Mar 16

Song of the Grass-Mud Horse

Written by Steve on Monday, March 16th, 2009 at 5:08 am
Filed under:culture, language, media, music, News, politics, video | Tags:, , , , , ,
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There’s a new phenomenon sweeping China. Back in January on a Chinese web page, a new video made its way from there into the hearts of internet users all across the country, spawning a wave of related items such as cartoons, documentaries and grass-mud horse dolls.

Even academics are writing papers on the social significance of the grass-mud horse. Articles in the NY Times & Slate online (profanity warning) have tried to explain what it means along with this (profanity warning) and this in Chinese.

So what is this all about? Per the NY Times:

“As depicted online, the grass-mud horse seems innocent enough at the start.

An alpaca-like animal — in fact, the videos show alpacas — it lives in a desert whose name resembles yet another foul word. The horses are “courageous, tenacious and overcome the difficult environment,” a YouTube song about them says.

But they face a problem: invading “river crabs” that are devouring their grassland. In spoken Chinese, “river crab” sounds very much like “harmony,” which in China’s cyberspace has become a synonym for censorship. Censored bloggers often say their posts have been “harmonized” — a term directly derived from President Hu Jintao’s regular exhortations for Chinese citizens to create a harmonious society.

In the end, one song says, the horses are victorious: “They defeated the river crabs in order to protect their grassland; river crabs forever disappeared from the Ma Le Ge Bi,” the desert.

The online videos’ scenes of alpacas happily romping to the Disney-style sounds of a children’s chorus quickly turn shocking — then, to many Chinese, hilarious — as it becomes clear that the songs fairly burst with disgusting language.”

Here are the lyrics:

There is a herd of Grass Mud Horses
In the wild and beautiful Ma Le Desert
They are lively and intelligent
they are fun-loving and nimble
They live freely in the Ma Le Desert
They are courageous, tenacious, and overcome the difficult environment

Oh lying down Grass Mud Horse
Oh running wild Grass Mud Horse
They defeated river crabs in order to protect their grass land
River crabs forever disappeared from Ma Le Desert



他们为了卧草不被吃掉 打败了河蟹,

I ran across this explanation in the China Digital Times, which managed to explain it without crossing our obscenity barrier:

A blogger from Tongji University wrote the following analytical piece on the “Big Dipper” blog, translated by CDT: :

The Song of “Grass Mud Horse (草泥马)” : A Public Metaphor

One talented person invented the word “Grass Mud Horse (草泥马),” then another created a spoof called “The Song of the ‘Grass Mud’ Horse.” In the anything-goes world of the internet, this alone is just a small thing. But the fact that the whole online crowd discovered this song, is singing it loudly, and takes it as their own language as a way to express themselves, is really something.

As a metaphor, everyone understands what “Grass Mud Horse (草泥马)” really means. It’s a curse that is not so appropriate for public use. But we all have the impulse to express such emotions, and therefore use the alternatives “Grass Mud Horse (草泥马)” and “Ma Le Desert (马勒戈壁).” Now “the Song of the Grass Mud Horse” appeared and has become so popular, because the meaning of such a metaphor really resonated deeply with us. Probably because this song reflected the popular psychological sentiment, it naturally became a hit.

In the song, “Grass Mud Horse” was living freely in the beautiful Ma Le Desert (马勒戈壁). but their survival faces a crisis, because the arrival of river crabs destroyed the grasses they rely on to live. What should Grass Mud horses do?

Here, the conflict between two forces is very apparent.

“Grass Mud Horse (草泥马)” originates from a dirty sentence, and its original meaning is quite offensive. But in this song, Grass Mud Horse became the representation of a charming and vulnerable animal and the singer gives them his/her sympathy.

“Grass Mud Horse (草泥马)” is not an uncivilized word and is not officially banned, therefore it can be sung publicly. Although many people use “Grass Mud horse” as an alternative curse or just use it randomly, this word and its deviant expression already generated a pattern of discourse and sub-culture. “Grass Mud Horse (草泥马)” represents such information and opinions which cannot be accepted by the mainstream discourse, and “the Song of the Grass Mud Horse” has become a metaphor of the power struggle over Internet expression.

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26 Responses to “Song of the Grass-Mud Horse”

  1. Steve Says:

    Here is the cartoon described in the article:

  2. Steve Says:

    And the documentary:

  3. Chops Says:

    So does this mean we’re now allowed to swear “Grass Mud Horse” in Fool’s Mountain? 🙂

  4. sun bin Says:

    the slate article is confused. 🙂

    the subject body in grass-mud-horse is the speaker, not the listener. 🙂 supposedly chinese curse wanted to ‘take advantage’ of other by claiming to fathered his opponent, there is nothing about incest — i.e. closer to the turco-mongolian curse than the english one.

  5. Steve Says:

    @ sun bin #4: Slate is confused, huh? Why am I not surprised? 😛

    My guess is that they pieced their article together from other sources without a Chinese person in sight. Fortunately for me, I had our other editors to help me along since I’m not fluent in Chinese either. Thanks for the clarification!

    @ Chops: You might have found a new way to beat the censors!! After all, if it’s good enough to get by the Great Firewall, who are we to complain? 😉

  6. FOARP Says:

    You people may think it funny to make talk about endangered animals in this fashion, but I assure you it’s no joke! The Grass Mud Horse is a species under threat of extinction from loss of habitat due to encroachment by other species and by human settlement, watch this harrowing tale of a family of Grass Mud Horse struggling to survive –


    Who cannot but be moved to tears by such a story?

  7. FOARP Says:

    More shocking footage:


    When will the destruction of this beautiful animal’s habitat end?

  8. Allen Says:

    Yes – cao ni ma is definitely a seriously endangered species. Its plight is definitely no joke.

    I am in the process of raising more money to fund my next trip to Beijing – where I shall petition the CCP about the need to set aside more habitats – hopefully areas free from the river crabs – to ensure the survival of this beautiful animal!

    I will publish the number of bank account to which you may wire your money to support me in this noble purpose shortly…

  9. FOARP Says:

    It is wonderful to hear that overseas Chinese are taking an interest in preserving China’s biological diversity, in the future, when people ask what you have done for China, you can tell them proudly: “Cao Ni Ma!”

  10. Oli Says:

    Dear Allen,

    I am the prince of a powerful tribe in Nigeria. My father was the country’s Minister for the petroleum industry in Nigeria. Unfortunately, he was thrown into jail by his political enemies because of his human rights and environment protection work.

    I now have access to much of the money originally intended for that work. If you give me your account number I would like to contribute $1.5 Millions to your very meaningful project. Please forward me your account details together with a cheque for $5,000.- to cover administrative and banking charges. My details are attached to this message. Please double click on it to open the file.

    I very much look forward to hearing from you.
    Prince Nougokjo of Dijuboti Oshogbo

    No Nigerian was harmed in the making of this “genuine” solicitation. Any resulting hurt feelings because of perceived stereotyping, racism or racial profiling are to be blamed on the God of free speech, creative licenses and of course Nigerians themselves and are therefore inconsequential, because Nigeria does not matter politically. Therefore any complaints to the author or the webmaster of this site is null and void and your computer screen will automatically default to the MS bluescreen of death. Your computer will automatically initiate reboot, itself a normal consequence of your complaining. It may not happen immediately due to the backlog at the CIA/NSA/PSB/FSB, but you will know it when it happens. This is your final and only warning against complaining. Have a pleasant day.

  11. yo Says:

    ehh, mandarin curses never did it for me. Now Cantonese, that’s a language you can yell in! 🙂

  12. HongKonger Says:

    # 11

    YEAH, I AGREE, ….” Nine-Doors Small-Door into West-Door and out the Moon-Work Door !!! “

  13. Charles Liu Says:

    Well, looks like this will go the way of “08 Charter”, if anyone still remember that…

    Some Chinese netters have said this made up story was a practical joke on Western media.

  14. FOARP Says:

    Wait – that’s it! The whole thing was organised by the NED in an attempt to discredit Chinese netizens! Charles Liu, the motherland thanks you!

  15. Steve Says:

    @ Charles Liu #13: So a practical joke on the western media sweeps China by storm and becomes a huge fad with dolls, clothes, etc? Sounds like someone’s joke backfired or there’s some heavy wishful thinking out there. It seems pretty much everyone in China knows about this, while virtually no one heard about Charter 08. When I asked our friends visiting from Beijing about Charter 08, they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

    If you survey “western” people, whoever they are, I doubt 2% of them would even know what a grass-mud horse is all about… and I’m being very liberal with the 2%.

  16. BMY Says:


    Please remember Charles’ motherland is Taiwan and he is not happy with the unfair media treatment towards my motherland. 🙂

    The horse might be called BBQ-Mud-Horse in Taiwan because the weather is hotter there than in the grassland.

  17. Allen Says:


  18. Charles Liu Says:

    Right, and a kid wearing a t-shirt has something to do with overthrowing communism? Only in the wishful eyes of the Western media and those who buy it.

    All I see is a dirty lymric getting passed around, like the Star Wars Kid Youtube. Foarse no Chinese is gunning after the CCP, just like no American would with our own government’s transgression, so relax.

    And BMY is right, I ain’t from Mainland China, so please try a more contextual character assissination.

    BTW, here are couple more Chinese netters on the subject of “Western Grass Mud Horse”:


  19. FOARP Says:

    @Charles Liu – Seems like someone had a major sense-of-humour-malfunction!

  20. JD Says:

    I would have chosen a different except from the NYT article. However, I disagree that the “subversive behaviour” is making government censors look ridiculous. Nothing makes government censors look more ridiculous than the regular conduct of government censors. The NYT says:

    “The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.

    It has also raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet — a project on which the Chinese government already has expended untold riches, and written countless software algorithms to weed deviant thought from the world’s largest cyber-community.”

  21. Steve Says:

    Well, it seems to have been banned. Per the NY Times:

    China’s grass-mud horse, the mythical and popular Internet creature whose Chinese name sounds very much like an obscenity, is being put out to pasture by censors, the Web site Global Voices reported on Wednesday. A Chinese contributor to the site quoted a message from an Internet administrator to managers of online bulletin boards warning that “any content related with Grass-Mud Horse should not be promoted and hyped” because “the issue has been elevated to a political level.” It went on to say, “The overseas media has exaggerated the incident as a confrontation between netizens and the government.”

    The grass-mud horse first appeared on Chinese Web sites in January in the wake of a crackdown by the government on politically oriented Web sites. The mythical creature’s battles with the “river crab,” which in Chinese sounds like slang for “censorship,” have been popularized in YouTube videos and on Chinese chat sites. The order also said the grass-mud horse should not be associated with river crabs and other mythical creatures, many of whose Chinese names sound obscene.

  22. Oli Says:

    Dang does that mean it’s not kosher anymore? And I was having so much fun with the euphemisms. Ahh, shucks!

  23. Steve Says:

    @ Oli: What euphemisms? What grass-mud horse? It doesn’t exist. It never existed. To imply it exists would hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. 😉

  24. Allen Says:

    Does that mean this thread (if you are not logged in) will not be available from the Mainland?

    Can someone in China check???

  25. Oli Says:

    Ahh, but you see that’s the beauty of euphemism. It’s existence and beauty are all in the eyes of the beholder and it can cut both ways with imaginative application. He, he, he….. :p

  26. Allon Says:

    This thread is still reachable (I am from China mainland), but most of the green mud horse stuff is already filtered by the river crab, means when I search “草泥马” in Google, most of original stuff gone!

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