China’s Internet lexicon: The symbolic meaning and commoditization of Grass Mud Horse in the harmonious society
First Monday

China's Internet lexicon: The symbolic meaning and commoditization of Grass Mud Horse in the harmonious society by Shaojung Sharon Wang

There is a long history of the Chinese concept of Internet regulation, which emphasizes stability and unity for a harmonious society and strong technical control. “Grass Mud Horse” (草泥马), a vulgar expression similar to an obscene curse word, has, since early 2009, been used by the country’s Internet users as a political parody in response to their government’s campaign of building a harmonious socialist society. “Grass Mud Horse” has later been fashioned into the name of a storybook character, and has spawned music videos and faux documentaries. Its themed merchandise, such as plush toys, is being sold over the Internet. This study sets out to examine the transformation of “Grass Mud Horse” into the mass production of cultural goods created and disseminated through the Internet. It argues that the exchange values of “Grass Mud Horse” represent the equivalent relation between commodities, symbols, and popular culture. While “Grass Mud Horse” has been commoditized by the increasing usage of popular culture; this is also the system of mass production and the homogenizing regime of capital, which produces mass desires, tastes, and behavior rather than valid social movements.


China’s economic reform and Internet policy
“Grass Mud Horse” fights “River Crab”
The notion of symbolic interactionism and cultural products
The commoditization and symbolic value of the “Grass Mud Horse”




The rise of the Internet over the past two decades has highlighted the ever–increasing complexity of human interactions and provided a new channel for people to express themselves and voice their viewpoints. Expressing subcultural identities online, in particular, is part of the identity work individuals perform in their everyday lives (Denzin, 1998). In the information age, meaning as the symbolic identification is constantly produced and reproduced through symbolic interaction between actors framed by social structure (Castells, 2000).

Over the last decade, China has been riding a wave of transformation and modernization, part of which is undoubtedly fuelled by the new media and Internet–based communication. While the Internet empowers freedom of expression by offering individuals a new means of communication, the free flow of information, on the other hand, has raised the call for an authoritarian government to restrict access to information. There is a long history of the Chinese concept of Internet regulation, which emphasizes stability and unity for a harmonious society and strong technical control, such as the Golden Shield project, colloquially referred to as the Great Firewall of China. Chinese Internet regulation and strong technical control is even well implemented and complied with by large corporations such as Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft (Dann and Haddow, 2008). China’s paramount leader of the Communist Party of China (CCP), government, and the military, Hu Jintao, has made “building a harmonious socialist society” (Hawes, 2008; Xu, 2006) a unifying concept of his administration in order to deal with a critical period of both conflict explosion and strategic opportunities for development in China after its economic reform.

China’s Internet users have begun to refer to the censoring of Internet content as “being harmonized,” which is a euphemism for censorship, although many use a more satiric tone. In the same way that “harmony” in China’s cyberspace has become a synonym for censorship, “Grass Mud Horse” (草泥马), a mythical alpaca–like beast, has, since early 2009, been used by the country’s Internet users as a political parody for a harmonious society. This was in response to their government’s campaign to cleanse from the Internet any pornographic or other content containing “vulgar and unhealthy information” (Lagerkvist, 2008) that was deemed to be harmful to the country’s youth. Campaigns against online pornography are common in China, but, in reality, the Chinese government uses the anti–pornography campaign primarily as a means to squelch unapproved political opinions.

However, what began as an entertaining by-product of that Internet clean–up has become more diverse. “Grass Mud Horse” has been fashioned into the name of a storybook character, and has spawned music videos and faux documentaries. Its themed merchandise, such as plush toys, is being sold over the Internet. It has reached the point where technology has become both a major force of production, and a formative mode of social organization and control. The desire for capitalist products involves an enormous amount of time and money for negotiation of both material goods and cultural products. The manipulation of the cultural industry involves a process that Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) termed pseudo–individualism, by means of which the standardization of the cultural product also homogenizes ideological perspectives and inclinations. While all objects hold a representative meaning or symbolic value (Blumer, 1986), this meaning or value is a product of communication between people. As people create a cultural product through social interaction, the synthesis of the cultural studies approach within the sociological framework of symbolic interactionism is capable of producing theoretical foundations to explain social structure and mass culture.

Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine the transformation of “Grass Mud Horse” into the mass production of cultural goods created and disseminated through the Internet. Are the needs of these cultural products promoted by online communication tools false needs in post–socialist China? Do they play a crucial role in reinforcing or even fortifying capitalism by creating a consciousness among the people who are meekly compliant to the very components and processes that operate and perpetuate the capitalistic system? This study will first explore the phenomenon of “Grass Mud Horse” through the lenses of both a political and economic perspective, while also undertaking a scientific query of Internet analysis tools. It will then examine critiques of symbolic meanings of consumer culture, as well as the contemporary implications of the culture industry via criticisms often leveled at cultural products, specifically in post–socialist China.



China’s economic reform and Internet policy

China officially came online in 1993. By the end of June, 2011, the number of China’s Internet users had reached 485 million, more than a third of China’s population (36.2 percent penetration)(CNNIC, 2011). It surpassed the entire U.S. population in number which cements the country’s position as the world’s largest Internet population. The growth of the Internet is parallel with the Chinese government’s desire to construct an information communication technology (ICT) system that contributes to the country’s economic growth. Yet, the development of the Internet and the rapid expansion of online communication tools inevitably raise subsequent concerns over a number of key issues as it relates to the way in which this new form of media is administered and controlled for the sake of national security. ICTs are recognized as borderless or limitless both in terms of users or content, and make possible the increased sharing of information among users without government direction or intervention. This very public and unrestricted character of ICTs makes them as susceptible to the same evils sought to be prevented by censorship of content as other forms of media. Some sort of censorship is warranted if the same social aims, such as the protection of social morals, promotion of public safety, and defense of national interests, as sought through the censorship of traditional media, are to be achieved.

Since the introduction of the open–door policy in 1978, China has witnessed a decline of its once dominant ideology, Marxist–Leninism and Maoism. The country’s media system has undergone an unprecedented transformation in this post–Maoist period (Chen, 2007; Winfield and Peng, 2005), and China has, since then, embraced capitalism and liberalized its economic policy. This search for a socialist alternative to capitalist modernity has ushered in a new era of social, economic, cultural, and political development, and brought about inevitable changes in cultural production. Instead of being solely a propaganda machine of the party–state, the media has, to a certain extent, demonstrated increased autonomy and diversity in this reform era.

Nonetheless, the transition from a centralized to a market economy and the liberalization of many aspects of the society have not yet led to political liberalization or democracy in China. By the same token, although the media has demonstrated unprecedented autonomy from Deng (1978–1997) and Jiang’s (1993–2004) era to the current Hu administration as the country’s economic reform deepens, this by no means signifies that the media in China is free from political supervision or ideological proclamation. In fact, in the early Deng era, the media was saturated with pro–economic reform propaganda; however, after the reversal of the reform policy, and the crackdown on the pro–democratic movement in 1989, the media in China has regained independence and now plays an active role in ideological building. Owing to the demise of the dominant ideology of Marxism–Leninism in propaganda rhetoric, the CCP has begun to propose a new set of ideological beliefs to inspire unity and to build its own political capital for its legitimate control. The Chinese government has successfully maneuvered several propaganda campaigns during key political events such as the turnover of Hong Kong in 1997 and the Olympic Games in 2008. This spectrum of thinking was also evident when the ancient Chinese philosophical concept of “harmonious society” was formally revitalized as a socio–economic vision by President Hu’s signature ideology of the Scientific Development Concept in 2006.

The fundamental purpose of China’s Internet censorship is no different from the media control to discern the norms and regulations necessary to maintain the hegemonic ideology. Aside from a combination of sophisticated technical projects that monitor data flow, and a special task force that keeps track of and blocks information containing potential hazards for the Chinese authorities, Chinese authorities have started a series of subtler forms of control through the guideline of its ancient philosophical approach, social harmony. This revival of the philosophical position is based on the CCP’s socialism, but with Chinese characteristics, as well as the strong state propaganda marching along the path of success and development. The construction of social harmony has both a political and economic vision that serves as the ultimate goal for the ruling CCP as well as the new middle class of the country. Politically speaking, the state controls the public sphere, political power, and public opinion while allowing for the opening up of the private sphere in order to increase transparency of the government and to offer citizens some degree of opportunity for expanded freedoms relating to social and economic justice. Economically speaking, the state promotes the market–oriented economy while simultaneously maintaining heightened control over the market through strategic intervention. The promotion of the “harmonious society” is an example of newer party–led ideological campaigns.



“Grass Mud Horse” fights “River Crab”

The word for harmony, harmonized, or harmonious is pronounced “he xie” and its written Chinese is 和谐. This “harmonization” refers to the online content that is filtered and censored by the Chinese government. Since this phrase is so often used sarcastically in China’s cyberspace, it has been flagged as a sensitive keyword by many of the country’s blog and forum–hosting businesses. As a result, China’s Internet users have switched the characters to another phrase, 河蟹 (river crab), also pronounced as “he xie,” but with a slightly different intonation. 河蟹 is a pun for 和谐, or “harmony,” a concept that “Big Brother Hu”, the Chinese nickname for President Hu, has emphasized repeatedly in his vision for the country’s development, and the relationship between business, government, society, and the environment. The agents of censorship are thus nicknamed 河蟹 (river crab), and, these days, deleted posts are often said to have been “river–crabbed” since the word harmony has been censored.

Following an anti–vulgarity campaign launched by the government as a cover to purge political dissents in order to clean up the Internet, the birth of the “Grass Mud Horse” symbolizes a way to be pornographic without arousing anger. “Grass Mud Horse” in Chinese is phonetically pronounced like a vulgar expression similar to an obscene curse word concerning the recipient’s mother. The creature has abounded and has become a new phenomenon sweeping throughout the country both online and off–line. Chinese Internet users have spawned videos on YouTube about the beast that have received millions of hits. The most popular ones are the “Grass Mud Horse” song along with the images depicting a story of the creature’s struggle against the evil “River Crab.” It has a children sing–along and a cartoon version. Another video that is widely viewed on YouTube is a spoof of a Chinese state television nature documentary program in which a presenter introduces the beast in its natural habitat, complete with footage of furry alpacas on mountain slopes. These videos have attracted hundreds of thousands of views. The symbolic meaning of “Grass Mud Horse” has, in turn, been completely transformed, and it has also been named one of the “Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures.”

“Grass Mud Horse,” as portrayed by China’s Internet users, lives in the Malegebi Desert — a pun on another familiar obscenity in Chinese — where it fights its mortal enemy, the “River Crab.” “Grass Mud Horse” has even made the leap into the real world, with a variety of merchandise, such as t–shirts and plush toys, being sold by online retailers and in toy stores (Wines, 2009). In 2009, five Chinese young people in Guangzho introduced “Grass Mud Horse” dolls named “Ge–bi” and “Ma–le” (Figure 1), and their finished products have been brought to and sold in some Guangzhou office buildings. The Guangzhou–made horses, priced around US$6, have “birth certificates” stamped with seals in cardinal red reading “Ma–le Gobi Administration Office of Divine Animals’ Special Seal for the Exclusive Use of Birth Control.” The certificates not only prevent duplicates, but can be used by buyers to find other buyers who have purchased the other dyad with the same code as theirs.


Figure 1: Grass Mud Horse plush toy
Figure 1: “Grass Mud Horse” plush toy. The white one is named “Ge–bi” and the brown one is “Ma–le.” “Malegebi” is also a pun on another familiar obscenity in Chinese. Source: Find harmony by owing your own grass-mud horse. Danwei.


The use of homonyms to bypass the Great Firewall of China is hardly new, but this innocent–looking creature has achieved unprecedented success. It even boasts its own entry to the U.S. mainstream media, including the New York Times and the Times. Although “Grass Mud Horse” has become an icon of resistance to China’s censorship (“River Crab”), the term soon disappeared from Google and Yahoo! searches in China (Shen, et al., 2009). Apparently government directives widely posted on forums, chat rooms, and blog platforms have ordered service providers to clamp down on spoof items about the beast. The ban is believed to be related to Western mainstream media reports.

Figure 2 demonstrates and compares the frequency with which the keyword “Grass Mud Horse” is searched in English, and both simplified (used in mainland China) and traditional Chinese characters (used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) from 2009 through 2011 on Google. As shown in Figure 2, the search of the term “Grass Mud Horse” reached its peak in March 2009, and this was in response to an article released by the New York Times on the phenomenon. The search volume of “Grass Mud Horse” in English was relatively low after its peak; however, the term in simplified Chinese retained approximately 20 times more relative traffic throughout 2009 to early 2010 than it had before March 2009. Although the search for the term in traditional Chinese is not being undertaken as often as it is in simplified Chinese over this specific time period, the search in both forms of written Chinese represents relatively the same frequency since early 2011. In particular, the search volume of “Grass Mud Horse” in traditional Chinese increased in early 2010, while that of the term in simplified Chinese began to decrease. This is explained by the fact that the term originated on mainland China and was later adopted by traditional Chinese users in Taiwan and Hong Kong.


Figure 2: Interest search results for Grass Mud Horse in English, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese
Figure 2: Interest search results for “Grass Mud Horse” in English, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. Source: Google Insights for Search.


The online culture of parody (“egao” in Chinese, originating from “Kuso” in Japanese) in contemporary China represents the power struggle, class reconsolidation, social stratification, cultural intervention, and the changing power of digital technology (Gong and Yang, 2010). The symbol of “egao” itself is more likely to turn up as a design idea for t–shirts and mugs, however. The appearance of “Grass Mud Horse” toys has, therefore, attracted immense attention, and the sale of these toys has not only swept across mainland China, but also Hong Kong and Taiwan (Hsu, 2010). There are different versions of “Grass Mud Horse” stuffed animals and newly developed toys such as wind–up dolls, paper–made puzzles, and block or LogoBlock versions are also available for sale. The recent increasing search volume of “Grass Mud Horse” in traditional Chinese may be correlated with consumers’ interest in the sale of these products.

“Grass Mud Horse” was created in coded language, and uses implicit metaphors as a new form of social resistance that demands greater freedom of information and expression in China. It was originally a symbolic defiance of the widespread Internet censorship and ideological control of the CCP. The notion of symbolic culture emphasizes the way in which culture is mediated through signs and concepts. The search interests and mass production of “Grass Mud Horse” merchandise perhaps have different meanings, however. It may be argued, therefore, that an improved understanding of the very changes in symbolic meaning of the product and the corresponding consumption expenditures require more elaborate insight into human behavior and the construction of social identification.



The notion of symbolic interactionism and cultural products

Symbolic interactionists claim that the self is the product of interaction rather than an immutable entity (Robinson, 2007) and emphasize the subjective meaning of human behavior, social process, and pragmatism. They focus on how people create meaning, present, and construct the self or self–identity, and define situations of co–presence with others during social interaction. The notion of symbolic interactionism frames individuals as social actors, and the self–society relationship is further defined by ongoing symbolic gestures. According to Blumer, “human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions. This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior.” [1]

While the human society is composed of both material and spiritual features, communication as a device for the construction of reality is often highlighted by symbolic interactionists. Symbolic interactionists assert that individual and material realities are constructed through a dynamic, communicative process, whereas the extensive and creative use of communication through symbols can distinguish humans from one another. According to Blumer (1986), humans act toward social stimuli based on the meanings that they hold about those stimuli. Human communication can be traced through symbols by means of which meaning is associated with interpretation, action, and interaction. These meanings develop through social interaction while human interpretations mediate their understandings of the culture (Musolf, 2003). The symbolic interactionism paradigm analyzes the processes involved in all aspects of human use of symbols and communication, as well as the human ability to actively construct meanings and act upon them.

A large body of literature supports the view that people vigorously appropriate symbolic meanings for the creation and construction of self from consumer products (Wattanasuwan, 2005). More recent studies (Berger and Heath, 2008; Berger and Rand, 2008) have explored how people use consumption and cultural behaviors to signal their identity that distinguishes them from other groups. Symbolic consumption is a socio–economic phenomenon that often refers to the tendency for consumers to focus on meanings beyond the tangible, physical characteristics of material objects (Levy, 1959). More specifically, symbolic consumption describes the human desire to signal status, group membership, or self–esteem through the consumption of certain goods and services (Witt, 2010). Thus, products function as social tools, and can serve “as a means of communication between the individual and his significant references.” [2] In order for consumer products and brands to function as communication symbols, meanings must be socially shared and continuously produced and reproduced during social interactions (Solomon, 1983; Dittmar, 1992). That is, meanings reside in the culturally constituted world, consumer products, and individual consumers (McCracken, 1993). Consumers purchase products not only for their practical function, but also for their meanings (Ravasi and Rindova, 2008), which can be used as a means to create, foster, and develop identities (Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998; Leigh and Gabel, 1992; McCracken, 1988).

Douglas and Isherwood (1978) view the consumption of symbolic meanings of products as a social process that helps to make the basic categories of the culture more visible and stable. Fiske (1987) contests the notion of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1977), and posits the concept of popular cultural capital that “consists of the meanings and pleasures available to the subordinate to express and promote their interests.” [3] Fiske (1987) also argues that popular culture is more autonomous from legitimate culture than Bourdieu (1977) claims, as popular culture has its own hierarchies and specific forms of capital. Popular cultural capital, in turn, serves as a kind of vehicle for the subordinate class to resist the bourgeoisie’s domination through culture. In other words, popular culture, as seen by Fiske (1987), is a struggle between dominant incorporation and heterogeneous resistance.

The Frankfurt School focuses on the effects of mass culture and the rise of the consumer society on the working class, and analyzes the ways in which cultural industries and the consumer society stabilize contemporary capitalism. The Frankfurt School theorists particularly investigate the relationship between technology and culture, indicating how technology becomes both a major force of production, and a formative mode of social organization and control. Marcuse (1998) argues that technology in the contemporary era constitutes an entire “mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.” [4] In terms of culture, technology produces mass culture that habituates individuals to conform to the dominant patterns of thoughts and behaviors, and thus provides powerful instruments of social control and domination (Marcuse, 1991).

The Frankfurt School’s model of the culture industry articulates the important social roles of the media spectacle during a specific regime of capital. This model is still valid in a highly commercialized and technologically advanced culture that serves the needs of the dominant corporate interests, plays a major role in ideological reproduction, and enculturates individuals into the dominant system of needs, thoughts, and behaviors. The advent of networked communication and information technologies has provided us with new venues from which we can observe from a distance. Techno–spectacles have been decisively shaping the contours and trajectories of modern cultures, at least in the developed capitalist societies, in which media spectacle offers an even more complicated relationship between control and being controlled, as well as consumer and being consumed.



The commoditization and symbolic value of the “Grass Mud Horse”

Major findings

Consumer products have long been seen as having the capacity to carry and communicate cultural and symbolic meanings (Baudrillard, 1998; Elliott, 1999; Featherstone, 1991; McCracken, 1993), allowing individuals to both express themselves and communicate with each other (Dittmar, 1992; Gabriel and Lang, 1995; McCracken, 1993, 1988; Wattanasuwan, 2005). The idea of consumption symbols presumes some forms of social coordination regarding what are considered valid or generally approved symbols. Mass consumption of the symbolic meanings of products is then a social process that helps to make visible and stable the basic categories of a constantly changing culture (Elliott, 1999). That is, consumers use symbolic meanings as an avenue to create, foster, and develop their identity while the products with symbolic meanings are perceived to be congruent with their identities.

For China’s Internet users, the symbolic meaning of “Grass Mud Horse” often resonates deeply by expressing feelings about shared experiences to which millions of others can immediately relate (Diamond, 2010; Gong and Yang, 2010). The symbolic meaning of “Grass Mud Horse” lies in the group membership that offers a more widely recognizable function for status seeking, social identification, and social recognition. The consumption of “Grass Mud Horse” products, however, may serve a rather idiosyncratic purpose. On the one hand, the consumption of the product demonstrates its socially agreed capacity to produce a sort of ideological ambience. On the other, it is a form of consumer behavior that is least dependent on the characteristics of the product, but a more specifically defined cultural norm that can subtly shape consciousness and human behavior in the marketplace.

While capitalism is the commodification of value, the commodified symbolic forms are products of capitalist enterprise that satisfy the demands for goods and services. From here, the commodified symbolic goods serve as instruments of entertainment, communication, self–cultivation, ornamentation, or social identity, suggesting that individuals may become reduced to customers and their ideological choices removed. For modern enterprises with mass–production technology and multiple marketing channels, this, in turn, leads to the charges of homogeneity and sameness that Frankfurt School critics level against as making incursions into popular culture (Adorno, 1991; Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972).

“Grass Mud Horse” has arrived at a time when the Internet is expanding deeper into contemporary China and has become more of a collective attempt to criticize Chinese censorship. In a modern consumer society, mass consumption is a kind of control system that lies at the core of the symbolic value of goods. In Baudrillard’s (1998) view, consumer products not only have use and exchange value, but also symbolic value. The mass production of “Grass Mud Horse” products may, in turn, represent the utility value of commodities. The exchange values of “Grass Mud Horse” also represent the equivalent relation between commodities, symbols, and popular culture. While popular culture works to encourage conformity of the masses, all products of the culture industry are inherently standardized.

Here, marketers use the notion of “empowerment,” “knowledge,” and “authenticity” to create a discourse of capital as the juxtaposition for liberating and emancipating the social, cultural, and political system. Much has been said about the distinction between popular culture and mass culture as two forms of products produced for reaching wide audiences. Within marketing programs, the distinction is generally that popular culture is associated with authenticity, creativity, and empowerment, whereas mass culture is associated with inauthenticity, formula, and domination. Empowerment and authenticity are regarded as discourses that harbor the strategic intent of capital, and “devaluate” or obfuscate critical thought [5]. In this sense, popular cultural capital represents empowerment and authenticity within contemporary, cultural spaces. This critical view, in turn, denotes contemporary complexity in the savvy cultural response to capital’s “injunction” to “feel” empowered (Zizek, 2006).

The various forms of capital — for instance, social capital, economic capital, and cultural capital — are all united under the umbrella of symbolic capital, i.e., the objects, behaviors, and symbols that hold spiritual, emotional, and rational value in individuals’ lives. These forms of capital are mediated and shaped, to some extent, by the systems of production and distribution. For Zizek (2006), this liberal discourse of empowerment merely enables cultural participants to speak “as if” they are empowered, regardless of whether or not they are. The “empowerment” in the discourse of marketing is then “decaffeinated,” “empowerment without empowerment.”

To this extent, the commodification and mass production of “Grass Mud Horse” products can provide significant insight into the relationship between modern consumerism, the production of cultural artifacts, and the importance of Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1997) thesis of culture industry. While Chinese Internet users become further absorbed into the mechanisms of the cultural industry, with their identities becoming even more tied to their sense of shared experience and value of the symbolic meaning, they may attempt to prolong the life of the symbol through the mass purchasing of the merchandise. Here, the production of “Grass Mud Horse” merchandise suggests an increasing collectivity of consumer culture whereby China’s Internet users as well as consumers are no longer required but to become actively involved in the mechanisms of production in the market. Yet, with the productive and participatory aspects of Internet tools, the products have already ensured a profit because through free advertising, Internet users act voluntarily as marketers.

While verbal imagery is discursive, symbols are non-discursive, emotional, associative, iconic, and fictive, and can be reinterpreted and redefined by marketers. Thus, the consumption of “Grass Mud Horse” in China can easily turn into a mass production of culture while its symbol conveys a more salient role than linguistic discourse. The phenomenon of the popular Internet parody may, in turn, peripherally empower Chinese Internet users so that they continually feel that they are “authentic” and “empowered” for building up their various forms of “capital” despite the fact that their cultural practices can be strategically manipulated both by the marketers and, to a larger extent, capitalism. Moreover, as demonstrated earlier in this study, “Grass Mud Horse” has earned its fame in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and its themed merchandise is being sold across geographic boundaries. For these consumers outside of mainland China, this creature is not used as a reference to the symbolic defiance of the widespread Internet censorship of China’s government. Rather, their craze over this mythical beast is mostly owing to the cute and innocent look of the merchandise, as well as the implied languages to which they often refer due to their frustration in their everyday lives.

Up to this point, Deleuze and Guattari (1987) have maintained that capitalism has an inherent capacity to reterritorialize and reinvent itself. Adorno and Horkheimer (1997) consider the masses as being unaware of the process involved in the culture industry by noting that “the triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.” [6] In terms of the popularity of “Grass Mud Horse” products in China — particularly as the development of the Internet deepens, thereby facilitating the further and more elaborate collectivization of consumers and their actions — the question is: does this consumer awareness translate into an ability of the “masses” to make the decision to embrace the symbolic meaning of quite valid social movements?




With the commodification of cultural products, individuals become reduced to customers while their ideological choices are removed. From here, cultural products have unique and differential meanings that not only correspond to consumers’ socio–economic status, quality of life, and way of life, but also represent on behalf of certain individuals and groups of subjective meaning. Moreover, the cultural and social aspect is an important element in shaping the adoption of new technologies. Meanwhile, the Chinese enjoy the convenience and versatility that the accelerated introduction of new ICTs has brought about. The growth of the ICT adoption rate reflects the country’s economic boom, since reform while engaged in free market competition further enhances the access and affordability of ICT to the general public. Consequently, new cultural forms are being forged, often in the potentially material world of the entrepreneurial and amusement culture driven by Western capitalism.

According to the Frankfurt theory, it is regarding this point that popular culture is criticized as being the principal cause of people’s adamancy against change. The Frankfurt school focuses intently on technology and culture, indicating how technology has become both a major force of production, and a formative mode of social organization and control. The desire for capitalist products involves an enormous amount of time and money for negotiation with both material goods and cultural products. While popular culture works to encourage conformity of the masses, all products of the culture industry are inherently standardized. Here, the culture industry, which creates and disseminates goods through mass media such as television, magazines, radio stations, and now further via newer communication tools, controls and manipulates the people. Although the needs of these cultural products that are promoted by the media may be false, they play a crucial role in reinforcing or even fortifying capitalism by creating a consciousness among the people who are meekly compliant to the very components and processes that operate and perpetuate the capitalistic system. Therefore, when people are unable to fulfill these needs, they find themselves turning to those who can, for example, the Internet parody. “Grass Mud Horse” merchandise can, in turn, serve as a popular, symbolic, capital–making cultural product that simultaneously satisfies both the popular taste and the economic consideration of cultural industries.

Internet parody and coded language are common in China’s cyberspace, not just to reduce the risk of official retribution, but also to show off Internet users’ creativity in their fight for free expression. The freedom sought due to parody like “Grass Mud Horse” is not necessarily political, but it is economic and cultural nonetheless. The importance of popular symbolic capital in the process of cultural production lies in the fact that it provides the cultural producers with more resources, room for creativity, and the power to control the process of cultural production. While “Grass Mud Horse” has been commoditized by the increasing usage of popular culture, this is also the system of mass production and the homogenizing regime of capital, which produces mass desires, tastes, and behavior. It is thus an era of mass production and consumption characterized by uniformity and the homogeneity of needs, thoughts, and behaviors, producing a mass society, and what the Frankfurt school described as ”the end of the individual.”

The phenomenon is also explained in Chinese society, in which general satisfaction with the regime’s economic rise easily overwhelms the great desire for democracy. This material prosperity, consumer preference, and apolitical pragmatism, is due to the scant willingness of the majority of China’s Internet users to protest against things that they were, in any case, not able to achieve before the embrace of this new communication platform. Therefore, “Grass Mud Horse” as a form of collective action of Internet parody, however, is less likely to be confrontational than the mobilization leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. Most Internet users in China are not seasoned with dissent, and what is uncomplicated is most likely to attract the most attention. What is popular gets venture capitalists investing, as in Western countries.

Yet, the political and cultural consequences of contemporary capitalism ought not to be simplified. Here, the cultural dimension, as opposed to the economic one, is particularly crucial, as it is through this sphere that capitalism is most able to contain meaning and political vision — its most profound effect being the erosion of the efficiency of national governing structures, especially democratic ethos. While cultural dimension erodes public participation, the very foundation of democratic life, it ultimately eviscerates any shadow of a dynamic anti–capitalist discourse. The very aspect of entertainment or leisure has long been rooted in the domains of public life and is fertilized by the propagation of the consumer society. The development of new media and information technologies has stimulated the creation of a culture of knowledge and information that shapes our rapidly changing social landscape in the realms of individual, group, and commercial or institutional consumption. In essence, popular culture also becomes a defining feature to entrench capitalism in society, which ultimately perpetuates the status quo. The process of capital accumulation and the increase of personal wealth colonize much more of popular culture and communications. In modern society, capitalism becomes the dominant mode of producing and distributing information. The new media has since become central to the political arena. It is an underlining concern for anyone who wants to understand politics and to intervene politically in the comprehensive account of the causes and consequences. End of article


About the author

Dr. Wang is an assistant professor of Institute of Communications Management at National Sun Yat–sen University, Taiwan. Her research focuses on social, cultural, and political implications of new media use. She also explores the effects of using new communication tools such as blogs, social networking sites, and mobile phones, and how they translate into social interaction.



1. Blumer, 1986, p. 180.

2. Grubb and Grathwohl, 1967, p. 24.

3. Fiske, 1987, p. 314.

4. Marcuse, 1998, p. 41.

5. Adorno, 1973, p. 5.

6. Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997, p. 167.



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Editorial history

Received 12 September 2011; accepted 23 December 2011.

Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Shaojung Sharon Wang.

China’s Internet lexicon: The symbolic meaning and commoditization of Grass Mud Horse in the harmonious society
by Shaojung Sharon Wang.
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 1 - 2 January 2012

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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