Written by Susan D. Blum.

Challenges to authoritarian states’ control of language can be so complex that they exceed the states’ ability to manage them all. Electronic expression of resistance and increasing embrace of non-Mandarin linguistic varieties reveal powerful linguistic insights in China, which are evident too in the so-called Umbrella Revolution that took Hong Kong by storm (hah!) in fall 2014.

While a controlling state wishes to limit expression, citizens creatively employ every possible communicative modality—music, video, images, Arabic numerals, puns, Chinese characters, Roman letters, foreign words, writing, speech, sound, vision—and choose among varieties of speech and writing at their own discretion. The resources they employ reveal limits to the officially enforced boundaries—linguistic and conceptual—of China.

Like similar efforts underway in Catalonia and Basque regions of Europe and Francophone areas of Canada, challenges to the grip of a single linguistic variety for educational and political purposes challenges the hegemony of the centralized nation-state. But because of the complexity of China’s writing system, spoken forms and written forms interplay, adding other semiotic resources as well.

Through linguistic playfulness people manage to evade internet censorship about sensitive topics within China. Faster than terms become “sensitive” or taboo, “netizens” find a way—or several ways—around the blockage.

Some writers use nonstandard varieties of Chinese or foreign language terms to represent a repressed term. Some use Romanization rather than Chinese characters. Some use visual puns, as in the seminal cao ni ma (grass-mud horse: a term that began in 2009 with a cloying video featuring a fanciful animal whose name sounds nearly like terms meaning “f**k your mother”). Some mix Roman letters, Arabic numbers, and Chinese characters, with puns woven throughout. Even math jokes appear.

We have just passed the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre. Each year, leading up to this date all permutation of “June 4” and “1989” and “Tiananmen” that the censors can think of are blocked: “May 35” and “89”, June+4th [in English], TAM, “8的平方” (the square of 8, i.e. 64), combinations such as六4 [six 4], using a character and a numeral, even今天 [today]. But the censors are only reactive; creative alternatives continue to be generated.

The semiotic play—serious play—reveals limits to the hegemony of Chinese and, in turn, the ideological construction of a unitary, bounded, homogeneous state. The Chinese state, like some but not all others, defines a standard language, tests broadcasters’ pronunciation against the standard, determines acceptability of words, controls dictionaries, and enforces teaching of Putonghua in schools.

It is true that China enshrines linguistic diversity within its Constitution, where Article 4 states that “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.” But Article 19 is clear: “The state promotes the nationwide use of Putonghua (common speech based on Beijing pronunciation).”

Chinese policy toward non-Putonghua varieties is less repressive than it could be, but the ideological construction of a unitary form of Chinese endures with the claim that speakers of every variety of Chinese can use the same writing system, This is not actually true. Victor Mair writes of the “fundamental unwritability of the nonstandard Sinitic languages.”

At least 20 percent of spoken Taiwanese, for example, has no corresponding sinograph, and increasingly self-conscious attempts to define written forms unique to Taiwanese (Hokkien, Minnan) presents a challenge to China’s monoglot, monomodal standard.

A 400-word list of characters unique to Taiwanese has been generated and is gaining popularity.

In the case of post-Handover (1997) Hong Kong, with PRC power regarded by some as an occupying force, language too has become a domain of contestation. “Chinese” is under-specified in the Basic Law of Hong Kong, and the difference between writing and speech tends to slip among popular usage. In 2014 a tone-deaf Education Bureau learned how strongly people are bound to Cantonese when they attempted to state that Cantonese was “not an official language.”

As Mandarin makes inroads in education and commerce, Cantonese is emphasized, and is gaining political salience.

Both trends—toward multimodal aspects of semiotic resources and toward proud embrace of non-Mandarin varieties—converge in the semiotics of the Umbrella Movement.

Occupy Central With Love and Peace” descended upon Hong Kong in October 2014 in response to China’s August announcement that election of Hong Kong’s executive leader would, essentially, remain in Beijing’s hands. Students and allies made demands for representative elections. Over several weeks this was transformed into what became the “umbrella revolution/movement,” with a yellow umbrella its symbol, after students had shielded themselves from pepper spray with umbrellas.

The Cantonese word for ‘umbrella,’ 遮打zedaa, is the local way to transliterate the proper noun, Chater Road. So Zedaa = Chater, but the combination of ze and daa also means ‘umbrella’—but only in Cantonese. The Mandarin word for ‘umbrella’ is entirely different (雨傘 yusan). The addition of English also points outward toward the world to which Hong Kong is linked. In this context, even the name “umbrella revolution” (or “movement”) has political implications.

The elevation of linguistic diversity promotes Hong Kong identity, and exemplifies resistance to being lumped together with the People’s Republic, despite China’s legal sovereignty over the territory.

The overall effect of promoting Cantonese is to challenge the hegemony of the standard Chinese language, and of China’s domination.

Student-led televised protests since the Arab Spring have employed countless semiotic resources for conveying their messages to diverse audiences, but Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution provides illumination of several concepts simultaneously, employing limitless sets of semiotic resources that themselves have meaning. And a state would have to be incredibly sophisticated to forbid the lot of it.

This has not occurred, but it is not for lack of trying.

Susan D. Blum is Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Image Credit: CC by Pasu Au Yeung/Flickr.