Hong Kong radio and television personality Harry Wong told Newsweek: "The Chinese have quite a vulgar sense of humor, but it's subtle. The Chinese are discreet. The humor is much more complex, and calculated with a lot of wordplay and puns. the complexity of Chinese characters allow poetic schemes on dirty jokes." Chinese sometimes have difficulty understanding American sarcasm. When Channel V veejay Nonie Tao showed a postcard of New York sent from India, and commented about what a nice view of India it was, she received tons of letters saying: "That was New York stupid!"

Chinese are more selective than Americans about what they can poke fun of. Hung-hsiang Chou, a Chinese culture specialist at UCLA told the Los Angeles Times, “Americans make fun of everything. China has taboos. Ancestors are off-limits. They also don’t ridicule their leaders, who are only fair game after they’ve fallen from grace.” Chinese also don’t like it when a senior person is teased in front of his juniors. Many Chinese jokes are puns or play on words. The tonal Chinese language provides many opportunities for jokers and wits because a single pronunciation can have several wildly different meanings. Many jokes circulate online, or via text message on mobile phones.

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Humor is stubbornly provincial. Comedic tastes differ by region, and most jokes don’t translate well. (A Japanese interpreter once translated a joke that Jimmy Carter delivered during a lecture as: “President Carter told a funny story. Everyone must laugh.”) One academic study compared Italians with Germans and found that the former had a stronger preference for sex jokes, while the latter had a greater appreciation for absurdist humor. Other studies found that Hungarians like gags about ethnic stereotypes more than the English do, while Americans enjoy aggressive humor more than Belgians, Hong Kongers, Senegalese or Japanese. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015. “Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing]

“Most comedians I spoke with" in China "argued that in China, there simply isn’t much appetite for sharp-edged political comedy. “In the U.S., people are relatively free,” Wang Zijian, the young TV host, told me. “They have time to follow racial issues or politics. Everyone has an opinion to chip in. The role of comedy shows is very different from China. Here, we’re still at the stage of ‘Just make me laugh.’?” In this sense, Chinese and American styles of comedy still differ radically. Discomfort is central to American stand-up — think Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks, or even Steve Martin. But in China, it tends to backfire. During the CCTV New Year’s Gala in 2013, the normally friendly hosts decided, or were told, to make fun of each other. “It didn’t work,” said David Moser, an educator and commentator in Beijing who has long studied Chinese comedy. “They weren’t raised on satire, so it just sounded mean and weird.”

Websites and Sources: Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture ; Status of Chinese People Blog ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project ; Opinions on Asian Fetish ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan ; . Book: One of the most enlightening books about China is “Chinese Lives” by Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin, a series of interviews with ordinary Chinese talking very candidly about what matter to them.

Creativity and Humor in China

The Australia scholar Michael Keane wrote: Recently I pondered an unfathomable question: were Chinese people as creative as people in the free world? If imagination is constrained by channels of expression we have to ask: is this something recent or are there more serious underlying issues? Chinese people obviously have a well attuned sense of humour; if we care to examine ancient texts like the Zhuangzi we find plenty of examples of wit and humour. However, humour really comes to the fore in China as social critique. A recent edited collection by Jocelyn Chey and Jessica Milner Davis entitled Humour in Chinese Life and Letters argues that the modern origins of Chinese humour date to the 1930s, when the term ‘humour’ (youmo) gained popular currency. [Source: “Are Chinese people less creative than people in the free world?” by Michael Keane \=]

“Everyone has a sense of humour and some people make a living from developing their capabilities. But does the form that humour takes in China have a relationship to innovation? The education system in China is focused on rote learning, success in the high school examinations (gaokao), and a productive life to reward one’s parents. Imagination does not disappear; chances are it finds expression in informal channels, in less formal ways. Humour goes online, social critique is its muse, and it is often anonymous. The internet in China is home to a great deal of innovation. \=\

“Imagine what might happen if humour and creativity were given full rein in the PRC rather than being forced into prescribed formats, into online enclaves. Imagine what the nation might achieve in the next decade if government officials and educators were able to comprehend the real meaning of a creative economy.... A study of creative behaviour in Chinese school students has shown that divergent thinking (critical imagination) is evident in early primary school years. By the time the students get to high school the education system and the schooling environment has effectively eradicated overt manifestations of creativity. Critical thinking skills are not at the top of the list of educational reforms in China. \=\

Humor in China’s Past

On why China isn’t usually thought of as a funny place, “Christopher Rea, a literary and cultural historian at the University of British Columbia and author “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China,”, told the New York Times: “State repression is one reason for that. China’s leaders are deathly afraid of ridicule. And the China story has, for various reasons, tended to emphasize suffering, struggle and grievance. [Source: Ian Johnson, Sinosphere, New York Times, November 16, 2016]

On why old time Chinese humorists often turned to cursing, Rea said: “A print culture boom made disputes public as never before. Now you’re taking down your adversary not in a teahouse, but in the newspaper. Slights and sarcasm quickly escalate to name-calling and character assassination. Writers with a penchant for funny insults became famous as “renowned revilers” — ming ma — cursing celebrities, if you will. Second, early 20th-century China was a violent place of rampaging militarists, political assassinations, foreign invasion and crushing poverty. Many critics felt that extreme conditions called for extreme rhetoric. Hypocrites, traitors and wimps became objects of contempt.

“In 1923, when the northern warlord Cao Kun bribed his way into the third presidency of the Republic of China, Wu Zhihui, one of the founders of the Chinese Nationalist Party, called him the “sperm president.” Wu reportedly explained this epithet as follows: If a man could turn each of his sperm into a human in one go, Cao could have just had his millions of descendants elect him and saved all the money he spent on bribes.

“Looking further back, you have collections of jokes, amusing stories and anecdotes, comedic verse and essays. Performing arts featured slapstick interludes, banter and stock clown roles. And there’s no shortage of bawdy sexual humor, like Li Yu’s “The Carnal Prayer Mat.’’ Song dynasty thinkers had suckered everyone into thinking that Confucius was uptight, when in the Analects he’s actually making self-deprecatory jokes and kidding his disciples. The 1930s humor crowd dug up a lot of oldies but goodies while introducing a slew of foreign humor and their own creations.

“The Shanghai writer Xu Zhuodai, who went by the pen name Master of the Broken Chamber Pot Studio, was a master of farce and a trickster extraordinaire. He’s a good one for hoaxes. Ye Qianyu’s pioneering comic strip “Mr. Wang” is inspired. Works by Lao She, Lin Yutang andLu Xun are justifiably famous. And one major discovery was a series of essays curated by Qian Zhongshu’s teacher Wen Yuanning in 1934, short profiles of public figures, like one whose “real profession is to be a celebrity.”

Republican China (1912-1949): Age of Irreverence

“The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” by Christopher Rea was awarded the Joseph Levenson Book Prize (Post-1900 China), a prize is given in recognition of books that offer ‘the greatest contribution to increasing understanding of the history, culture, society, politics, or economy of China’ during the preceding year. According to the prize givers: “The Age of Irreverence “ offers a fresh perspective on the late Qing and early Republican era, focusing on the use of humor. The book balances with levity the better-known accounts of this period as steeped in ponderous intellectual debates. Rea taps into previously ignored sources, honing on parodic verses and essays, fantastic novels, cartoons, amusement halls, and photography, to show how these and other materials produced “cultures of mirth.” As the book demonstrates, the discourse of irreverence, manifested in specific practices, took part in forming and challenging claims to modernity.

“Christopher Rea is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and former director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia. He wrote: “Youmo (humour), a transliteration coined by the popular writer Lin Yutang, came to stand for a new comedic sensibility that sought to displace the irreverence of the early 1900s. In the 1930s, in his new Chinese-language humour magazine, The Analects Fortnightly, Lin popularised not only youmo but with it the notion that humour was a humanistic virtue that China (for all its preexisting comic traditions) lacked. The vogue for humour literature influenced scores of writers and continued for more than half a decade before being cut short by war. During that time, humour and laughter became the focus of unprecedented theorising and polemical debate. What was humour? Did China need it? How could and should Chinese people laugh? (Or should they just smile?) Lin’s campaign to promote youmo as a moral ideal that would refine the individual and civilise the body politic left a legacy that outlasted the 1930s heyday of humour.

Liu E wrote in “Travels of Lao Can”: “When a baby is born, he weeps, wa-wa; and when a man is old and dying, his family forms a circle around him and wails, hao-t’ao . Thus weeping is certainly that with which man starts and finishes his life. In the interval, the quality of a man is measured by how much or little he weeps, for weeping is the expression of a spiritual nature.

“Modern Chinese writers have invoked blood and tears even when cracking jokes. One of the most prolific fiction writers of the Republican era went by the name Bao Tianxiao, or Embrace Heaven and Laugh. When he coauthored works with the writer Cold-Blooded [Chen Jinghan], they combined their noms de plume into a Cold Laugh, or Sneer. The 1914 joke book Laughing Through Tears tells of a ‘man of conscience’ who moves his audiences by weeping at the beginning of each speech; the stimulant turns out to be raw ginger hidden in his handkerchief. The Travels of Lao Can, plaintive preface notwithstanding, offers a zesty picaresque tale, and generations of readers have found it to be a very funny book.

Book: “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” by Christopher Rea (University of California Press, 2015). The book was awarded the Joseph Levenson Book Prize (Post-1900 China).

Freedom, Humor and Openness in Republican China

Christopher Rea wrote in “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter”: “China’s Republican period was one of remarkable openness, a new climate of earnest searching and experimentation with roots in the exploratory culture of the late Qing. Irreverence — meaning an insouciant attitude toward convention and authority — was one disposition driving the exploration. Breaking rules, disobeying authorities, making mischief, mocking intransigent behaviour and thought, and pursuing fun all contributed to an atmosphere of cultural liberalisation. [Source: “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” by Christopher Rea (University of California Press, 2015). Rea is an Associate Professor of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia]

“Open contempt for the Manchu royal court fuelled the 1911 revolution. Irreverence also helped to enable positivistic blue-sky thinking, as seen in a wave of futuristic science fantasy novels in the 1900s. Impudent humour, of course, is not the exclusive province of modernists or traditionalists, conservatives or radicals. Chinese writers and artists of the early twentieth century were equally irreverent in inveighing against the fads, excesses, and new sacred cows of the modern era.

“During the first four decades of the twentieth century, playfulness, derision, frivolity, profanity, absurdity, and other expressions of humour abounded in China’s public sphere. One driver of the proliferation of funny stories, cartoons, parodies, curses, and other expressions of mirth was a fast-growing transnational Chinese-language publishing market…. At the turn of the century, a wave of new urban tabloid or ‘small’ newspapers emerged — between 1897 and 1911 more than forty were published in Shanghai alone — offering readers an alternative source of entertainment and political commentary to ‘big’ (and often more conservative) papers. Between 1876 and 1937, more than three hundred publishing houses and bookshops set up operations on Fuzhou Road in Shanghai, the centre of Chinese publishing. By 1929, the southern province of Guangdong had more than two hundred periodicals and Jiangsu Province (on the Yangtze River) more than three hundred; by 1935, Shanghai had almost four hundred.

Youmo: Republican-Era Humour

Christopher Rea wrote in “The Age of Irreverence”: “Lin Yutang first used the word youmo in May 1924 in an essay for Beijing’s Morning Post . He was then just returned from several years of graduate study at Harvard and Leipzig and was teaching English at Peking University, where he was a regular contributor to Threads of Discourse, the journal that had fuelled 1920s debates about civility and cursing. In 1926, he was among a group of intellectuals whose public statements antagonised a northern warlord, and he fled south, ending up in Shanghai the following year.Humour exploded onto China’s literary scene on 16 September 1932 with the arrival of the Analects Fortnightly, a new Shanghai magazine edited by Lin Yutang. [Source: “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” by Christopher Rea (University of California Press, 2015)]

“Lin had coined the new term for humour, youmo, and the Analects broadcast his transliteration to a broad audience, along with a new philosophy of how to think, speak and live. Within weeks of the magazine’s first issue, Chinese critics were using new phrases and concepts such as a ‘sense of humour’, ‘ humour literature’, and the ‘humorous sketch’ . Pundits like Chen Zizhan (who also wrote for the Analects) filled the popular press with their opinions about the ethos behind — and implications of — a new literary movement that had, in a few short months, become a nationwide phenomenon.

“His 1924 essay identifies humour as a ‘major imperfection’ in the history of Chinese literature. Chinese people had a sense of humour but had forgotten how to cultivate it, resulting in a stifling intellectual scene. Writers had an ingrained didactic streak and found it hard to be natural. In the West, even academic books contained off-hand jokes, he pointed out. But these jokes were ‘of a different sort’ than Chinese jokes, he added more vaguely, ‘they were “humour” ‘. What China needed was for Zhou Shuren to tell jokes not just as the literary celebrity Lu Xun but as the famous Professor Zhou. Then everyone would see that being humorous did not result in a loss of face.

Chinese Humor in the 1930s

Christopher Rea wrote in “The Age of Irreverence”: “‘Reasonable’ was one of Lin Yutang’s favorite words. Like the nineteenth-century novelist George Meredith, Lin believed that humour was the ultimate expression of a reasonable spirit, and he leavened this message with his own wit and hyperbole. In 1935, he endorsed the American nudist movement by saying that ‘I have been a nudist all my life without knowing it’, just a reasonable nudist who was ‘all for nudism at certain hours and in certain circumstances, in the bath-tub, for instance.’ In 1937, with war brewing in Europe and Asia, he suggested: send ‘five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats, and the world will be saved.’ As humour represents ‘the highest form of human intelligence’, all war plans would collapse as each delegate vies to deplore his own country’s folly. Self-deprecating humour would spread across the globe, changing the character of human thought, and leading to a Reasonable Age in which good sense and a ‘peaceable temper’ reigned supreme. [Source: “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” by Christopher Rea (University of California Press, 2015)]

“T.K. Chuan, a fellow bilingual writer and publishing colleague of Lin’s, was more skeptical about cross-cultural humour. He wrote in 1931: “Laugh, and the world does not usually laugh with your, because the world generally fails to see just what there is to laugh about.” “But the burgeoning humour movement in China was thoroughly multilingual in its sources, vocabulary, and audience.

“Youmo, Lin acknowledged, was a rather arbitrary transliteration of humor. In his 1924 essay he had even included an alternative transliteration, huimo, made up of the characters for ‘humorous’ and ‘copy’ or ‘imitate’. Colleagues and readers nominated other alternatives such as yumiao (‘witty speech’), youmiao (‘abstruse and wonderful’), and youma (‘superior cursing’). In one Lao She story, two boys overhear their father exclaiming ‘How humorous!’ as he reads the Analects and mistake the word youmo for a synonym meaning ‘apply paint’. Wags talked about you ta yi mo, turning youmo into a transitive verb akin to ‘pull his leg’. None ever mentioned oumuya, a transliteration of ‘humour’ that literary theorist Wang Guowei had coined as early as 1906.

“The magazine’s launch in September 1932 attracted the attention of China’s foreign-language press. The 8 December issue of the China Critic carried a cover feature ‘Introducing The Analects‘, by T.K. Chuan, who translated s from its first issues, as well as its full decalogue: “1) We will not be counter-revolutionary. 2) We will not pass any judgment upon those who are not worth our criticism (Our column ‘Ye Antique Shoppe’ takes care of those), but we will criticise those whom we cherish, such as Our Country, the militarists, the promising writers, and the not-unpromising revolutionaries. 3) We will not resort to oaths and filthy epithets (Humour and good humour are one in the same; to honour the traitors as our parents would not do, but neither must we call them d — d fools — Chinese). 4) We will not want any outside financial help; we will not be anybody’s mouth-piece (we do not propagandise for money; but we may propagandise or even counter-propagandise for love). 5) “We will not play satellites to the élite, the powerful, or the rich (we do not ‘press-agent’ for dramatic stars, cinema stars, social stars, intellectual stars, political stars, et al.). 6) We will not be a group of mutual admirers; we are against ‘Flesh-creepy-ism’ . (We will avoid using such terms as: ‘The famous Scholar’, ‘the famous poet’, and so on; and we are determined not to use the expressions: ‘My good friend, Hu Shih’.) 7) We will not publish any cheaply sentimental and romantic poetry. 8) We will not advocate justice; we make known only our honest prejudices. 9) We will not swear off anything (e.g., smoking, tea-drinking, late-rising). 10) “We will not admit that our writings are poor and in bad taste.

Youmo and Chinese Culture

Christopher Rea wrote in “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China: “ Writers of old liked to quote the Classics (‘Confucius says…’), Chen Zizhan observed in 1933; now it was all ‘Sun Yat-sen says…’, ‘Marx says…’, ‘Plekhanov [the Marxist author of Art and Social Life] says’. But since youmo was a foreign loan word, he added, Chinese humour theorists invariably felt compelled to root the concept in a domestic antecedent like Confucius or Zhuangzi. [Source: “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China” by Christopher Rea (University of California Press, 2015)]

“Youmo became part of a broader fundamental reappraisal of Chinese culture that intellectuals had been engaged in since the late-nineteenth century. Lin Yutang believed that Neo-Confucianists of the Song dynasty had misled generations of Chinese by distorting Confucius into a solemn patriarch when his teachings were essentially about how people, rulers included, ought to live their lives. … Lin later often insisted that the ‘true’ Confucius was a flawed human being, but one who always retained ‘personal charm and a good sense of humour’ and was able to ‘laugh at a joke at his own expense’.

“Lin was also enamoured of the poets Tao Qian and Su Dongpo and the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, whose works he translated. Lin considered Zhuangzi, who routinely made fun of Confucius, to be a paragon of the unrestrained, absurdist strand in Chinese humour. The title of Lin Yutang’s This Human World, an encore of the Analects Fortnightly, came from one of the Zhuangzi‘s chapters. Tao Qian, who turned his back on court life to tend to his farm, was, to Lin, one of several classical exemplars of a humorous lifestyle and worldview. Su Dongpo was a ‘gay genius’ of marvelous wit and human insight. All offered wisdom on how to live life.

“In 1934, a little over a year into the Analects‘s life, Lin Yutang brought together some of his ideas in a three-part essay, ‘On Humour’. Invoking George Meredith’s 1877 claim that laughter is an ‘excellent test of the civilization of a country’, Lin surveys instances of humour in the philosophical, literary, and historiographical canons of Chinese civilisation, drawing contrasts between major personalities in Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist strains of thought. The essay’s recurring theme is that ‘humour is a part of life’. In its second and third parts, Lin identifies orthodox moralists as the prime foes of humour; distinguishes it from other forms of comic writing; endorses Meredith’s notion that to have humour is to possess a sympathetic, cosmic view of the world and mankind; and exalts the virtues of the humorous essay. He concludes with an appeal to humour’s utility:

“If The Analects Fortnightly is able to persuade the warring politicians to cut down on their fighting, swindling and deceitful propaganda, then our accomplishments will not be insignificant.In 1934, a little over a year into the Analects‘s life, Lin Yutang brought together some of his ideas in a three-part essay, ‘On Humour’. Invoking George Meredith’s 1877 claim that laughter is an ‘excellent test of the civilization of a country’, Lin surveys instances of humour in the philosophical, literary, and historiographical canons of Chinese civilisation, drawing contrasts between major personalities in Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist strains of thought. The essay’s recurring theme is that ‘humour is a part of life’. In its second and third parts, Lin identifies orthodox moralists as the prime foes of humour; distinguishes it from other forms of comic writing; endorses Meredith’s notion that to have humour is to possess a sympathetic, cosmic view of the world and mankind; and exalts the virtues of the humorous essay. He concludes with an appeal to humour’s utility:

“The Year of Humour consecrated youmo as the new blanket term for humorous sensibilities that had been known by other names. It became a cultural standard by which China reassessed its literary traditions and its place in the world. One could dislike a particular type of youmo, but that was a disagreement between individuals or groups. Humour itself was inherently virtuous, an expression of broadmindedness, understanding, wisdom, reason. To possess humour was to have cosmopolitan empathy, an antidote to common contempt sprung of social divisions. Now the debate was over true humour and false, traditional and modern. Huaji and other indigenous terms for humour suddenly became archaic.

Humor in the Mao Era

The era of Mao Zedong in China (1949-1976) was not that humorous but that doesn’t mean the man himself wasn’t funny. Mao reportedly once said that a loud fart is better than a long lecture. He shocked Kissinger by jokingly informing him that China was planning to send 10 million Chinese women to the United States. Mao told Nixon, "People like me sound a lot of big cannons. For example, things like, 'the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries and establish socialism.” He then broke into a fit of laughter.

Cross-talk was vert popular when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. As a populist art form, it was used to spread standardized Mandarin and revolutionary ideology. Mao himself was a fan, sometimes summoning cross-talk masters to his house for private performances, including traditional pieces that has been criticized by the Communist Party.

According to the China Media Project: ““In the Mao era, the language that prevailed on the Chinese mainland was not only “false, exaggerated and empty,” or jia da kong — meaning that it was dominated by high-minded and formalized nonsense — but it was also nearly identical wherever one found it. “The language of Mao Zedong, however, was markedly different. In the Mao era, it was as though hundreds of millions of people had their personal power of expression completely throttled by a single man who was free in his own language and writing to be as distinct and individualistic as he pleased. Consider that at one point Mao Zedong even managed to work into his poetry the undeniably colorful line: “No more flatulence!” [Source: China Media Project, November 1, 2018]

The back cover of the book “Maoist Laughter” coedited by Ping Zhu, Zhuoyi Wang, and Jason McGrath (Hong Kong University Press, 2019) reads: During the Mao years, laughter in China was serious business. Simultaneously an outlet for frustrations and grievances, a vehicle for socialist education, and an object of official study, laughter brought together the political, the personal, the aesthetic, the ethical, the affective, the physical, the aural, and the visual. The ten essays in Maoist Laughter convincingly demonstrate that the connection between laughter and political culture was far more complex than conventional conceptions of communist indoctrination can explain. Their sophisticated readings of a variety of genres — including dance, cartoon, children’s literature, comedy, regional oral performance, film, and fiction — uncover many nuanced innovations and experiments with laughter during what has been too often misinterpreted as an unrelentingly bleak period. In Mao’s China, laughter helped to regulate both political and popular culture and often served as an indicator of shifting values, alliances, and political campaigns. In exploring this phenomenon, Maoist Laughter is a significant correction to conventional depictions of socialist China.

Puns and Pun Control in China

Chinese is perfectly suited to puns because it has so many homophones. Popular sayings and even customs, as well as jokes, rely on wordplay. "This kind of wordplay exists in other languages, but as far as I’m aware, not to the extent of Chinese," Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford University professor and author of ‘The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu’, told Yahoo News. "The Chinese have this pattern not just in food, but in other customs, and there is also a long history of puns in Chinese art." [Source: Vera H-C Chan, Yahoo News, February 19, 2015]

Why so many puns? Chinese is a tonal language with many monosyllabic words, especially the Cantonese dialect. "The reason it is so easy to pun in Chinese languages is that there are so few syllables available," writes Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, "Consequently, people have developed a natural affinity for punning and become very good at. It is part of the culture."

Not everyone endorses the Chinese custom of pun-making. In 2014 the Chinese government cracked down on the practice out of concern of of "cultural and linguistic chaos." Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “From online discussions to adverts, Chinese culture is full of puns. But the country’s print and broadcast watchdog has ruled that there is nothing funny about them. It has banned wordplay on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese, makes promoting cultural heritage harder and may mislead the public – especially children. The casual alteration of idioms risks nothing less than “cultural and linguistic chaos”, it warns. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, November 28, 2014 +++]

“The order from the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television says: “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms.” Programmes and adverts should strictly comply with the standard spelling and use of characters, words, phrases and idioms – and avoid changing the characters, phrasing and meanings, the order said. “Idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage and historical resources and great aesthetic, ideological and moral values,” it added. +++

“That’s the most ridiculous part of this: [wordplay] is so much part and parcel of Chinese heritage,” said David Moser, academic director for CET Chinese studies at Beijing Capital Normal University. When couples marry, people will give them dates and peanuts – a reference to the wish Zaosheng guizi or “May you soon give birth to a son”. The word for dates is also zao and peanuts are huasheng. +++

“The notice cites complaints from viewers, but the examples it gives appear utterly innocuous. In a tourism promotion campaign, tweaking the characters used in the phrase jin shan jin mei – perfection – has turned it into a slogan translated as “Shanxi, a land of splendours”. In another case, replacing a single character in ke bu rong huanhas turned “brook no delay” into “coughing must not linger” for a medicine advert. “It could just be a small group of people, or even one person, who are conservative, humourless, priggish and arbitrarily purist, so that everyone has to fall in line,” said Moser. “But I wonder if this is not a preemptive move, an excuse to crack down for supposed ‘linguistic purity reasons’ on the cute language people use to crack jokes about the leadership or policies. It sounds too convenient.” +++

“Internet users have been particularly inventive in finding alternative ways to discuss subjects or people whose names have been blocked by censors. Moves to block such creativity have a long history too. Moser said Yuan Shikai, president of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1915, reportedly wanted to rename the Lantern Festival, Yuan Xiao Jie, because it sounded like “Cancel Yuan day”. +++


Crosstalk is a kind of traditional Chinese stand-up comedy accented with with puns and poetry. The Chinese word for cross talk is “xiangsheng”, literally “face and voice.” Sometimes the performer gets up alone and talks directly to the crowd. Other times, he brings along another comedian and jousts. If they are any good the audience roars with laughter. The art form began during the Qing Dynasty in Beijing as street art. Jokes dealt with familiar themes: troublesome in-laws, regional stereotypes and impersonations. Creative puns were the norm. [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011; Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Benjamin Haas wrote in the New York Times, “Performed in teahouses throughout northern China, it usually consists of two performers dressed in traditional garb engaging in witty banter. Think Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” One example is a dialogue between a theater director working in Europe and an old friend. The director’s play is about “the three kingdoms,” or in his mind, France, Germany and Italy. But the friend understands it to mean the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Confusion ensues, and audiences laugh.”

“Throughout cross talk’s history, performers have come from humble backgrounds. Aspiring comedians from poor families studied under a master for three years and performed with the teacher for one season before striking out on their own. One man who had been doing it for 40 years told the New York Times, “Before, cross talk was a way to communicate with people, to educate people...It had to be as good as listening to the radio or reading a book.”

Cross-Talk and Comedy Before and During the Mao-Era

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Comedy in the People’s Republic isn’t so much an attitude or philosophical viewpoint as it is a set of forms. The most widespread is xiangsheng — typically (if imperfectly) translated as “cross-talk” — a traditional two-person comedic performance that often features wordplay and references to Chinese literary classics, as well as singing and dancing. Cross-talk originated with street performers during the late Qing dynasty. In 1861, the Xianfeng Emperor died and the government declared a 100-day period of mourning, which meant all stage shows were canceled. Many artists resorted to illegal busking, and a Peking-opera performer named Zhu Shaowen hung up a sign in a public square: “I’m poor, and I’m not afraid to stand on the street corner and shoot the breeze,” goes one loose translation. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“Zhu changed his name to Qiong Bupa — “poor and unafraid” — and became the first cross-talk hero. Performers soon discovered that pairs attracted bigger crowds. In one classic bit, two men (they were always men) try to perform a famous Peking opera, but only one of them actually knows the script; the other is faking it, while trying to make the competent one look like the fool. The closest American analogue is Abbott and Costello.

“Cross-talk was booming by the time the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. As a populist art form, it made an ideal medium for spreading standardized Mandarin and revolutionary ideology. Mao himself was a fan, summoning cross-talk masters to his house for private performances, including the out-of-favor traditional pieces.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, cross talk was exclusively used as a propaganda tool. “You can’t laugh at how wonderful Chairman Mao is,” said David Moser, academic director of the CET Beijing Chinese Studies program in Beijing told the New York Times. He wrote his master’s thesis at the University of Michigan on cross talk and has been performing on and off for 20 years. “But there was a technique throughout the whole Mao period called “putting on the hat and shoes,” where you start the piece with some revolutionary praising of the party, then you do business as usual, and then at the end you stick on something revolutionary, he said. When the Cultural Revolution ended, cross talk performers immediately criticized the Gang of Four, releasing years of pent-up political frustration. But a brief period of openness was quickly quashed. The Cultural Revolution put an end to nonrevolutionary art of all kinds, and many of the old cross-talk scripts were destroyed or forgotten.

Cross-Talk and Comedy After Mao

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: But cross-talk “surged again after Mao’s death in 1976, as years of pent-up anger gave way to satire. One famous routine from the ’80s, “How to Take a Photograph,” mocked revolutionary slogans in an exchange between the proprietor of a photo shop and a customer:

“A: “Serve the People!” Comrade, I’d like to ask a question.
B: “Struggle Against Selfishness and Criticize Revisionism!” Go ahead.
A: “Destroy Capitalism and Elevate the Proletariat!” I’d like to have a picture taken.
B: “Do Away With the Private and Establish the Public!” What size?
A: “The Revolution Is Without Fault!” A three-inch photo.
B: “Rebellion Is Justified!” O.K., please give me the money. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“The proliferation of television sets in China turned many actors into household names, and spread cross-talk, previously concentrated in the northeastern cities of Beijing and Tianjin, to far corners of the country. But after the massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, provocative sketches disappeared from television and were banned in teahouses. Cross-talk entered a creative ice age. “It wasn’t funny anymore,” said Mark Rowswell, a.k.a. Dashan, a Canadian who rose to fame in China for his cross-talk performances in the late 1980s and ’90s. (Foreigners in China have all heard the backhanded compliment, “Your Chinese is good — but not as good as Dashan’s.”) The advent of the Internet has helped popularize cross-talk somewhat in recent years, but it lacks its former cultural influence.

Beijing Talk Show Club Comedy Class

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: ““Why do people laugh?” Xi Jiangyue asked. It was the first day of a weekend-long stand-up comedy seminar, and Xi, the founder of the Beijing Talk Show Club, a group of a few dozen comedians that performs around Beijing, was starting with the basics. A half-dozen students sat in folding chairs on the upper floor of a community center in northwestern Beijing. A teacher from Guangxi Province had signed up in order to improve his public-speaking skills; a woman who worked at an advertising firm said she wanted to boost her confidence. The walls were lined with books (a biography of Karl Marx; Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village”), and a tabby cat roamed free, nuzzling shins. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“Xi, a compact, 33-year-old former information-technology specialist with fearsome eyebrows, sipped Red Bull — it was 10 a.m. on a Saturday — and let the question hang in the air. “When they’re happy?” one student volunteered. Another said: “When someone praises you.” A third said: “When the result is different from their expectation.”Xi nodded encouragingly. The last student went on: “For example, ‘I read a book that says smoking is bad for your health — so I quit reading.’?” The group applauded.

“Many people have tried to define comedy, Xi explained. Sigmund Freud said humor was a release of built-up psychic energy. Henri Bergson defined it as “something mechanical in something living” — a Tourette’s patient, for example, or a priest letting loose a fart — and laughter as the response provoked by that phenomenon. The Chinese scholar Lin Yutang introduced the word “humor,” transliterated as youmo, to the Chinese language — distinct from satire (fengci), wit (jijing), ridicule (chaoxiao) and slapstick (huaji). In a famous 1934 essay, he defined it as an attitude that “emerges when those who are intelligent begin to be suspicious of human wisdom and begin to see human stupidity, self-contradiction, stubborn bias and self-importance,” and saw humor as a civilizing force. The great 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun said that “humor is funniness with feeling; funniness is humor without feeling.” For the purposes of the class, Xi said, humor is simply something that defies expectations.

“To demonstrate, Xi divided the class into pairs. One person would read a statement, to which his or her partner would come up with a snappy answer. “Your hair is a mess,” a young woman said to her male partner. “I know, I’m handsome,” he replied. “How tall are you?” she asked. “I’m as tall as Yao Ming’s knee,” he said. This continued for several minutes, with more awkward titters than guffaws. “It’s O.K.,” Xi said. “It doesn’t matter that your responses weren’t funny. The first step is to develop the habit.”

Song Qiyu: Aspiring Comedian

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Xi ceded the floor to a fellow comedian named Song Qiyu, an impish 27-year-old with rimless glasses and a look of fixed amusement. He wore black sneakers with a gold Playboy logo. Onstage, Song is part stuttering Woody Allen, part deadpan Steven Wright, pacing nervously and deliberately butchering words with a thick, rural Shaanxi accent. He shushes the audience members anytime they laugh, which only makes them laugh harder. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“Song had thought long and hard about comedy. He discovered stand-up when he saw a Joe Wong set online, and soon became obsessed with joke structure and the mechanics of humor. In 2011, he quit his job as a tutor and enrolled in a master’s program for drama at the China Arts Research Institute in Beijing, specializing in comedy. He first picked up a microphone in the spring of 2013. Less than a year later, he placed second in a comedy contest hosted by Jiangxi Television, for which he won 20,000 yuan, or about $3,250. He was now doing stand-up full time (with a little help from his parents) and hoped to one day host his own TV show.

“As the students listened, Song explained how to write a joke. An economics major in college, he liked to illustrate every lesson with a chart or graph. He drew a table on the blackboard and at the top wrote “Joke Generator.” He then drew four columns and labeled them “Theme,” “Attitude,” “Skill” and “Performance.”

“Song picked a theme: love. Attitude, he explained, could be any idea about love. For example: “Love is hard.” Skill meant fleshing out the idea. Why is love hard? “Love is hard because I’m a man,” Song said — a pun, since “hard” sounds like “man” in Chinese. Performance, he said, meant delivery. Song gets a lot of comic mileage from his neurotic, mumbly manner; the same joke told by someone else might die on impact.

“Song then described how to structure a routine (illustrated with a vertical line with dashes branching off it) and how to sequence jokes, from second-funniest to least funny to funniest (an inverted para―bola graph). He was full of advice: Keep it brief. Don’t joke about tragedy. Also, he said, comedians should take it slow early in their careers. For the first three to five years, they should tell short jokes. Around Year 6, they’re ready to tell anecdotes. Only after Year 8 are they ready to express their personal opinions about the world, “like George Carlin.”

Comedy as a Form of Expression in China

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “If Wong inspired Song to tell jokes, Carlin made him want to do it for the rest of his life. A lot of comedians’ styles are just “joke, joke, joke,” Song told me. Carlin transcends mere joke-telling and taps into larger truths about the human experience. “What he does is high art,” he said. “The best comedians, their view of life is deep. I have the skills, but not enough knowledge.” [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“In stand-up, comedians like Song and Xi had discovered a vehicle for not only humor but also self-expression. “Cross-talk is just about laughing,” Song told me. “Stand-up is about thinking, too.” Whereas cross-talk actors mostly use scripts written by masters, stand-up comedians express their own opinions about the world; the form rewards uniqueness. And unlike some aspects of Chinese society, stand-up is refreshingly meritocratic. “If your jokes are funny, people laugh,” Song said. “If your jokes are boring, people won’t laugh, even if you’re a celebrity.” He argued that as China’s economy continues to grow, and more workers join the middle class, stand-up will inevitably flourish, as material comfort gives people a greater desire to express their opinions.

“Even before starting the Beijing Talk Show Club, Xi was always independent — he started two businesses in college, both of which failed — and didn’t like working for other people. So in 2009, he quit his job in I.T. and threw himself into stand-up. His new life wasn’t lucrative, but that wasn’t the point: “I followed my own heart,” he said.

“Tony Chou, a comedian in Beijing who works as a CCTV journalist by day, was similarly romantic about his decision to pursue stand-up. “I’m a free soul,” he told me. “I’m the only one from my college class doing a different job, pursuing my dreams. They’re all engineers. I don’t believe they all love engineering.” Chou went into journalism because he thought it would be a way to share his own view of the world. “That turned out to be wrong,” he said. “CCTV doesn’t need personality.” Stand-up, on the other hand, was all about being himself.

Chinese Comedians and the Line That Can’t Be Crossed

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: ““The government bureaus are way ahead of him. In early June 2014, the week of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Joe Wong and a few other comedians were getting ready to perform at 69 Cafe, a small bar in central Beijing. Two officials from the local cultural-affairs bureau walked in and approached the organizer, and suggested that they not perform. The officials didn’t forbid it — it was just a recommendation, they said. The M.C. went onstage and announced that the show was canceled. “That’s not funny!” someone in the audience yelled. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“A week earlier, two officials dropped in on a Beijing theater show and upbraided one of the comedians for cracking a joke about the Chinese flag. After that, the Beijing Talk Show Club began treading carefully. Cautionary tales arise periodically: In 2012, a Beijing blogger was arrested for tweeting a joke about that year’s national Communist Party meeting. This past April, a hand-held video of the CCTV host Bi Fujian — in which he sat at a private dinner singing a satirical, Mao-mocking version of an old revolutionary song — went viral. Bi was suspended and apologized for making comments that had a “detrimental impact on society.”

“Every comedian in China knows that there is a line, but no one knows exactly where it is. There’s the obvious stuff — the “three T’s” of Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen — but the details are anyone’s guess. That’s how censorship works best: Keep the rules vague, and let everyone police themselves. Some comedians stay clear of the line. Others edge toward it, place a toe on the far side, then skitter away. Occasionally someone plows right across it, but the results aren’t always funny.

“In practice, though, restrictions are usually felt only at high levels — on TV and in large theaters. In bars, comedians can say whatever they want, except during sensitive periods like the Tiananmen anniversary. “In China, sometimes you just have to wait a little bit, then you can do it again,” Joe Wong told me. In the meantime, controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Song said: “The more you ban something, the more people want to see it.”

“This, more than political restrictions, may be the biggest obstacle to the emergence of truly good stand-up in China: people’s unwillingness to set aside their pride and take a joke. “If I talk about the Beijing smog, people will say: ‘You’re losing face for Beijing,’?” Wang Zijian told me. A famous actress once called up Wang’s producer, he said, and begged that they not tell any more jokes about her and her boyfriend. The producer agreed, wanting to preserve good relations.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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