Tag: humor


Apr 2010

The Wall Street Journal on Chinese Humor

I’ve been interested in Chinese humor for a while. Most recently, I’ve written about a few Chinese comics and Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo. So I was quite interested in the Wall Street Journal’s take, which is initially about Chinese comedian Joe Wong. Apparently Joe Wong’s comedy works in the U.S. but not in China. It’s not your typical cross-cultural story.

This is the part which caught my attention (emphasis mine):

> Younger audiences are starting to warm to the stand-up style, with a Chinese twist. There are footnotes: after the punch line comes an explanation of why it’s funny.

> In Shanghai, Zhou Libo’s stand-up show has become a top event. His repertoire spans global warming, growing up poor and, that perennial crowd-pleaser, China’s emergence as a global economic power.

> He jokes about China’s massive purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds: “I am really confused about why a poor guy lends money to the rich. We should just divide the money amongst ourselves,” he says. “But on a second thought, each of us would only get a couple of dollars!” Then Mr. Zhou adds: “Because the population is so big.”

This is one of the observations I made in 2004 in a post titled When Humor Runs Aground, in which I give an example of a Chinese joke, with the punchline and also the “post-punchline explanation.”

I’d be interesting in seeing more examples of this “post-punchline explanation.” From a sociolinguistic perspective, I wonder how universal it is, and if it follows certain rules. More examples are welcome!


Dec 2009

Zhou Libo's New Book: Hui Cidian


Taking advantage of his current popularity, Shanghainese stand-up comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) has swiftly published a book on Shanghainese expressions called 诙词典 (something like “Comedic Dictionary”).

The book isn’t exactly a dictionary, but it groups a whole bunch of Shanghainese expressions by common themes or elements, then explains them entry by entry in Mandarin, followed by a usage example from Zhou Libo’s stand-up acts for each entry.

“Shanghainese” Characters

What’s interesting (and a bit annoying) is that Shanghainese sentences are written out in Chinese characters, and then followed by a Mandarin translation in parentheses. Here’s an example of such a sentence:

> “伊迪句闲话结棍,讲得来我闷脱了。(他这句话厉害,说得我一下子说不出话来了)”

> [Translation: “That remark of his was scathing. I had no comeback for that.”]

The book is peppered with sentences like this, and as a learner, I have some issues with them:

1. If you read the Shanghainese sentences according to their Mandarin readings, they sound ridiculous and make no sense (a lot of the time) in either Mandarin or Shanghainese.

2. Unless you’re Shanghainese, you will have no clue as to how to pronounce the Shanghainese words in the sentences properly (so what’s the point?).

3. I find myself really wondering how the editors chose the characters they used to represent the Shanghainese words.

To point #3 above, I know there are cases where the “correct character” can be “deduced” due to Shanghainese’s similarities to Mandarin. To use the example above, the Shanghainese “闷脱” can be rendered in Mandarin as “闷掉.” Then why 脱 instead of 掉? Well, 掉 has a different pronunciation in Shanghainese, and it’s not used in the same way as it is in Mandarin. The 脱 in “闷脱,” however, in Shanghainese is the same 脱 as in “脱衣服” in Mandarin (which is “脱衣裳” in Shanghainese). It seems like this game of “chasing the characters” from Mandarin to Shanghainese might be ultimately circular in some cases, but I can’t really judge.

The other point is that some of Shanghainese’s basic function words, pronouns, and other common words don’t correspond to Mandarin’s at all, and the characters used certainly seem like standard transliterations. An example from the sentence above would be the Shanghainese “迪” standing in for Mandarin’s “这,” or (not from above), the Shanghainese “格” for Mandarin’s “的.”

So how do you know which characters are “deductions” (these are kind of cool and can point to interesting historical changes in language), and which ones are mere transliterations? Well, research would help. I don’t have much time these days for such an endeavor, but I do know some Shanghainese professors of Chinese at East China Normal University who could point me to the right resources.

Shanghainese Romanization

Lack of a standard romanization system is a problem that has plagued students of Shanghainese forever. Some favor IPA, but most find it a bit too cryptic. The problem is there is still no clearly superior solution that has become standard.

Zhou Libo’s book doesn’t make any headway in the romanization department. Headwords are given a “Shanghainese pronunciation” using a sort of “modified pinyin” with no tones. This is definitely more helpful than nothing, but it’s another reason why this book doesn’t make much of a learner’s resource for Shanghainese. Where the romanization diverges from pinyin, you’re not sure how to pronounce it (“sö” anyone?), and where it matches pinyin, it’s often not really the same as pinyin.



Aug 2009

Jokes from Jiong.ws

My wife recently introduced me to the humor site 一日一囧 (Jiong.ws). The videos she showed me were crude animations, each telling a single simple joke. Some were unfunny, some were Chinese translations of jokes I’d heard before, but a few very funny and worth sharing.

Of the four clips below, the first three are linguistic in nature. You’re going to need at least an intermediate level of Chinese to understand these jokes. I’ve provided a transcript for the last one, which has a lot of narration but no subtitles.

1. 太阳打电话 (The Sun Makes a Phone Call)

Priceless! This joke revolves around the words (grass) and (sun), and how they sound like the obscene and (same character and pronunciation, different usage). The funny accents make the joke work well. Of course, some experience in “overheard phone calls” in China also helps.



Apr 2009

Shanghainese Stand-up Comedian Zhou Libo

Zhou Libo

Zhou Libo: Xiaokan 30 Nian

I haven’t noticed any online English language mentions of Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo (周立波) yet, but he clearly deserves a bit more attention. His DVD, 笑侃三十年, has been selling like hotcakes in DVD shops across Shanghai for weeks, and I hear his upcoming live performances are selling out.

You could say his act is “comedy with Shanghainese characteristics” because 笑侃三十年 is Zhou’s humorous take on the changes Shanghai has experienced in the past 30 years. For many Shanghainese, the act is equal parts nostalgia and comedy. (Well, maybe not equal… my wife was laughing so hard she was crying at certain parts, and she’s not old enough to be nostalgic about everything he was talking about. Her parents loved the act too, though.)

Of course, the most obvious “Shanghainese characteristic” of Zhou’s act is the language it’s delivered in. Being mostly in Shanghainese, Zhou Libo’s humor remains somewhat inaccessible to both foreigners and most Chinese alike. Sure, there are video clips online with Chinese subtitles, but when he starts with the Shanghainese wordplay, subtitles are of little use.

Chinese media comentator David Moser has lamented the death of xiangsheng as an art form in China. So what’s filling the void? To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Zhou Libo phenomenon is that he seems to be a part of a larger development: as two-man “Chinese stand-up” xiangsheng is waning, a new brand of home-grown Chinese solo stand-up comedy may be emerging. Furthermore, it seems to be happening through quirky regional acts like Xiao Shenyang from northeast China (the act linked to can only be described as stand-up comedy), and Zhou Libo, whose act is so “regional” that it can only be directly appreciated by the Shanghainese.

I’m certainly no expert on stand-up comedy, but I’m interested in seeing where this is going. Perhaps sites like Danwei will do some more in-depth reporting on the phenomenon, even if a Shanghainese act is of little interest to Beijingers.


Sep 2008

Failed Humor Begets Violence?

I read this article on Discovery.com last week: Telling Bad Jokes Invokes Hostility, Violence. It prompted me to reflect upon my struggles with humor in foreign languages, and in English too.

Random observations:

– The more familiar I am with the people I am with, the funnier I am. Thus, in my nuclear family I am a comedic superstar, while at work or when meeting people for the first time, not so much. Other friends fall somewhere in the middle.
– I never got very fluent in Spanish (and I’m definitely not at my high point now), but I never felt it was very hard to make jokes in Spanish. In general, the humor translated well across the cultural gap.
– It was verrry difficult to be funny in Japanese. Granted, I only lived in Japan for a year, so I wasn’t super fluent, but I repeatedly made efforts to be funny in conversations with friends, and I crashed and burned a lot. My homestay brothers mocked my failed attempts rather mercilessly. (Their cries of “さぶっ!” still haunt me.)
– It was kind of hard to make jokes in Chinese, but I never felt as much pressure to be witty as I did in Japanese. Furthermore, failed humor tends to result in confusion or non-comprehension rather than mockery.
– Even when I make a bad joke in Chinese, rarely does anyone call me on it. The exception, of course, is my wife (one of the funniest people I know), who dutifully reminds me that in Chinese, I am not very funny.

Based on my experiences, it seems like familiarity raises the stakes in humor. When you tell a joke to someone you’re close to, you either score big, or you lose big. And losing big can mean violence (according to the study)?

But I’m guessing that’s pretty cultural. I’m not at all surprised that it’s hard to be funny in France. This is a great quote from the article:

> “I may have been Nancy funny, but I was not French-speaking-Nancy funny,” she said.

I’m curious if any readers have had “violent” reactions to bad jokes in Asia.

Related: When Humor Runs Aground, Dumb Joke [on ChinesePod]


Apr 2004

When Humor Runs Aground

I think it’s pretty universally true that humor, being culturally dependent, is a tricky undertaking in a foreign language. Just supposing you have the necessary language skills to accurately communicate what you want to, the target culture may not find your “joke” the least bit funny. On the contrary, they might be offended (this has happened to me before), they might recognize you were trying to make a joke in their language and boo your lame attempt (that always happens to me in Japan), or they might just accept your statement at face value, not realizing there was any attempt at humor involved (which seems to happen to me the most in China).

I used to think that sarcasm was unknown in China. For a long time, my every attempt at it in Chinese would fail miserably, and it wasn’t due to grammar or pronunciation. Later I learned that “sarcasm” and “satire” are both translated as one Chinese word — 讽刺 (fengci) — in most dictionaries. Say what? From my perspective, this vocabulary issue pointed to a conspicuous difference in style of humor. This “no sarcasm” issue seemed to add to the “innocent Chinese” stereotype. But was my perception correct? Does such a gaping cultural divide even exist in reality?

Since coming to Shanghai, I’ve discovered that there are plenty of Chinese people that not only understand sarcasm, but find it indispensable in their daily exchanges. It’s been very refreshing. My girlfriend is one such blessed person. The thing is, she tells me that many Shanghainese feel that other Chinese are not nearly as quick-witted in their style of humor. And I know from experience that they’re less likely to “get” sarcasm.

It seems that sarcasm is most likely to “work” here in China when it’s especially exaggerated, e.g. “Oh, THANK YOU, I’m SO HAPPY!” A “wry” style of humor seems pretty much completely unappreciated here.

Here’s an example of a real incident from my workplace:

> HER: What’s a good way to teach the beach lesson vocabulary?

> ME: That’s easy. Just take them to the beach.

> HER: But there’s no beach nearby!

> ME: Stop making excuses!

> HER: (whimper)

OK, I know what I said wasn’t really funny, but the point was that she took my reply seriously when I never expected her to in the first place. My second response fared no better.

A former co-worker of mine has extensive experience telling jokes to Chinese audiences in Chinese. His Chinese is quite good, and in most cases, he is able to elicit the desired chuckles. His advice to me (should I choose to carry on the torch at future training seminars) was: “When you tell a joke to a Chinese audience, you may need to make the ‘punchline’ a bit later than you would ordinarly deem necessary.”

I’ll share the joke he told me. It’s a generic “smart people, dumb people” joke, which he filled in with Chinese and Japanese for convenience (and automatic audience approval).

> Two groups of foreigners were visiting the USA. One was a group of three Japanese businessmen, and the other was a group of three Chinese businessmen. They happened to be taking the same train.

> The Japanese bought their three tickets, but then happened to notice that the Chinese guys behind them only bought one. They were confused by this, thinking perhaps there was a miscommunication, but decided to mind their own business and not say anything.

> Once on the train, the two groups were sitting very near each other. As the ticket-taker started coming around, the Japanese watched the Chinese with interest.

> Suddenly the three Chinese guys sprang up, walked down to the end of the car, and crammed into the small restroom together. When the ticket-taker came by, he could tell someone was in the restroom, so he knocked on the door, calling “TICKET.” The Chinese slid their one ticket under the door. The ticket-taker collected it and moved on, and the Chinese came out shortly thereafter and sat back down.

> The Japanese were duly impressed by the crafty Chinese.

> On the train ride back, as luck would have it, the same two groups wound up on the same train. The Japanese, nervously seated with one ticket among the three of them, eyed the Chinese as they entered. The Chinese didn’t seem to have a single ticket. The Japanese didn’t know what the Chinese were up to, but they were nevertheless glad they had a chance to use the new trick.

> When the ticket-taker drew near, both groups headed for the restrooms. The Japanese crammed into the restroom on the right side, the Chinese crammed into the restroom on the left side.

> After a few seconds, one of the Chinese quietly emerged from the restroom and headed to the one occupied by the Japanese, who were nervously waiting for the ticket-taker. The Chinese guy knocked on the door and called out “TICKET.”

The joke, in its original form, is supposed to end there. My co-worker found it wise to add the following for his Chinese audience, however:

> The Japanese slid their ticket under the door. The Chinese guy grabbed it and went back into the other restroom.

Part of the appreciation of a joke is making the final connection yourself. It seems that the two cultures differ on where, exactly, that “final connection” is.

The Chinese love to crack open nuts, crabs, shrimp, turtles, etc. when they eat. They consider it part of the joy of eating. Many foreigners find it unnecessary work. Could it be that when it comes to humor, the situation is reversed?