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How A “Grass Mud Horse” Leapt Over China’s Great Internet Firewall

China’s imaginary animal that’s actually both a filthy play on words, and a symbol of internet freedom

image via (cc) flickr user andy-li

The barrier surrounding China’s state-run internet services is the stuff of legend: A multi-layered “great firewall” designed to exert near-total control over what goes in, and out, of that country’s computer networks. While China credits its restrictions on internet giants like Google and Twitter as having created the necessary vacuum in which that country’s own crop of tech juggernauts—web portals like Alibaba, and Baidu—could grow into the market successes they are today, the cumulative effect of China’s “great firewall” is that digital information is policed on a scale unlike anywhere else on Earth.

image via youtube screen capture

For years though, China’s internet censorship efforts have been subversively mocked by a set of imaginary animals, each with bizarre, but seemingly harmless names like “Chrysanthemum Silkworm” and “Franco-Croatian Squid.” While they may sound innocuous to most English speakers, in their native Chinese the names are puns, homophones, and in-jokes—often incredibly vulgar ones—meant to sneak past China’s sophisticated keyword filtering, and tweak the noses of those in charge of the state controlled internet services. Of all these animals, though, it’s the “Grass Mud Horse” that’s become synonymous with rebellion against China’s great firewall. This video, found and posted recently by programmer Craig Hockenberry after his website went down following what he theorizes was a Chinese hack attack, is a helpful primer on both the great firewall, and Grass Mud Horse. Watch ‘til the end...

Since springing to life in 2009 (with, as one internet commenter points out, possible roots reaching as far back as 2005) Grass Mud Horse has become a full-blown phenomenon. It has its own theme song [NSFW Chinese lyrics and English subtitles]:

And even a celebrity endorsement, of sorts, in the form of acclaimed artist and Chinese activist Ai WeiWei [again, lyrics in both Chinese and English are NSFW]:

Of course, since becoming a phenomenon, Grass Mud Horse and his equally offensive friends have probably lost a bit of their subversive edge, to say nothing of their digital-censor-dodging abilities. Still, among those advocating for a more open internet, Grass Mud Horse is a wonderfully impolite and wildly creative symbol that, for a time, managed to leap all the way over even the great firewall of China.

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