Except They Weren’t: The Grass Mud Horse

A photo of an alpaca standing next to a man in Bolivia
The Grass Mud Horse is its natural habitat. Except it isn’t.
Source: Flickr user Patrick Furlong via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia is banned in the People’s Republic of China. You can imagine what the country’s notoriously repressive and information-controlling  government might think of a “free encyclopedia anyone can edit.”

Instead, China offers Baidu Baike, an editable encyclopedia site that is like Wikipedia, except that all entries are reviewed and approved by one of China’s many, many full-time Internet censors. In other words, not like Wikipedia at all.

You won’t find a Baidu Baike article on 六四事件 (the “June Fourth Incident,” their name for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests), and the article on 民主 (Democracy) is underwhelming. But these curious omissions notwithstanding, Baidu Baike has more than 15 million articles covering all aspects of life in the People’s Republic of China.

In early 2009, a series of new articles appeared called the Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures (百度十大神兽), profiling some of the legendary creatures of Chinese folklore. The most famous of these was the famous grass mud horse, one of the most beloved creatures of ancient mythology.

Except it wasn’t – the whole thing was an adolescent joke.

Chinese is a a tonal language, in which words are built up from simple components and vocally distinguished by the relative pitch of your voice. Thus the opportunity for puns are endless – and grass mud horse (草泥马, pronounced “Cǎo Ní Mǎ,” which sounds very similar to the Chinese words for “f*ck your mother” (not providing the translation so I don’t get down-ranked by search engines that know Chinese).

The Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures articles didn’t last long. Although they were perhaps mildly amused, the authorities were Not Impressed, and took down each article soon after it appeared, with little fanfare – and, as far as I can tell, no repercussions for the anonymous editors who posted them. But sometimes, a thing on the Internet becomes A THING ON THE INTERNET, and the 10 mythical creatures became such a thing. And none was a greater THING than the grass mud horse. It’s not immediately obvious how to depict an imaginary pun-based animal, but the Internet quickly decided that the grass mud horse looked like an alpaca.

A crab wearing three wristwatches
The river crab reminds you to promote a harmonious society

As the grass mud horse became more and more popular, in One Of Those Bizarre Things That Happens Sometimes, it quickly took on an additional significance: as the unofficial mascot of the fight against internet censorship in China. It soon acquired an elaborate pun-based mythology: the only natural enemy of the grass mud horse is the river crab (河蟹, héxiè), whose name sounds like the Chinese government’s “harmonious society” policy, of which Internet censorship is a part. The river crab is usually depicted as “wearing three wristwatches” (帶三個錶, dài sān ge biǎo), which sounds like the “Three Represents” interpretation of communism promoted by former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. It all came together in the Song of the Grass Mud Horse video, widely viewed on YouTube – except in China, which bans YouTube. Watch it below, with English subtitles:

Eventually, the censors caught on and banned the grass mud horse too. But it was fun while it lasted, and it has lived on as a symbol of the Chinese resistance. Sadly, that resistance has been powerless to stop censorship, particularly with the government’s new social credit system. But it was fun while it lasted. Because:

If your friend sent you a photo of an alpaca, at least you knew you weren’t alone.

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