Earlier this month, Li Shanglong (李尚龙), an author and influencer who in recent years has gained a strong following in China for his books and videos in the self-help genre, revealed on Weibo that he had received eight rule violation notices in a single day from the short video hosting platform Douyin, each resulting in the interruption of his live streams.
Li’s post was a complex tale of warnings and explanations over several unacceptable word choices. But it offered a fascinating glimpse into how popular platforms like Douyin, the Chinese domestic version of TikTok, seem to be applying keyword restrictions for commercial as well as political and regulatory reasons – leaving content creators caught in a whirlwind of workarounds.
“Making Rice” and “Bo-Bo Rooms”?
According to Li, Douyin’s warnings cited “suspected backflow,” or shexian daoliu (倒流), as the reason for interrupting his live streams. The term “backflow” suggests in this case that Li might have been redirecting traffic to rival platforms such as WeChat by mentioning the platforms in his live streams.
As a veteran live streamer, Li said, he was well aware of “the commercial battle for traffic between these two companies, Tencent and Bytedance.” Generally, he said, he was careful not to say words such as “WeChat” (微信) or “friend circle” (朋友圈) – a well-known WeChat feature – during live streams to avoid violating this commercial rule.
The violations in Li’s case this month, however, seemed to be about more than the naming of rival companies and services.
When Li mentioned the term “limited-time offer,” or miaosha (秒杀), during his live stream, for example, he says he was slapped with a Douyin warning. He changed tack, using instead the innocuous utterance “miao miao” (秒秒). When, later in his live stream, he mentioned the phrase “money making,” or zhuan qian (赚钱), the axe came down again. The phrase was apparently unacceptable, but he could use “making rice,” or zhuan mi (赚米), a colloquialism for making money. “Pandemic situation,” or yiqing (疫情) was another no-no, and Li said he had gotten around the restriction by referring to “facemasks” (口罩) instead.
For Li Shanglong, the biggest surprise among all of the allegedly unsayable things on Douyin was the term “live-stream studio,” or zhibojian (直播间), of obvious relevance to live streamers. At the suggestion of a friend, he used the term “bo-bo room” (啵啵间), changing the word “live stream” out for the onomatopoetic word for the sound of bubbling water.
Finally, Li revealed that the word “country,” or guojia (国家), was unsayable in live streams. As a content creator, he found the endless rules and restrictions exhausting. He finished his post with a tongue-in-cheek echo of the final words of Lu Xun’s seminal 1918 short story A Madman’s Diary, suggesting that the knot of restrictions facing online content creators and internet users might profoundly impact the way youth in China used language.
“Save the children,” Li wrote.
Normalizing Verbal Shortcuts
Other users on Weibo, including content creators, responded favorably to Li Shanglong’s tell-all about sensitive and restrictive words. A discussion ensued about what impact such restrictions might have, and what should be done.
For some, the post explained oddities they had already noted in Chinese live streams. “No wonder all of these program hosts say these really strange words,” wrote one user in a comment that received more than 30,000 likes. For others, the word restrictions exposed what seemed entirely futile policies that went against human nature. “Why can’t we say these totally normal words?” one user asked. “We all know the meaning, so changing the word is just self-deception. And no one can stop saying them anyway.”
Could such online language obstacles, which forced users into constant creative detours such as the use of homonyms and intentional misspellings, have a real impact on language development?
“As a working language teacher, I couldn’t agree more,” said one user who received nearly 10,000 likes for their comment under Li’s post. “Some students in class write essays chockfull of internet jargon, and most terrifying is that words like this appear in their papers too.” Even when she corrected the papers, the teacher said, students often failed to understand what was wrong – suggesting that linguistic workarounds and intentional errors online, often necessitated by restrictions, were becoming “normalized.”
And for many, Li’s bold revelations demanded a real response from the authorities. “I hope Brother Long’s courage in telling the truth can call on relevant [government] departments to clean up [this problem], and avoid harm to our children,” one user wrote in a comment that received more than 26,000 likes.
Responding several hours after Li Shanglong’s Weibo post, Douyin sought to refute the content creator’s allegations. In a post to its official account, the platform alleged that many of Li’s reported problems were false.
It was not true, the post said, that the word “WeChat” could not be spoken on live streams. But it said that it would issue “safety warnings” (安全提示) when live streams invited users over to WeChat to make transactions, “to avoid loss of security in subsequent transactions.” On the language around “limited-time offers” (秒杀), Douyin said that the allegation that the phrase was restricted was false, though once again Douyin implemented “clear standards” (明确规范) to “safeguard the interests of consumers.” Content creators, it said, could use the phrase so long as they met these standards.
As for restrictions on mentions of the “pandemic situation” (疫情), Douyin explained that “standardized expressions” (规范表述) were necessary to prevent content creators from exploiting emotions around the pandemic to “sell on the back of misery” (卖惨).
Douyin said that it never obligated content creators to use special terms, intentional misspellings, homophones, and other internet slang during live streams. Rather, this was a choice made independently by content creators themselves.
Passing on the Blame
Responding on social media to the Douyin statement, which was reported widely by Chinese media, many Chinese found the platform’s arguments unconvincing. “Anyone who’s used Douyin knows that what the original author was saying is true,” one user commented under a related post from Caijing magazine, referring to Li Shanglong’s post.
“This is the truth,” a user said in a comment under a post by IT Home. “And so many content creators [who are saying the same thing] aren’t idiots.”
Certain terms could technically be spoken, said another, but would limit engagement owing to platform restrictions. “Well, you can say whatever words you want, but using certain words will limit the traffic and views you get on your video,” they said, “which basically means you’re not allowed to use them.”
Further down in the comments, another user said that practices like those used by Douyin were commonplace, and suggested the video platform was shifting the blame. “Many platforms have different restrictions [on content wording], and this forces content creators to use word variations. But now the use of such words becomes the users’ fault. How funny is that.”
The wave of online discontent toward streaming policies at Douyin comes as there are moves from Chinese authorities to target the use of what they call “incorrect characters” (错别字). While “incorrect characters” have been on the radar for years, and have prompted official statements from time to time, they have more recently become a focus in the broader push to “create a clear online space” (营造清朗的网络空间).
On July 13, “Weibo Regulator” (微博管理员), an official account used to advertise policies on the Weibo platform, announced its latest measures to combat “incorrect characters,” including words incorporating pinyin romanization (谐音字) and “distorted characters” (变体字). The Weibo platform said the measures would set out to “create a clear online space, and maintain a civilized and healthy community ecological order.”
For many years in China, creatively “incorrect” wordplay has been one of the chief means internet users have used to communicate in the face of myriad online restrictions. Chinese have sometimes called this process “hitting lines balls” (打擦边球), referring to word use that in some way pushes the bounds but remains fair game.
Learning to Speak
In a subsequent post as the discussion over word use continued on China’s internet, Li Shanglong said he had received a response directly from Douyin after numerous attempts to reach the platform with his complaints. A customer service representative, he said, had tried to educate him about how to live stream and avoid problems. But for Li, this was exactly the point. Why should it be necessary to teach content creators how to speak?
As Li also pointed out, there are numerous courses available online in China that offer to teach content creators how to live stream on Douyin, and one of the main focal points in training courses deals with language regulation and how alternative words can be used to dodge censorship and work around platform standards.
“It’s hilarious,” said Li. “I was born with a mouth, so why does Douyin think it needs to teach me how to use my mouth all over again?”
Additional reporting by David Bandurski.