#ricebunny emoji
Image source: Twitter

#ricebunny is a homophone, an emoji and a stealth weapon, all in one. Feminists across China use it instead of #metoo. Why? Because of the Chinese censors.

the great firewall of china

We all know about the army of censors employed by the Chinese government. Some censors are machines that monitor Weibo. That’s the Chinese version of Twitter, YouTube and Instagram bundled together. The censors troll for awful words like Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Taiwan. They also search the popular messaging platform Weixin (WeChat) for conversation offensive to the government. It’s a cat-and-mouse game between censor and netizen.

One way to fool the censors is to use homophones. Homophones are characters that sound the same but look and mean something entirely different. Call it Chinese punning. And because there are so many homophones in Chinese, the possibilities are endless.

Grass mud horse with tanks
Grass-mud horse tank man. Photo credit: Smurfs Will Be Free! Image source: https://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Grass-mud_horse

Take, for example, the phrase Grass Mud Horse (cǎonímǎ 草泥马). It’s an imaginary animal, something like an alpaca. But when said out loud, Grass Mud Horse sounds a lot like fuck your mother. Mother, in this case, being the Chinese state. In this photo, you can see our brave grass mud horse, facing down the tanks at Tiananmen Square.

Rice in Chinese is pronounced mĭ (米) while tù (兔) is a hare or rabbit. Together, they cleverly transform #metoo into #ricebunny. Now who would associate Harvey Weinstein and his ilk with such an adorable sounding term?

The #ricebunny emoji is awfully cute, too. A  bowl of rice and a little bunny rabbit. As it happens, emojis play a special role in the game of wits between censor and netizen. You see, machines aren’t so good at recognizing images. But what’s a poor censor to do with all those memes? Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore, candles and eye-rolls.

an open letter

photo Luo Xixi
Luo Xixi. Image source: LinkedIn

You could say that Luo Xixi was the original #ricebunny. She’s currently a software engineer for Cisco in Silicon Valley. But in 2004, she was a PhD student at Beihang University where she was sexually harassed by her supervising professor. Inspired by #metoo, Luo posted a detailed account of her harassment, naming Chen Xiaowu as her assailant and signing her post.

That was January 1, 2018. The post went viral as did the hashtags #metoo (我也是) and #metooinchina (MeToo在中国). Astonishingly, the government supported the victims. On January 7, the state-run newspaper, People’s Daily, urged victims to come forward. On January 14, the Ministry of Education fired Chen Xiaowu. Two days later, the Ministry announced plans for a long-term mechanism to prevent sexual harassment at universities and colleges. On January 19, more than 50 professors signed an online petition calling for zero tolerance of sexual harassment on campus.

More women came forward. As of January 31, there were over 70 such allegations posted to Weibo, some bearing 100 signatures.

disappearing acts

The press, inside and outside China, declared that China was having its own #metoo moment. To feminists working on the ground in China, this felt like progress. But the time for celebration was soon over.

The student march scheduled for January 14 never materialized. Reuters reported that some universities told students not to attend. They also confirmed that Weibo had taken down some of the sexual harassment allegations. The hashtags #metoo and #metooinchina disappeared from Weibo and Weixin. In that dark moment, the #ricebunny was born.

But the Chinese government excels at disappearing acts. Back in October 2017, when the Harvey Weinstein story had just broken, the People’s Daily tweeted:

What prevents sexual harassment from being a common phenomenon in China, as it’s in most Western societies?

The tweet linked back to an OpEd piece in the People’s Daily, asserting that:

Chinese men are taught to be protective of their women. Behaving inappropriately toward women, including harassing them sexually, contradicts every Chinese traditional value and custom.

After the wave of guffaws that issued from around the world, both the tweet and the OpEd vanished.


Hostility toward Chinese feminists is wide and deep. Feminist Voices is one such target. It has sent women into the streets wearing bloody wedding dresses to draw attention to domestic violence. It dared to cover the Women’s March in February 2017 and was punished by having its Weibo account temporarily suspended. In March 2018, the day after International Women’s Day, Weibo and Weixin shut down the Feminist Voices accounts for good.

funeral Feminist Voices
Funeral Feminist Voices. Image source: https://www.wired.com/story/china-feminism-emoji-censorship/amp?__twitter_impression=true

Days after it went dark, images appeared online of a group of masked women holding a symbolic funeral for the death of Feminist Voices. Yet the group’s founder Lu Pin (now based in the US) wrote on Twitter that she viewed the ritual not as a funeral, but as a “fantastic carnival,” signifying a rebirth, and she pledged to “reclaim the account by every legal avenue.”

half the sky

Mao Zedong once famously declared that women hold up half the sky. But he wasn’t thinking about individual rights. As scholar Alice C. Hu writes:

Mao Zedong, who had long envisioned the female liberation, believed that women had been a wasted reservoir of labor. Until China could obtain mechanical means of production, he believed that the shortage of labor in cooperatives and communes would be alleviated by women.

The Chinese still believe that the lot of women has improved. Yet 1 in 3 college students is the victim of sexual violence or sexual harassment. The assault rate among female factory workers in Guangzhou is 70%. Sexual harassment is technically illegal but rarely prosecuted because there is no legal definition of the term. For example, the South China University of Technology doesn’t recognize harassment or assault. The term they use is

“inappropriate teacher-student relations,” as if to suggest that the inappropriateness could be the fault of both parties.

#ricebunny redux

The #ricebunny emerged from the ashes of the Chinese #metoo movement. It’s alive and well as of the date of its post and seems to have no lack of followers.

But popularity is the death of any social movement in China. Collective action is what the Chinese government fears most. It seems like only a matter of time before the censors catch up with the little bunny. What, if anything, will stand up in its place?