If you have a Chinese friend, you might have trouble explaining to him exactly why Americans found Dan Savage’s definition of “Santorum” so funny. You can convey the sexual politics of it—they have prudes in China, too—but not the nuance, the way the name to American ears sounds vaguely, ickily medical, evocative of words like sputum. As a non–Mandarin speaker, I feel the same about the caption on a self-portrait by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei showing him leaping in the air, naked except for a strategically placed plush toy. The caption reads: “Grass mud horse covering the middle.” Even after learning that the phrase is a Chinese pun for “Fuck your mother, Communist Party Central Committee,” I still feel like I’m slightly missing out on the joke.
Its meaning and intent, though, were clear enough to Chinese authorities, who according to the New York Times are cracking down on insurrectionist wordplay in posts on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service whose users have taken to eluding censors with linguistic gymnastics. (Since the word censorship itself is often censored in China, bloggers began referring to “harmonization.” When that attracted unhelpful attention, Net users shifted to a near homonym that means “river crab” and, more recently, a phonetically unrelated term for seafood or “aquatic product.”) In political discourse, puns are to satire as firecrackers are to napalm: They erupt harmlessly but noisily, with a pop of verbal recognition. The ability of puns to foster a shared point of view among those in on the joke is presumably what worries the Chinese government, which tends to want to maintain a monopoly on perception in its country.
For satirists like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Bill Maher, puns are the flick of the knife that draws a drop of blood just before the fatal plunge into the aorta. “Due or Die” reads the chyron, teeing up a Colbert segment on the legality of drone raids that kill American citizens without a trial. Maher thinks the Republicans are acting like children, hence: “Feelin’ Juvie.” They stand in a long and not entirely venerable tradition of American political puns, going back at least to the campaign of Franklin Pierce in 1852, when the Democratic slogan was “We Polked You in ’44, We Shall Pierce You in ’52.” In 1936, Republican Alf Landon ran for president under the catchphrase “Let’s Make It a Landon-Slide”—and wound up carrying only two states. Bad puns will not stir the populace, and while the effective pun seems impishly tossed-off, writing one is not easy. I speak as someone whose first newspaper job was on the Daily News copy desk, where I tried to sneak the headline “Beame Me Up, Scotty” into the paper on a story about shifting polling numbers in a seventies-era mayoral primary. “No puns on names,” the slotman growled, tossing the story back at me. “Unless they’re funny.” I scribbled “Koch a Falling Star” on the copy and handed it back. This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.