In a tonal language, inflection means everything. Students of Chinese as a foreign language are taught to pity the fool who mangles her four tones. (And how easily "frustrated"/郁闷 slides into "with the door"/与门!)
So after years of puzzled looks from native Chinese speakers whenever I spoke a third-tone word with an accidental second-tone flair, I was fully convinced of the immutability of Chinese tones and the words they distinguish. That is, until the raging internet phenomenon that has become the "Grass Mud Horse" -- far better known as 草泥马.
As others have described tactfully, "grass mud horse" sounds an awful lot like one of the most vulgar things you can say to someone in Chinese. It sounds so similar, in fact, that almost as soon as it had appeared, there was no explanation required as to the emotion for which it was a proxy. After the fire near the new CCTV headquarters, images of the grass mud horse started popping up all over the internet, telling CCTV just how the netizens felt about the way it was (not) reported.
So it's a semi-homonym...maybe even a euphemism. But no one would call the grass mud horse polite conversation. Especially not someone like Li Changchun. (See some of his recent thoughts here.)
During Li's tenure as China's senior propaganda official, the nationwide "anti-smut" campaign has gained steam. No less than the likes of Google, Sina, and Sohu risk their very existence in China if they do not rid themselves of anything that could be considered vulgar. And now, as actress and CCTV host Ni Ping has added 山寨文化 (small mountain village culture) to the list of objectionable content, netizens are asking: just what is safe from reprobation?
Without a doubt, Chinese netizens are largely sequestered from the internet content that many around the world find void of any redeeming value--images of violence against women, and various forms of hate speech among it--and therefore offer an attractive model for activists elsewhere who seek to "clean up" the internet.
So where do you come down in the grass mud horse debate? Is it a harmless parody, or an offensive slur? Do the filters keep out more bad than good? Who should draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable, and what should be the basis for the decision?