The cellphone vibrated softly, insistently, echoing off the whitewashed walls of the artist’s studio. It was a Sunday morning in early April, and Wang Bo — an Internet animator better known to his legions of online fans by his nickname, Pi San — ignored the call at first. He wanted no intrusions. A compact 40-year-old with short-cropped hair and arched eyebrows that give him a look of permanent bemusement, Pi San is most famous for creating a mischievous cartoon character named Kuang Kuang, but he earns money by making animations for corporations, and he was on a deadline. Pi San had bicycled to his studio in a defunct factory building on the outskirts of Beijing that morning, hoping to finish up some work in peace. But the buzzing of the phone didn’t stop.

The moment Pi San picked up, the caller blurted out the news: State security agents had just detained Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist and a government critic. Pi San spat out a profanity. Over the previous six weeks, hundreds of bloggers — lawyers, activists, journalists — had vanished into police custody in one of the harshest assaults on social activism in decades. Now they had Ai — fat, brilliant, bombastic and internationally renowned. If Ai could be arrested, was any independent thinker in China safe?
Pi San had reason to be scared. He and Ai were friends. A few weeks earlier, over lunch, the two artists talked about collaborating on a satirical Internet animation. Though a bit wary of Ai’s Web activism, Pi San admired his daring solo exhibitions in New York, Berlin and London. The most recent show had consisted of 100 million sunflower seeds made of porcelain, laid out across the floor of the Tate Modern, which visitors were invited to walk upon. Some considered the seeds to be symbols of the downtrodden Chinese people.
Despite his fear, Pi San quickly posted the news about Ai’s detention on Sina Weibo, China’s closely monitored equivalent of Twitter and the fastest-growing Internet platform in the world. An invisible censor deleted the message in seconds. He then tried posting, without comment, a cartoon drawing of Ai, the better to evade China’s word-sensitive filtering software. But the image disappeared, too — a sign that a human being, not computer software, had deleted the drawing. Pi San told his Weibo followers: “Again I was ‘harmonized.’ It’s just a picture!”
Now the creative synapses started firing. “I had to do something to lift the fear,” Pi San told me later. “Others might write or protest; I make animations.” He and a colleague worked feverishly through the night on a 54-second flash animation entitled “Crack Sunflower Seeds.” The animation takes place in Kuang Kuang’s school, where a little girl is speaking over the loudspeakers. “Once upon a time,” she begins, “there was a Chinese man selling sunflower seeds.” Suddenly, a black cartoon hand yanks her off the set. A succession of trembling announcers tries to tell the same story, but the black hand pulls them off too, each time more quickly than the last.
Finally, it is Kuang Kuang’s turn. The boy hems and haws and, giving up, sighs in exasperation: “Ai.” A word bubble appears with the Chinese character for the sigh (哎), virtually the same as Ai’s surname (艾). Kuang Kuang is hauled off, screaming. In the next frame, the black hand sweeps away sunflower seeds arranged in the same “Ai.” Then we hear a grating sound — teeth meeting porcelain — followed by an off-screen scream: “Damn it! Who sold us these fake sunflower seeds?”
Pi San finished the animation before dawn on April 4, less than 24 hours after Ai was detained. “I hesitated for a second before posting it online,” he told me. “But then I thought, If I don’t put it up, that would be like self-castration.” With a few clicks, he sent “Crack Sunflower Seeds” into cyberspace, posting it onto China’s top video Web sites. In just a few hours, a million or more netizens watched the animation online. Then the video began disappearing from Chinese Web sites one by one, just like the announcers in his animation. Pi San lashed out directly at the censors in a Weibo post: “You’re like the eunuch who gets worried before the emperor does!” There was no response. Even in his anger, Pi San was left wondering if the black hand would come for him.
No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”
To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”
So pervasive is this irreverent subculture that the Chinese have a name for it: egao, meaning “evil works” or, more roughly, “mischievous mockery.” In its simplest form, egao (pronounced “EUH-gow”) lampoons the powerful without being overtly rebellious. President Hu Jintao’s favorite buzz word, “harmony,” which he deploys constantly when urging social stability, is hijacked to signify censorship itself, as in, “My blog’s been harmonized.” June 4, the censored date of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters, is rendered as May 35 — or “535.” There are also more complex forms of egao, like Hu Ge’s 2010 film spoof, “Animal World,” in which a rare species of Internet users is “saved” from “compulsive thinking disorder,” i.e., the urge to think freely.