What: The cǎo ní mǎ (in Mandarin, “Grass Mud Horse”), the alpaca-like symbol of a peaceful and creative response to the Chinese government’s internet censorship campaign. Here is the wildly popular children’s song that commemorates the creature’s lively, intelligent, and tenacious nature.
Why: The cǎo ní mǎ first appeared on a Chinese wiki site called Baidu Bakke in January of this year. Here, readers learned that the cǎo ní mǎ (草泥马) originates from an area of the Ma Le Gobi Desert (马勒戈壁), where it eats fertile grass all day. However, its continued existence was threatened by a virulent species of river crab (河蟹), which came close to consuming all the rich grass. Thankfully, the cǎo ní mǎ herds banded together to beat back the river crabs, and now thrive on the Ma Le Gobi plains. And in case you don’t read Mandarin, the characters for cǎo ní mǎ (草泥马) are derived from a homonymic transliteration of the Mandarin phrase for “fuck your mother” (肏你妈). Ma Le Gobi (马勒戈壁) similarly mirrors the phrase for “your mother’s fucking cunt” (妈了个屄). The river crab (河蟹) mirrors the word “harmonious” (和谐), a reference to the government’s “harmonious society” rationale for censoring the internet in China. So the entire meme talks about how the Great Firewall censors free speech, but does so by using benign characters that are undetectable by search engines set to root out profanity.
Impact: In January, the story of the Grass Mud Horse spread across the Chinese internet like the Andromeda strain. The New York Times picked it up in March, leading to a YouTube song campaign, the sale of scads of plush dolls, and even more amusingly named animals. Interestingly, the government has not wiped out the cǎo ní mǎ, though presumably they could with ease. They’re certainly aware that while they can take away the voice of many, the most dedicated will always find a new way to be heard.
Personal Connection: Whenever possible, I pay close attention to China. They are a military superpower, they control a terrifying $800 billion of our debt, and they are a major partner of mine in the creation of the games on which I depend for survival. Their complete lack of concern over the rights I take for granted is troubling at best. This hit me most squarely on June 4, 1989, which preceded my graduation from college by one day. But while American college grads wearing white armbands over their gowns can send a message, nothing is more powerful than a voice from within. The Grass Mud Horse was exactly the kind of warning shot across the bow that the Chinese government needed to hear.
Other Contenders: the 2000 unearthing of All Your Base Are Belong To Us, the first time that the net was of one mind; that set of facts about reputed actor Chuck Norris (e.g., “Chuck Norris can touch MC Hammer”); the quick spread of the cult of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in 2005; the last boisterous gasp of World of Warcraft‘s Leeroy Jenkins.