Challenges to authoritarian states’ control of language can be so complex that they exceed the states’ ability to manage them all. Electronic expression of resistance and increasing embrace of non-Mandarin linguistic varieties reveal powerful linguistic insights in China, which are evident too in the so-called Umbrella Revolution that took Hong Kong by storm (hah!) in fall 2014.
While a controlling state wishes to limit expression, citizens creatively employ every possible communicative modality—music, video, images, Arabic numerals, puns, Chinese characters, Roman letters, foreign words, writing, speech, sound, vision—and choose among varieties of speech and writing at their own discretion. The resources they employ reveal limits to the officially enforced boundaries—linguistic and conceptual—of China.