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Zhibo: Death Threats and Pornography

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Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe (Inke). If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

Strange Threat of the Week I used love to you, But I want to kill you now


Well, I used scared to not be. What are you, the Yoda of death threats? Are you going to explain what I did to incur your wrath or must I live the rest of my (short) life in ignorance?

Oh. I guess never mind, then. Have a lovely day, sir/ma’am

Unanswerable of the Week do you like porn movie?

I saw this comment last week and figured it would make for a good one-liner – a quickie, as it were – and nothing else. Instead, I spent hours researching a question I didn’t know I had and now this porn thing is providing the meat of this week’s post.

get it?

See, porn in China is often referred to as “yellow” or “黄” (huáng). This isn’t some obscure slang – it’s well-recognized terminology used by just about everyone (including the government). But as is so often the case with stuff like this, I didn’t actually know why or how this common term came to be (spoiler alert: I still don’t).

After all, yellow has historically been quite a big deal in Chinese culture – it’s the color of royalty, monk’s robes, good fortune, heroism, and the giant river that Chinese civilization was built on. And in modern times, it’s one of only two colors on the PRC’s flag. So what gives? Anti-porn (and more general anti-vice) efforts are literally called 扫黄, or “sweep up the yellow.” How did such an auspicious color get assigned this role?

The answer, as best I can ascertain, is that holy f@#king sh*t nobody knows.

Seriously, I’ve asked so many people about porn in the past few days that I’m genuinely worried I might get put on some kind of watch list. When I asked a professor who can usually answer all of my odd China-related questions, the response came back – and I quote – “no one can know for sure… start Googling.”

So Google I did.

Pro tip: Searching for “yellow chinese porn” is NOT the way to go

It seems that there is indeed no definitive answer to this question – but here are just a few of the potential answers I came across:

  • Orpiment – or 雌黄 (cihuang) – is a yellowish mineral that was used in ancient China as a sort of white-out for the yellow paper of the times. Between that usage and the fact that it’s also quite toxic, the idiom 信口雌黄 (xinkou cihuang) came along to mean “wagging one’s tongue” or “speaking nonsense.” So in theory, yellow could have become shorthand for porn with the intent of describing it as a waste or poison of the mind. My only reaction is that most people agree that “yellow” porn is pretty modern terminology, so it strikes me as unlikely that it would be based on something so old.
  • “Yellow” could in theory be a reference to Chinese skin tone – and therefore a “yellow film” could essentially mean “skin flick.” I have to admit; this one actually makes sense the more I think about it. Hong Kong was an early and important center of the film industry in East Asia – and it developed under British rule around the time that eugenicists were hosting big conferences to explain to everyone how Asia was made up of a bunch of yellow Mongoloids (their words, not mine).It doesn’t feel like all that much of a stretch to imagine some cigar-smoking British folks (proto-bros, if you will) referring to early pornographic films as “yellow pictures” the same way Americans of the time referred to anything black people did as “colored” this or that. That would explain why the Chinese authorities specifically used “yellow” – a color that had only represented good things up until then – to describe something they wanted to eradicate – they wouldn’t have meant the actual color, but rather the product – which would have probably been viewed as a result of foreign influence. This all may sound like a rambling conspiracy theory to you, but I refer you back to my above point about how NO ONE CAN SEEM TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION.
  • A few online commenters have pointed out that Hong Kong brothels have traditionally used yellow signs, which leads us into a sort of R-Rated chicken and egg scenario – did the signs lead to the term or did the term lead to the signs? But hey, did you know that the relatives of prostitutes in China used to be forced to wear green headscarves, which is why “wearing a green hat” in Chinese is a term for being a cuckold? Wait, no. One color at a time.
  • Up until the early 20th century, prostitutes in Russia often had to carry a “yellow card” that had their medical records, a license to engage in prostitution, and/or a residence permit. Since the Russian Revolution was obviously a big influence on the founders of the CPC – and since “yellow” has only seemed to refer to pornography in modern times – it’s hypothetically possible that this played a role. This feels like a bit of a stretch to me, but who knows?

Finally, it could be that there is that there is no secret origin story, but rather the color that had represented the royalty of old simply came to represent decadence and vice in the modern era of revolution. That fact that there seems to be no definitive answer to the question makes me begrudgingly admit that this feels pretty likely. But until someone proves otherwise, I’m sticking with “racist turn of the century colonizers at the movies” for why China calls blue films “yellow.”

Wait, why do we call porn blue?

Oh no….

Chinglish of the Week come to ningbo city I’ll hold you
 

Assuming that this person doesn’t actually intend to hold me in their arms should I ever visit Ningbo, my best guess is that this is Baidu translate’s attempt at “接” (jie) or to receive/welcome someone. As with the word “receive,” 接 can mean to literally accept something with your hands or to welcome someone or something. So all things considered, this doesn’t seem like that odd of a mistranslation.

Wisdom of the Week mistakes propel you to success

 

Damn straight they do.

Weird Insult of the Week your mouth is ugly

 

Mouths are gaping head cavities filled with a constantly self-secreting mucus-y liquid, a large tentacle-like muscular organ, and are used on a daily basis to smash up plants and various animal bits.

So in conclusion, thank you for your affirmation that I indeed possess a regular and functioning human mouth.

Oddly Out of Place Message of the Week I hope the US will join many countries in sanctions against China
 

Read the room, man. Read the room.

More from our Zhibo column:

Zhibo: The Easy Life of the Laowai

Zhibo: The Great Qipao Kerfuffle of 2018

Taylor Hartwell
Taylor has been living in China since 2014 on the basis that he's already sunk too much into studying Chinese and can't stop now. When not staring at himself on his phone, he can be found writing, teaching and consulting at various schools and companies in Beijing. His Zhibo column runs every Monday on Radii. He tweets @TaylorJHartwell

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