Rhymes Against the State

Sunday, July 27, 2008

In Imperial China, emperors and other high officials sometimes disguised themselves as commoners and mingled with the ordinary folk to learn what they were really thinking. For essentially the same purpose, a government office in the People's Republic now collects shunkouliu, or "slippery jingles." These are rhythmic, often rhyming sayings full of clever wordplay. They are invariably satirical, and corruption is the most common target of their biting wit. The ditties are passed around by word of mouth (or, more recently, through text messages) and, like jokes in the West, are of unknown authorship. Uncensored and uncensorable, they are the freest and arguably the liveliest medium in China, even though the government has classified the poems in its own collection as state secrets.

A recent example, called the "The Four Clears and the Four Unclears," lampoons officials and officialdom:

Why hold a meeting? -- Unclear
But who sits in what seat? -- Very clear
Who brought which gifts? -- Unclear
But who brought no gift? -- Very clear
Whose work has been good? -- Unclear
But who will be promoted? -- Very clear
Who went to bed with the leader? -- Unclear
But what was done there? -- Very clear

A subgenre of shunkouliu makes fun of the "Four Basics," a government mantra that persists even though it is widely ignored in practice. The Four Basics are the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Communist Party leadership and Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought. After the disastrous earthquake in Sichuan province last May, state-controlled media sought to show that the government was responding with the most modern equipment. But many people complained that its methods were primitive and that the shoddy construction of primary schools -- due to corruption -- had been a major factor in the loss of life. The following new list of "Four Basics" appeared:

Reinforcement bars basically absent
Transportation basically by foot
Communication basically by shouting
Excavation basically by hand

Not every Chinese, judging from the following piece, is thrilled by the approach of the Olympics:

The Olympics arrive
Beijing's alive!
The torch on display!
(The people make way.)
The foreigners are here
So the sky's suddenly clear!
And here's a new treat:
Fewer cars on the street!
Of course we are moved
That the food has improved.
And: no beggars, no riff-raff,
No petitions, you see,
No jails, no beatings
Just sweet "harmony!"
Who cares if the locals
Are kicked and repressed
So long as the world
Is duly impressed?
When the Olympics are done
We'll be back to square one:
Corruption and privilege
Won't that be fun?
Secrecy, strong-arming
Brainwashing, tax-farming
Mugging protesters
And hiding their tears;
Ruling by thugs,
But arresting "by law"
A new "Chinese model"
For many more years!

-- Perry Link, a co-editor of "The Tiananmen Papers," teaches at the University of California-Riverside.

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