Entertained by the Grass-Mud Horse

Chinese internet users spend more time than Americans on entertainment sites (i.e. online games, music, video, blogs and chatting), but not so much on online banking, purchases, and search engines.  Due to the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre on June 4, China shut down Twitter, WordPress, Flickr, Bing, YouTube, and many other social networking sites with no signs of opening them back up soon.  The combination of Chinese netizens internet behavior (prefering entertainment over online search and purchasing) and Chinese government imposed censorship makes it very difficult for companies to penetrate the market using social media tools.  However, difficult does not mean impossible.  To reach target audiences via social media tools, companies must be creative in their strategies and listen closely to what Chinese internet users are saying.

In 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that “few in china complain about internet controls” claiming that Chinese internet users approve of the government’s management of the Internet.  However, a recent viral YouTube video about the grass-mud horse (a symbolic defiance of Chinese internet censorship) proves otherwise.

grass mud horse

Michael Wines from The New York Times reports on the grass-mud horse as an “icon of resistenance to censhorship” in China (according to  adjunct professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Xiao Qiang).  Wines goes on to say that “China’s online population has always endured censorship, but the oversight increased markedly in December, after a pro-democracy movement led by highly regarded intellectuals, Charter 08, released an online petition calling for an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.  Shortly afterward, government censors began a campaign, ostensibly against Internet pornography and other forms of deviance. By mid-February, the government effort had shut down more than 1,900 Web sites and 250 blogs — not only overtly pornographic sites, but also online discussion forums, instant-message groups and even cellphone text messages in which political and other sensitive issues were broached.”  It was called the most vicious crackdown in years by China Digital Times.

Videos of the mythical creature began to appear in early January 2009 on the Chinese search engine Baidu.  The grass-mud horse, a vulgar saying in Chinese, is symbolic and has multiple meanings. In the video, the grass-mud horse fights with the ‘river crab,’ a slang word in Chinese for ‘censorship.’  The viral video, reaching more than 1.4 million viewers as of early March 2009, has many strong double meanings that include mostly vulgar language.  Pairing perceived innocent words with double dirty meanings allows the video to get by strict government censorship allowing it to be widely distributed.

CNN reports in more depth about the specific meanings of each part of the video (Caution: not for children).  Global Voices Online reports about the internet phenomena of the grass-mud horse and its significance in the online and offline world in China.  The grass-mud horse has become so popular that an iPhone app was created for it in early June 2009 – re-named ‘strange horse,’ most likely due to censorship.

Global Voices Online explains that China’s government declared a ban on the grass-run horse after it went global with The New York Times article in early March 2009.  China’s administration claims that “the issue has been elevated into a political level, overseas media has turned it into a story of netizen and government confrontation.”  However, Oiwan Lam from Global Voices makes a clear point that it is not The New York Times, or anyone else for that matter, that is in the wrong for giving this worldwide exposure, but rather “the most crucial role [in promoting the grass-mud horse] is played by the Chinese censor / river crab, without which the Grass Mud Horse is nothing more than a dirty joke.”

Before entering the Chinese market with a social media strategy, it is essential to understand two major insights:

1. Censorship in China is a big hurdle to get over.  Before entering the market, be fully aware of what is censored.  Don’t let your marketing strategy falter because of this.

2.  Entertainment sells.  The viral video of the grass-run horse became so widespread not only because Chinese netizens are passionate about government censorship, but also because it was a medium that resonates with Chinese netizens.  To penetrate the Chinese market:  Make it fun.  Combine your product or organization with a game, video, discussion, or music.  High levels on Chinese internet users are already drawn to these entertaining sites online – make your presense known.


3 Responses to Entertained by the Grass-Mud Horse

  1. Interesting find on the Grass Mud Horse video and I liked your analysis of what it means and how brands can get past it. The whole story presents an interesting example of how people can use visual storytelling to fight their battles against censorship and offers an idea in itself for how a social or cause related campaign can capture the imagination of the Chinese people. (4)

  2. juliaccartwright says:

    This post was interesting to me and underscores the fact that people will always find some way to buck the system and out maneuver control and censorship. This example of the Grass Mud Horse is a clever, culture-specific example that gives us a window into how the Chinese think and behave.

  3. mintybeth says:

    Good post, and very interesting. While you didn’t touch on it in your blog, the Grass Mud Horse video success also can be a cautionary tale to companies who do not truly do their research. With multiple meanings to words in the Chinese language, depending on whether they are written or spoken, a company could slip up and make some big mistakes and potentially offend their customers. Good translations is essential!

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