Homonyms, Humonyms in Chinese

Written Chinese has thousands of characters (not fun when you’re trying to learn them). Each character has a meaning, is a morpheme, attached to a limited number of sounds, phonemes. Speaking Chinese gets tricky when you realize there are just SO MANY words that sound alike, as differentiated by their tones (4 in standard Mandarin).

The mispronunciation of words achieved by using the wrong tones (by me, of course) gives rise to much misunderstandings, and laughter (at my expense). The other aspect of a language filled with homonyms is a heavy use of puns in the culture. One example is “我爱你 Wo Ai Ni” Day. 我爱你 means “I love you”, but it’s also a slight mispronunciation of wu-er-ling, 五二零, also written as 5-2-0, or May 20th. And so it’s become that May 20th has become an auspicious wedding day!

Another punning association has been assigned to today, July 1st, by Chinese netizens and the government’s censorship, which sounds like “grass mud horse”, an alternate name for an alpaca. In Chinese, this is “草泥马 cao ni ma” — which sounds like another phrase best used for insults and not in polite company.

The China Digital Times sees Caonima as the “de facto mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression, inspiring poetry, photos and videos, artwork, lines of clothing, and more.

An explanation of the both the Chinese firewall, and the evolution of this meme as seen in youtube videos can be read here.


(A Chinese character created to represent cao-ni-ma by fusing together elements of each of the 3 characters.)


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