If you are a westerner or simply not familiar with Chinese culture at all, you may be / may have been confused by Chinese humor. Even when translated for foreigner ears, the best Chinese jokes can seem oddly cold, sarcastic, or tame to the uninitiated. So what gives....isn't humor a universal thing.
In this case, no. If you study Chinese, you begin to realize that China developed under unique historical and cultural circumstances. These circumstances have molded the Chinese people's appetite for humor. As a result, you will see differences between Chinese and Western humor that seem irreconcilable.
Thankfully, you will also see some commonalities between Chinese and Western humor that make cross-cultural hilarity possible. Overall, the aim of this analysis is to demystify some of the nuances of Chinese comedy while exposing westerners to a rich comedy heritage. Now, let's get started.
Things The Chinese DO NOT Joke About
To truly understand and appreciate the differences between Western and Chinese humor, it's important to understand what subject matter the Chinese people often refuse to joke about (and why).
Family and Ancestors:
Chinese culture is very family-focused. And by extension, ancestry and taking pride in ones ancestry is seen as a very good thing. Therefore, Chinese comedy tends to stay clear of ancestry or lineage of specific people (or general groups of people).
Politics & The Government:
For Americans (and westerners in general) criticizing and joking about governments and politicians is commonplace. Free speech and individual rights generally protect people from retaliation. However, in China criticism of the government can get you into big trouble. It is best to just avoid this subject altogether.
Personal Life / Romantic Relationships:
Romantic relationships are considered very personal and private to the average Chinese citizen. Making jokes about a specific person's relationship is considered rude; particularly if you do not know the other person very well.
Miànzi 面子 & Diūliǎn 丢脸:
A very important concept in Chinese society is face (面子 - Miànzi). Though you will hear many definitions of what face actually is from Chinese people; the most complete and yet concise definition I have heard to date is the following: "Face is the self-esteem somebody feels and the way in which they feel they are viewed by the groups that they belong to."
Following this is the idea of losing face (丢脸 - Diūliǎn). Causing someone to lose face in front of others is a serious personal offense in China. Therefore, your comedy should never EVER cause someone to lose face in front of others. This is probably why you will never see a comedy roast in China as you often see in the west.
Types of Chinese Jokes /Humor:
Irony (Especially of the Depressing Sort):
Irony is used as a comedic device in various cultures around the world. And the same holds true for China. However, it is worth noting that the type of irony that is popular in China (especially among the younger generations) is often of the dark and slightly depressing variety. It seems to have caught on with Chinese millenials as a result of recent global recession. Here is an example of this depressing irony taken from a Chinese blog post about a young chinese man creating his first bank account:
Translation: "Why should I worry about setting up a bank card password? I gotta come up with 6 digits to protect a single-digit deposit!" [ref. 1]
Chinese Puns, Puns and more Puns:
Our next category of chinese language joke can most accurately described as the "obsessive use of puns." In many western cultures, puns are seen as cheesy and dated. They are reminiscent of something your grandpa would say to get a chuckle out of you. However, the Chinese take puns to a whole other level. Below is a quick example:
医院院长因股市暴跌跳楼，好容易被抢救过来。 家人纷纷围在床前，问他想要什么，他虚弱地回答：“我…只…想…要…沪市...涨。”。他老婆一耳光打过去 “我一直怀疑你和护士长有关系，到死还想着她！”
Translation: After a stock market crash, the director of a hospital decides to jump off the building, but, seeing as it’s a hospital, he’s easily rescued. His family members gather around his bed, and ask him if he wants anything. He weakly answers “I… only… want… for the… Shanghai… stock market (沪市 - hùshì) to go… up (涨 - zhǎng). His wife immediately slaps him in the face “I've always thought you were having an affair with the head nurse (护士长 - hùshizhǎng)! Even when you’re about to die all you think about is her!" [ref. 2]
Obviously to completely understand this joke you need a detailed-enough understanding of the Chinese language. But this is exactly why puns are so popular in China. The Chinese language is full of homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings). And there are literally thousands of homonyms that a Chinese language jokester has at their disposal to make people laugh.
Crosstalk (相声 - Xiàngsheng):
No discussion about Chinese language jokes or joke-making is complete without mention of Crosstalk. Crosstalk is a traditional Chinese comedic performance style whose current form dates back to the 1800s (during the late Qing Dynasty). This comedic form is usually performed by a duo (such as the two performers seen in the above picture). However, in rarer circumstances crosstalk performances can be performed by solo individuals or a larger group (3+ people).
The kind of humor employed in Crosstalk tends to rely heavily on puns, absurdities and allusions to the ridiculous. A great example of Crosstalk that you may have seen floating around the internet is a dialogue between Ma Sanli & Wang Fengshan, a performance dating back tot the 1970's. [See the video below:]
While similar in some ways to stand-up comedy in the West Crosstalk is generally stays true to the Chinese traditions of "saving Face" and voracious use of chinese homonyms. In fact, for many years Crosstalk has been considered a generally safe way for Chinese entertainers to talk about the government and society in general. However, there have been many times during the past century when Crosstalk artists and performers have been suppressed for the purpose of censorship and control. For example, during China cultural revolution; Crosstalk was almost completely suppressed.
Chinese Humor / Chinese Jokes & Modernity:
In truth, aspects of American and Western culture have had an impact on the Chinese entertainment landscape. This is especially apparent online where Chinese netizens are more familiar with the vulgarities, sarcasm and brazenness of Western-style comedic devices. For instance, online you may occasionally see (immature) Chinese web users use the term "草泥馬 (cào nǐ mā)" - a term whose characters literally mean "horse made from mud and grass", as a tongue-in-cheek homophone (pun) for the much more vulgar "肏你媽 (cào nǐ mā)" - a term which means "f*@k your mother.
The world of funny Chinese language jokes is evolving; and with this evolution I believe we are increasing our cross-cultural consciousness and understanding. It's a brave new world. Hope your ready.
1.) Sang Culture: Behind Young People Resistance To The World:
2.) Go East!: Professional Chinese Language Learning; Black Humor In China --