Photo courtesy of Doug Stetar

Dr. Timothy Lewis
Contributor
The Navigator

China is a global power and home to one-fifth of the world’s population. As Professor Doug Stetar of VIU’s Department of Media Studies and Digital Media Technology rightly points out, we cannot ignore the huge economic, social, and political changes taking place in the country. Of particular note is the dramatic rise of the Chinese middle class, estimated to be larger than the entire population of the United States. This demographic has experienced uneven economic success and has become a focal point of political criticism against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As China has one of the largest and most active online populations in the world, it is not surprising that social media has become an important forum for this opposition to the CCP.

On Friday, February 14, Professor Stetar will examine this important means of political activism when he presents “Song of the Grass-Mud Horse: Language & Resistance in Chinese Social Media,” the second offering in the Spring 2014 VIU Arts and Humanities Colloquium Series. As always, the event is admission-free and will be held at the Malaspina Theatre from 10-11:30am. Refreshments are available before the presentation, and a time for discussion and questions will follow.

Professor Stetar explains that “the Chinese government is always alert to opposition in all forms, thus it constantly acts to keep all social media channels clear of any topic considered ‘sensitive.’ However, many in China’s online community have responded by developing oblique references designed to circumvent state censorship. A good example of this is the use of the date “May 35” to refer to the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Stetar notes that “one of the most persistent and famous of these online ‘resistance memes’ is the grass-mud horse, a mythical creature invented in 2009 as a challenge to the climate of state censorship. A play on words in Mandarin, with obscene connotations, the grass-mud horse represents cultural ideas and behaviours that link people and serves as a form of symbolic defiance in the fight for free expression and a ‘made-in-China’ civil society.”

Stetar has spent over two years intensely studying Mandarin to better understand the way the Chinese use language and social media in their resistance to authority. But he feels all his work is well worth it. “Given China’s strategic importance, politically, economically, and militarily, the struggle for greater freedom by China’s citizens is something that is going to affect us all,” he says.

The Spring 2014 Arts and Humanities Colloquium Series will conclude on March 28 with a celebration of five years of university-community engagement. Six short presentations will be made that day, featuring nine faculty members and students, each focused on the theme “Fascinating Technologies: Future Directions in the Arts and Humanities.” This event will be a half hour longer than usual (10am-12:00pm), and all are invited to a special catered reception in the theatre lobby afterwards.

For more information on the Arts and Humanities Colloquium Series, contact Dr. Timothy Lewis at (250) 753-3245, local 2114, or Timothy.Lewis(at)viu.ca. Please note: Professor Stetar’s presentation will contain occasional coarse language.

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