One of China’s best-known artists is prancing to “Gangnam style,” but the Chinese government found it to be anything but harmless. Dan Levin on why the video was censored—and Ai Weiwei’s response. Plus, Blake Gopnik on Ai’s point on freedom.
That was quick. Hours after the dissident Chinese artist uploaded his own video version of the Korean pop hit “Gangnam Style” to the Chinese Internet, censors had the last laugh. Apparently footage of the bearded artist dangling handcuffs and wearing a neon-pink shirt were just too subversive for the tetchy bureaucrats who control access to information online.
Ai’s video, “Grass Mud Horse Style,” riffs on a notorious Chinese Web meme about a mythical creature whose Mandarin name, Caonima, sounds coincidentally like an insult that ends in “your mother.” The original “Gangnam” spoofs a shamelessly materialistic neighborhood in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. But Ai used the video to once again extend his middle finger toward China’s censorship regime.
And it looked fun as hell.
Over the years, Ai adopted the grass mud horse as a sort of mascot, posing nude with the cuddly stuffed animal censoring his crotch. Upon his release last year from extra-legal detention, where he was repeatedly interrogated about his activism, he sang about the elusive creature in a message of gratitude for those who donated money toward the multimillion dollar fine the government levied against him, claiming he owed back taxes. Ai recently lost a second appeal against the tax charge, which he dismissed as a blatant attempt by the government to pretend his detention was not about politics.
So what does the grass mud horse really mean? Ai once wrote:“There isn’t education for everyone, there isn’t medical insurance, there’s no freedom of the press, there’s no freedom of speech, there’s no freedom of information, there’s no freedom to live and move where you choose, there’s no independent judiciary, there’s no one supervising public opinion, there are no independent trade unions, there’s no armed forces that belongs to the nation, there’s no protection of the Constitution. All that’s left is a Grass Mud Horse.”
‘I’ve been censored for so long. If you post a photo of my back or mention ‘the fat guy’ on Chinese social media, it will be blocked. But I can always make something new.’
Ai stands—or, in the Gangnam video, prances—in stark contrast to the humorless propaganda officials who regurgitate a political script that sounds little like reality. In the Gangnam video, he’s joined by a group of friends including the Chinese musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou, whose home is being demolished.
Ai posted the video online after midnight on Wednesday, and in just a few hours it had received over 10,000 views before being removed by the censors. “The next morning when they got to work thousands of people had seen it so all they could do was remove it,” he said.
As for the swift end to his video in China, Ai is not too despondent. “I didn't care that much,” he said. “I’ve been censored for so long. If you post a photo of my back or mention ‘the fat guy’ on Chinese social media it will be blocked. But I can always make something new.”