

Reported by Megan Garber as early as 2014 (quoting research by Jason Q. Ng), there were already 64 different Chinese terms related to ‘Tiananmen’ that were censored on Chinese social media by that time, including the characters ‘陆肆’ (lùsì) and the term ‘liu四’ which both sound like ‘liu si’ (六四), June 4, the day of the Tiananmen student protests of 1989.

“It’s becoming less and less fun around here,” some netizens responded to Weibo’s latest announcement. “What is there left to say? We’d better say nothing at all,” others wrote.

Seven months ago, the platform already announced that Weibo users can no longer have vulgar/slang terms in their usernames, or any other words that are deemed offensive.

Some netizens write that they fear that their “great tradition” of code language, part of China’s online culture and digital heritage, is at risk of dying out after the announced crackdown, but others vow to keep on ‘misspelling’ words: “Just because my educational level is so low and I don’t know all the right characters.”

“We’re just left with doing word puzzles from now on,” another Weibo user writes.

By Manya Koetse

 

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

Tick, Tock, Time to Pay Up? Douyin Is Testing Out Paywalled Short Videos

Is content payment a new beginning for the popular short video app Douyin (China’s TikTok) or would it be the end?

Manya Koetse

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The introduction of a Douyin novel feature, that would enable content creators to impose a fee for accessing their short video content, has sparked discussions across Chinese social media. Although the feature would benefit creators, many Douyin users are skeptical.

News that Chinese social media app Douyin is rolling out a new feature which allows creators to introduce a paywall for their short video content has triggered online discussions in China this week.

The feature, which made headlines on November 16, is presently in the testing phase. A number of influential content creators are now allowed to ‘paywall’ part of their video content.

Douyin is the hugely popular app by Chinese tech giant Bytedance. TikTok is the international version of the Chinese successful short video app, and although they’re often presented as being the same product, Douyin and Tiktok are actually two separate entities.

In addition to variations in content management and general usage, Douyin differs from TikTok in terms of features. Douyin previously experimented with functionalities such as charging users for accessing mini-dramas on the platform or the ability to tip content creators.

The pay-to-view feature on Douyin would require users to pay a certain fee in Douyin coins (抖币) in order to view paywalled content. One Douyin coin is equivalent to 0.1 yuan ($0,014). The platform itself takes 30% of the income as a service charge.

According to China Securities Times or STCN (证券时报网), Douyin insiders said that any short video content meeting Douyin’s requirements could be set as “pay-per-view.”

Creators, who can set their own paywall prices, should reportedly meet three criteria to qualify for the pay-to-view feature: their account cannot have any violation records for a period of 90 days, they should have at least 100,000 followers, and they have to have completed the real-name authentication process.

On Douyin and Weibo, Chinese netizens express various views on the feature. Many people do not think it would be a good idea to charge money for short videos. One video blogger (@小片片说大片) pointed out the existing challenge of persuading netizens to pay for longer videos, let alone expecting them to pay for shorter ones.

“The moment I’d need to pay money for it, I’ll delete the app,” some commenters write.

This statement appears to capture the prevailing sentiment among most internet users regarding a subscription-based Douyin environment. According to a survey conducted by the media platform Pear Video, more than 93% of respondents expressed they would not be willing to pay for short videos.

An online poll by Pear Video showed that the majority of respondents would not be willing to pay for short videos on Douyin.

“This could be a breaking point for Douyin,” one person predicts: “Other platforms could replace it.” There are more people who think it would be the end of Douyin and that other (free) short video platforms might take its place.

Some commenters, however, had their own reasons for supporting a pay-per-view function on the platform, suggesting it would help them solve their Douyin addiction. One commenter remarked, “Fantastic, this might finally help me break free from watching short videos!” Another individual responded, “Perhaps this could serve as a remedy for my procrastination.”

As discussions about the new feature trended, Douyin’s customer service responded, stating that it would eventually be up to content creators whether or not they want to activate the paid feature for their videos, and that it would be up to users whether or not they would be interested in such content – otherwise they can just swipe away.

Another social media user wrote: “There’s only one kind of video I’m willing to pay for, and it’s not on Douyin.”

By Manya Koetse

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©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

Too Sexy for Weibo? Online Discussions on the Concept of ‘Cābiān’

Delving into the ongoing discussion on ‘cābiān’ and its influence on women’s expression in China’s digital realm.

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Chinese social media is seeing more discussions recenty on the blurred boundaries of Cābiān. This seemingly never-ending discussion raises questions – not just about sexually suggestive content, but also about the evolving perceptions of women’s bodies and freedom in the digital age.

In the fast-moving world of China’s internet, a new term has emerged: Cābiān (擦边). Originally a sports term describing a ball grazing the edge of a table (擦边球), it now primarily refers to the delicate balance in content that may be seen as sexually suggestive, teetering on the line between ‘sexy’ and ‘sexually explicit’ in the context of China’s internet culture.

The term mainly refers to women’s behavior, style, language, and actions that are considered inappropriate or that are pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Cābiān can be understood as borderline sexual content that basically navigates the boundaries of platform rules without actually breaking them. Nevertheless, is generally seen as ‘not in line’ with what is expected of Chinese women in today’s society.

This term has sparked controversy recently, prompting fervent debates surrounding its implications for women’s self-expression.

 
Too Sexy for Weibo? Jingchuan Liyu’s Divisive Pictures
 

Social media plays a central role in the “cābiān” debate. A recent example involves a Weibo post by Jingchuan Liyu (井川里予, @悲伤荷包蛋), a prominent Chinese influencer active on Weibo and Xiaohongshu.

Jingchuan Liyu is known for embodying both innocence and sensuality in her online persona. Mainly by male netizens, she has been labeled as a symbol of “chúnyù” (纯欲). This term signifies a blend of childlike innocence (纯洁, chúnjié) and allure (欲望, yùwàng).

Jingchuan Liyu became a focal point in the cābiān debate when she posted a series of photos during the summer of this year. While these photos didn’t violate any official guidelines, they departed from her typical “innocent yet sexy” style. In these pictures, she was seen wearing thongs and other undergarments, which apparently made some social media users uneasy.

The controversy surrounding the photos intensified when Jingchuan Liyu responded to these criticisms on her Weibo page. While her supporters defended her freedom to dress as she pleases, others viewed her photos as being more about provocative sexual suggestion than about freedom of fashion.

 
Dog-Headed Lolita: Judged, Harassed, and Labeled Cābiān
 

Beyond online debates, the condemnation of “cābiān” is also having real-world consequences. One recent example is the case of the Chinese influencer known as Dog-Head Lolita (狗头萝莉 @我是狗头萝莉).

Despite having a problematic childhood, ‘Dog-Head Lolita’ managed to turn her life around and became a successful streamer. But her reputation suffered a severe blow when explicit videos of her, recorded by her ex-boyfriend, were made public.

This incident and its aftermath damaged her career and, partly due to getting cheated by her manager, was left with a staggering debt of 6 million RMB ($836K). Trying to start an alternative career, Dog-Head Lolita took up selling Chinese pancakes (jiānbǐng 煎饼) at a street stall as a means to make a living and work towards repaying her debts.

In addition to her physical labor, she also posted short videos of herself selling pancakes online and continued to livestream and engage with her followers to generate more income.

While her efforts garnered sympathy and admiration from some netizens, she also faced accusations of using her pancake-selling business as a form of cābiān.

Her choice of attire, which emphasized her figure, became a central topic of discussion. Some netizens raised questions about whether her videos, showcasing her interactions with fans while selling pancakes, carried a sexual undertone. Moreover, there were arguments suggesting that her true business wasn’t selling pancakes but rather producing sexually suggestive content.

Some critics of Dog-Head Lolita went further and turned online criticism into harassment. Some filed reports regarding the hygiene conditions of her business, while others intentionally vandalized her pancake cart and left insulting messages on it.

Facing this harassment linked to accusations of being cābiān, Dog-Head Lolita voiced her frustration on her Weibo page.

She emphasized that her physique was something beyond her control and that selling pancakes shouldn’t be judged in the same way as her previous online presence. She complained that her livelihood was being scrutinized, even in the most ordinary and innocuous settings.

 
Challenging the Concept of Cābiān
 

Defining the precise boundaries of what is and is not cābiān is not easy, as it has become a catch-all term for anything remotely sexually suggestive, erotic, or resembling “soft pornography.”

While the distinction between suggestive and non-suggestive content remains hazy, new voices have emerged to challenge the very idea of “cābiān.”

Some believe that cābiān is a societal construct imposed on women, rather than an intrinsic concept. They argue that before the term “cābiān” gained popularity, suggestive pelvic dances were widespread in China due to the prevalence of K-pop boy groups, and male celebrities could appear shirtless and flirtatious on TV without anyone accusing them of “cābiān.”

But when it comes to women, the standards of cābiān can be unclear and are often unforgiving. This term is used not only to regulate their clothing choices but also their behavior or even facial expressions—essentially, anything a woman might do.

Once a female online influencer is seen as attractive and desireable, she seemingly becomes more prone to be labeled a “cābiān nǚ” (擦边女) – a woman who is seen as flaunting her sensuality within the context of social media and online platforms.

If this trend of labeling people as sexually suggestive continues, “cābiān” might turn into an unclear social rule, resulting in ongoing moral judgments of women, especially female online influencers.

On the other hand, some netizens see the increasing acceptance of women displaying their bodies in a sensual manner as a form of female empowerment.

One notable Weibo by ‘Wang’ede’ (@王饿德) post that gained a lot of attention suggested that there is a distinction between how others interpret women’s bodies and how women themselves perceive it. The post asserts that revealing skin and wearing “sexy” clothing can be a proactive expression of women’s own desires and confidence rather than solely meaning to please a male audience.

This active pursuit is seen as a form of ‘decolonization’ of the traditional patriarchal gaze— it’s described as “a reevaluation of women’s bodies by women themselves that allows us to reclaim ownership of our bodies,” as stated by the author of the post.

 
Neverending Discussions
 

As the debates continue, Weibo users are noticing a deadlock in these online discussions. Conversations about the who, what, and why of cābiān are recurring and appear to be never-ending.

In 2019, a significant debate arose concerning the attire worn by actress Rayzha Alimjan. In 2022, controversies revolved around busty women. There was also a cyberbullying incident involving a mother who had recently lost her son in a car accident and faced criticism for wearing elegant clothing and makeup (read). Most recently, there has been a series of new discussions, ranging from criticizing the latest TV drama starring singer/actress Lai Meiyun and onwards.

Contemplating this phenomenon, some internet users are thinking about the evolution of Jingchuan Liyu’s style. A decade or two ago, her aesthetic might have been categorized as ’emo,’ ‘alternative,’ or just seen as a form of decadent beauty. However, nowadays, it is quickly subjected to examination to determine whether or not it falls into the category of cābiān.

In the eyes of many Chinese netizens, this trend is seen as a discouraging step backward. Influential bloggers repost their previous cābiān-related Weibo posts from years or even just months ago, highlighting the seemingly futile nature of these discussions.

Who will be the next woman to be branded as cābiān? Will she face online insults and offline harassment? On Weibo, some express their exhaustion at being stuck in this repetitive loop, engaging in similar debates time and time again.

Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the term “cābiān” and engage in more meaningful discussions about women’s bodies and their freedom in China. As one netizen put it on Weibo: “Maybe we should redirect this energy toward discussions that genuinely promote progress instead of endlessly revisiting these cyclic debates.”

By Ruixin Zhang

edited for clarity by Zilan Qian & Manya Koetse

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