Skip over navigation

The Grass Mud Horse’s Reinless Reign: Towards a New
Exploration of Play and Politics in Chinese Cyberspace

Adviser: Martin Kern

Katy M. Pinke

East Asian Studies

“My adviser, Professor Martin Kern, was my hero; he understood the angst of a perfectionist writer.”


In the fall of 2008, the time had come to propose a topic for my first junior paper. Initially, I’d had the idea of studying Mao Zedong as a cult figure. In the process of research, however, something else caught my eye. I ended up writing about Mao’s notoriously frequent and yet scarcely analyzed use of scatological speech. Then junior spring came along. Once again, I started out by proposing a paper on a well-established topic: Internet censorship and Internet-mediated political resistance in China. But, at some point, my direction shifted once again; I ended up writing about the “Grass Mud Horse” (“cao ni ma”): a viral meme circulating the Chinese Internet, whose name was a pun on a dirty word—and incidentally on the very notion of censorship itself. Little did I know then that the “Grass Mud Horse” would come to lead me through many more cyber explorations, opening me up to a world of edgy netspeak and sticking by my side all the way up to when I handed in my bound thesis in April 2010.

This brings me to my first suggestion for budding thesis writers: Make it your own.

In my experience with independent work in East Asian studies at Princeton, one of the most hard-wrought but rewarding realizations I came to was that it was okay—good, even—to analyze in depth what no one else had deemed relevant before. To me, it seemed that Mao’s lewd colloquialisms could be a window into further understanding his politics. To others, this may have seemed absurd. To me, it seemed that a fictitious pun horse’s viral popularity could tell us something about the dynamic between political repression and political communication in China’s Internet age. But as for others: I could not find a scholarly framework for critical engagement with the intersection between modern Chinese Internet language and modern Chinese politics.

Yes, I was often discouraged or intimidated by the fact that other scholars were not investing their own time in mining the “Grass Mud Horse” vocabulary for its significance. When I went to Beijing in the summer of 2009 for thesis research, some interviewees would chuckle at my questions. In the fall of senior year, one scholar with whom I spoke over the phone suggested that I choose something else to study, and that I would find nothing in analyzing a frivolous Internet meme.

But I was drawn to the horse out of my own intellectual curiosity and convictions. No matter what forms of external validation (praise, prizes, grades) or punishment (China scholars and Chinese tech experts telling me I had barked up the wrong tree) could possibly have been awaiting me at the finish line, the real fulfillment I experienced was internal. I cared about what I was saying, and continued to care even beyond turning in my work. The thesis is Princeton’s way of saying, “This is your turn; the community is ready to hear your voice.” It is empowering to take this to heart.

It also is what makes the whole thing a bit more daunting. I owned what I was saying, and so the stakes felt higher. By the same token, because I had taken full responsibility for my voice and for my choice to let it reverberate within the echo chamber of China Internet studies, I also was more motivated than I ever had been to reach out in new ways as I researched and developed my ideas. The challenge, over and over again, was to take in all of the different opinions, sort them out, deal with them respectfully, and then have the confidence to add my own. I had to arm myself with the tools to say what I needed to say. Fittingly for a thesis dealing with new media, I gathered data via all manner of communications. I e-mailed back and forth with Web memeticists and scholars of cybernetics for help in tracking the meme and for feedback about the relevance of my results. I called researchers and scholars at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and twittered Chinese bloggers. Not only did I read literature and peruse published articles commenting on the world of the Chinese Internet, I attempted to immerse myself in that world and in the conversation that was taking place surrounding it.

I could have indulged in this immersion experience forever. The more I researched, the more ideas and questions I had, and the more I wanted to continue to research. Then came the wake-up call at the start of the spring semester: The time to absorb information and delight in brainstorming was nearing its end; I had to put it all together in some form. But how was I going to structure a roughly 100-page-long coherent argument? If I needed faith in myself to pursue a different route in China Internet studies, I needed double that to compile everything. 

This leads me to my second point of advice: There’s no one way to structure a thesis.

I liken my panic over having to structure my thesis to the panic one might experience getting dressed just before stepping out for a big interview. Suddenly it feels like you may as well have no wardrobe at all; nothing out of the closet looks quite right. My clothes had been ripped off of their hangers and were strewn all over the floor, having undergone round after round of failure before the mirror. I was constantly organizing and re-organizing notes, writing outlines upon outlines of what my thesis “would” or “should” look like. I was fixating on that perfect outfit in the sky—which would never really exist—and I was unable to just work with what I had in front of me, picking something and sticking to it.

My adviser, Professor Martin Kern, was my hero; he understood the angst of a perfectionist writer. When I became overwhelmed, he would simplify things for me: At a certain point, he explained, you just had to get something down. A completed thesis trumped a brilliant one that was never written. Some kind of structure had to be arbitrarily imposed, and it always could be subject to change later.

Our meetings and e-mail exchanges were sometimes more like therapy sessions. When I found that I was “oppressed” by the idea of a rigid chapter outline, he suggested I try numbered sections with general ideas that could move around if they needed to. When enumeration did not work out for me, he accepted an enormous file containing any and all written fragments: notes, cliffhangers, innumerable translations and interpretations of Chinese netspeak, interview transcripts, e-mail exchanges in which I had articulated and re-articulated my ideas. The document was not numbered, but color-coded: blue for the significance of the “Grass Mud Horse” meme’s vulgar implications, red for the current debate over the meme’s political symbolism, pink for explorations of domestic network censorship, yellow for miscellaneous tidbits—I ended up with so many different colored sections that I had to make use of lavender and mauve. 

For so long, especially during the compilation of that infamous, tragicomic rainbow mess, I was burdened by worry and self-doubt. I would repeat to myself and to friends that I “hadn’t written anything.” But it turned out that all of the time that I had spent shuffling everything around and panicking, I had, indeed, been writing. I’d imagined that the real “writing” was some distant destination where everything suddenly rolled off the fingertips into neat, stationary boxes. But this was a myth. Case in point: My literature review was finally born out of an e-mail I wrote to my sister. My second chapter came out of a conversation I had with a friend in my a cappella group. I was writing when I was talking things out, or jotting down notes on a napkin at meals or on scraps of paper during other classes. I was writing when I went on five-page scribble rants that, at the time, I thought were meaningless. I may have been dragged through it kicking and screaming with my eyes closed, but I was writing, and had been writing.

The turning point at which I realized this—and at which my paralysis over choosing what to keep, what to discard, and what to put first subsided—came in the nick of time; earlier in the year, I had signed myself up to give a presentation in March at a lunch sponsored by my certificate program, Princeton’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. This presentation was on my allegedly written body of work. The week before I gave the presentation, things finally started to come together—because they had to. I had about 45 minutes to present my ideas, and 15 minutes for questions. Suddenly, this was not about including everything that I wanted to say. It was about necessity. What did I absolutely need to get my point across? Because I knew that a compressed written outline would not work for me, I did something more spatial. I talked out my argument, and as I did, I made a through-line tree of note cards with key terms, laid out all across the floor of my single. As I put together my notes for the talk, I pulled things in from the rainbow pages, continually referring to the through-tree. As I went, I slowed myself down and thought to myself, “If I need it, it will come to me.” And indeed, it was all written … somewhere.

My third and last piece of advice for thesis writers to be: Make friends with time.

The thesis, it turned out, was not just about hoarding time. It was not enough to promise myself that I would avoid an all-nighter right before April 16. I had to struggle to learn how to use the time I had given myself in a healthy, balanced way. I couldn’t demand that it all come together on the spot, and having this expectation actually hindered the body of work from coming together at all. Although I did not write a “creative thesis,” I look back on the thesis as an inherently creative process. No matter how much logic I argued, how many hard facts I juggled, or how much structural organization I attempted to impose, a degree of faith in my own intuition and in the process itself was imperative. I had no choice but to employ—to the best of my ability—patience. My thesis was a labor of love that taught me patience with myself and with the way I personally worked.

The Grass Mud Horse’s Reinless Reign: Towards a New
Exploration of Play and Politics in Chinese Cyberspace

Katy M. Pinke

Martin Kern

Professor of East Asian Studies

“Our shared challenge, obvious from the beginning, was to weave all of the different strings into a fabric not merely of many colors but also of a meaningful structure.”

For me, advising a senior thesis in the Department of East Asian Studies (EAS) remains a great adventure. In our department, we teach and study China, Japan, and Korea across several millennia: language, history, literature, and even contemporary topics in the social sciences. But as it happens, I am a classicist working squarely in the first millennium BCE. I don’t have movies to show, music to play, mangas to assign. Where the classics department attracts majors interested in Greek and Roman antiquity, most EAS majors are drawn to contemporary issues.

Occasionally, this makes for an interesting conversation with our departmental representative eager to find the best matches between our rising seniors and their possible thesis advisers. “I am really sorry I cannot find a student in your field, but I still need you as thesis adviser.” – “Of course. You still have a senior on the China side?” – “Yes, but only in contemporary. I mean, really contemporary. I know that’s a problem.” – “Not at all. But since I won’t know anything about the topic, you will give me a really great student: quick, adventurous, full of ideas, fabulous writer, everything. Agreed?” We both smile. My disadvantage has turned into privilege.

I am used to advising a senior thesis far outside my own interests. In my research and graduate teaching, I am in my field; in undergraduate courses, I reach out in directions mostly of my choice. But it’s the senior thesis that draws me into alien territory—whether it’s on Chinese Internet speech, the construction of fashionable copies of traditional European towns around Shanghai, or the planning of a new Disney park in Hong Kong.

To be honest, at first I wasn’t thrilled. How could I possibly be good at this? Should I pretend interest in topics I would otherwise never touch? My advisees over the years have taught me to know better. Why not get pulled into new directions by a bright and enthusiastic student? And what does “far outside my own interests” mean anyway? How would I ever know where these interests might end? So far, every thesis has been a reward, giving me things I never knew I had missed, and no few things I now consider very much worth knowing.

Enter Katy Pinke. I had not taught her before, but I had heard about her from my friend and colleague David Bellos, professor of French literature and director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. David had just persuaded me to step in as acting program director for the coming spring, and as we were reviewing the upcoming series of “translation lunches,” there was Katy, the EAS senior I had yet to meet, signed up as a speaker. I didn’t need further persuasion: As was clear from the topic of her talk and then confirmed during our first meeting, the thesis was about some rather peculiar Internet uses of the Chinese language. It did not aim directly at the sad facts of censorship, surveillance, and other ugly phenomena of the Internet in China; for these, the real experts on campus would have been the only appropriate advisers. Instead, it was about language and all the funny and serious play it enables within the complex and ever-shifting constellations of Chinese “netizens,” their audience, and their ever-present censors. From the outset, we both anticipated not a thesis moving toward a single, clear-cut conclusion but rather something more tentative: a probe into the many subversive language games by which bloggers and Internet activists publicly, even theatrically, upstage the censorship and surveillance apparatus.

Because she had done some of the research already for her junior independent work, Katy came well prepared. She also realized the numerous possible directions for her thesis. Should one go into linguistic theory and how political language has worked in practice in the People’s Republic? The history of the Chinese language and how this language is perfectly suited for playing subversive games, as writers in the language had done for centuries and millennia? Should we bring in other examples of oppositional speech in an oppressive framework, say the richly documented case of the former Soviet Union? Or should the focus remain on the Chinese “netizens,” their social networks online and offline, their legal perils, and their uneasy personal relationships with some of the people they knew were their censors? Should one start out with an inventory of all the language “memes” that had gone viral in recent years? And what about the large and theory-heavy field of theatricality, considering the high level of posturing performed by the main actors in Katy’s story?

The beauty and the thrill of the topic lay precisely in this rich texture of meanings and perspectives. Katy could, and did, envision any number of different theses. There was no easy “What’s your argument?” question to be posed and answered; instead, a daunting range of possibilities. Some practical questions were solved quickly: The thesis would not expose and possibly put at risk any of Katy’s contacts in China; it would not drag her into dangerous situations while conducting fieldwork in Beijing; and it would not censor the R-rated vulgarity of those strange linguistic creatures—prominent among them the “Grass Mud Horse” or the “Franco-Croation Squid”—that had come to populate the Chinese Internet.

(Digression: I am not going to satisfy my readers’ curiosity as to what these fantasy creatures are; suffice it to say that in Chinese, their absurd, seemingly nonsensical names are homophones for obscene curses that, if written with their proper characters, would never pass a censor’s surveillance software. And that, of course, is exactly why they are so proudly paraded, creating a game both funny and serious, political and playful.)

My principal task in advising Katy was never to stimulate her already adventurous and imaginative mind, or to help improve her already fluid and often beautiful writing. Our shared challenge, obvious from the beginning, was to weave all of the different strings into a fabric not merely of many colors but also of a meaningful structure. I wasn’t worried that the thesis wouldn’t come together—I saw how the text, in whatever meandering ways, kept moving and growing. Nor was I bothered that Katy’s quick and smart shifts across uncharted territory precluded the kind of advising where I could speak with authority—I just kept catching up. Instead, my biggest concern was something else: to provide the methodic approach the thesis would ultimately demand without in any way diminishing its vibrant creativity. In the end, I had learned a great deal about strange beasts of language that roam the Internet in China, and I had practiced—and practicing it always is—the difficult art of guiding without restraining. Katy, meanwhile, had won the EAS senior thesis prize.