Puns and other forms of wordplay have a long and distinguished career in literature, advertising, jokes, and witty conversation. Punning has always been extremely popular in China, as we pointed out in an earlier post about Chinese texting. The characteristics of the language are perfectly suited to bring out the playfulness in everyone.

But not everyone is happy about seeing standard Chinese phrases misappropriated for humorous or marketing purposes. On November 27, 2014, the Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television [SAPPRFT] issued the statement “Notice on Regulating the Usage of the National Common Language and Script in Radio and Television Programs and Advertising.”

According to the statement, messing in any way with standard Chinese idioms and phrases is equivalent to undermining traditional Chinese culture:

Idioms are a major feature of Chinese language and culture, carrying deep cultural connotations, and containing rich historical, aesthetic, philosophical and moral resources. They are a precious national heritage, embodying the “genes” of traditional Chinese culture as extended and developed in modern civilization, and are important information carriers that enable outstanding traditional Chinese culture to “come alive.”

Playing around with these accepted phrases causes “cultural discontinuity and linguistic disorder due to arbitrary changes and indiscriminate usages.”

Therefore,

It is not permitted to arbitrarily substitute characters or change the structure and distort the meaning of the text; it is not permitted to arbitrarily insert Internet slang or foreign languages and scripts into Chinese idioms; it is not permitted to use or introduce coined expressions that are based upon internet language and that imitate the form of (traditional) idioms….

The policy doesn’t just target puns or broadly offensive plays on words. One of the examples they give is “Jìnshàn Jìnměi 晋善晋美 (‘Shanxi good, Shanxi beautiful’),” a slogan used in tourism campaigns for the Shanxi region of China. The slogan is a play on the common idiom jìnshàn jìnměi 尽善尽美 (“perfect” or “perfection”).

The statement promises more intense supervision and severe penalties for violations that are determined to be willful.

This announcement came on the heels of a series of attacks by government policymakers on the adoption of foreign words and acronyms into Chinese. All together this smacks of a linguistic purity campaign that, if fully implemented, would stifle creativity and the development of Chinese as a living, thriving language. Fortunately campaigns such as these are at most only partially successful. The very fact that these campaigns start is usually as a reaction to linguistic processes that have already dug deep into a society.