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?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. this post is brilliant!

  2. This is one of the best posts I’ve read on a blog about someone’s new host culture. Thanks for sharing this insight. In my case, living in Japan, I’ve also noticed that my straight faced, dry humor doesn’t work at all. I’ll have to keep this in mind as I try to communicate better.

    By the way, what sort of humor do you see from the pros on TV? Here in Japan TV humor is mainly slapstick comedy combined with bizarre outfits (lots of cross dressing and inexplicable face painting) and exaggerated color commentary.

  3. ditto for Korea. Koreans only seem to get slapstick humor.

  4. Hehehe. I thought you beach comment was funny. It was SUCH a John thing to say and now I miss you. 🙁

  5. you=your

  6. I wouldn’t worry about it too much John. You’ve never been funny.

    Smooch smooch. Miss you!!

  7. It is very hard to get the timing right especially when people are lightning fast.

  8. You hit on one vital point about Chinese jokes: damn, they are long. I have noticed this stylistic difference many times. American jokes tend to be short and to the point; Chinese jokes are more like yarns. Maybe it is just me, but it seems “brevity is the soul of wit” is truly a foreign concept in Chinese humor.


  9. I remember the first time I encountered irony (反语) in a chinese book — it was the high point of my week. The example, as I recall, was that one of the characters said “那可好” (That’s great) but meant exactly the opposite.

  10. I disagree, todd.

    this kind conclusion is just because of lack of knowledge. I once told my friends that American cursing words are too few, not as many Chinese ones, we do have plenty:) I think it is not fair because I know chinese culture more. Yesterday I was going through a XML file at work( I am in a software company) where has all the English Banned words, I was amazed.

    A lot Chinese jokes are short. one form is famous, it is called ‘三句半'(3 and half sentences), where 3 people say something first, last person says just one word or two words–short, it is a punchline as you can imagine.

    I can give you a long list of short jokes 🙂

  11. Da Xiangchang Says: April 21, 2004 at 10:58 am

    I’ve never heard of a Chinese joke I found funny. However, this might be because of my horrible Chinese skills. 😉 I guess to truly appreciate Chinese humor, one has to be quite good at Chinese, both in the language and in the specific social norms. Who knows? If I ever meet Dashan, I’ll ask him.

  12. That’s why I always tell my husband, who is American, to quit making jokes, specially the sarcastic kind of jokes, with Chinese people ’cause I’m tiring of explaining that “it was just a joke”. But I also did that in Peru (where I’m from) a lot of times, and we know sarcasm there. I think that it was all about not knowing what to expect of “el gringo”, “he might be serious or just an idiot and I don’t want to offend him”. I believe that was why a lot of people didn’t react to his jokes at first, but when they got to know him they always laughed, even when the jokes weren’t that good (which was the case quite often). Still, there are undeniable (?) cultural differences in humor. A few weeks ago I send a serious email in response to a message of a Chinese girl with whom I was working on a project, and when she replied to me she told me that she has been laughing for quite a long time and that I was very funny! I still don’t know what was the funny part of it and I won’t ask. Maybe it has something to do with both of us communicating in a language that we don’t speak correctly and write even worse.

  13. Anonymous Says: April 21, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    I have lived in US for 6 years now, But there are many jokes even though I completely understand the language, I still don’t think it is funny(sometimes I get the joke, but I don’t feel it is funny. or I don’t get it at all)
    This is called culture.
    For example, Jim Carrey is many people favourite comedian, I just don’t feel it is funny. I think it is too exaggerating, unatural to me–but you can equally find chinese and Americans who agree with me, or disagree with me.

    Humor is a individual thing. finding a person who can share the similar kind of humor, sarcasm is as difficult as finding true love:)

  14. I’m Canadian and part of that “western” culture and I don’t think Carrey is funny – I usually fall asleep during his movies if I even bother to watch them.

  15. Bill Brown Says: May 12, 2004 at 11:46 pm

    I’m a Californian and don’t believe Jim Carrey is funny, either. But then I don’t understand why Jerry Lewis is such hit in France.

  16. Ian Crane Says: May 23, 2004 at 11:56 am

    This article is great. It resolved an office dispute and educated me on asian humor. I wish I would have read this before going to China. Oh, wait, I’ve never been. Well in any case, this would be essential information for a smartmouth such as myself to review before going over there and making an arse of myself.

  17. Chinese joke (heard in Beijing):

    This city guy goes to the countryside for a visit. He’s having a great time, delighted by the fresh country air, fascinated by the quaint customs of the people, and so on. As he’s walking along, he comes across a young boy driving a pig down the path. How quaint!

    “Hey there, kid. Where you going with that pig?”

    “Well, this here’s a boar, and my father told me to drive it over to the next village, so it can mate with Mr. Zhou’s sow.”

    “I see! Fascinating! But … today’s a school day; can’t your father do this job?”

    The kid gives him a long, strange look, and says “No, mister, it has to be a boar”.

    When I heard this it greatly reduced my perception of the differences between Chinese- and English-language humour. It could easily have been an American joke. Well, it is now, since I’ve told it so many times since I’ve been back.

  18. To support John’s theory, Jay Leno might have stopped at the line of can’t your father do this job and get a hit from his American audience, after a dead pause. But it’s riskier—he might get the dead silence only.

    Humor is definitely a cultural thing. Chinese are more used to humor that’s less participative and appreciate (being told) the unravelling process of the punchline. In fact, the process is called dou baofu (opening a wrapper), they will not laugh till the wrapper is completely opened (by the speaker) rather than speeding things up with their own further deduction, perhaps to avoid making a wrong guess. Another way to say this: they are not slow, they are “polite” like in everything else. Therefore, the joketeller has learned to minimize risk by saving the punchline till everything is already “unwrapped.”

  19. Quon Jon Moun Says: April 12, 2005 at 1:37 am

    What time does the china man go to the dentist?

    A:Tooth hurty.
    HA HA HA

  20. This is very good and is helpful in my search for Chinese humor. I’m trying to add this to a program I am writing for conversation. The initial version is at my website above and is free. I am working on an update. I’ve found some interesting sites besides this one. Look at these:





    I wish I could get some jokes in both Simplified Chinese and English. If anyone could help, contact me through my website. Thanks for all the material.



  21. I’m English and I find that our sense of humour very different to North Americans and much more similar to Australian and even continental Europeans. Look no further than comedy on tv. Blackadder, Fawlty Towers and The Office. Mr Bean is on the whole loathed in the UK but it is interesting to note that it was a success in the States where as Blackadder (widely regarded as our finest comedy)) made no impact on the otherside of the Atlantic. The Office also went across the pond but in my opinion had to be dumbed down. I’d also say that our concept of witty sarcasm and irony are on different frequencys.

    As for Chinese sarcasm, I’ve yet to find it, although I haven’t given up the search!

  22. My dentist’s name is Dr. Au. For real!

  23. I wonder how much the sense of humor that John and most folks here think is “Western” is really an Anglo-Saxon thing that was invented in a few centuries ago on the British Isles. I read an article once where the thesis was that, while the French (and the Chinese, and the Greeks, Romans, etc.) have a long history of satire (and of course, slapstick and other physical humor as well as punning is appreciated in many cultures), the wry, dry, usually self-deprecating delivery that forms the backbone of Anglo-Saxon humor is pretty unique compared to not only the non-Western world but is foreign to even most/all cultures in Europe*.

    • I’m not sure about the Germans and Scandinavians. Maybe it’s a Germanic rather than Anglo-Saxon sense of humor.
  24. Deadpan. That was the word I’m looking for. A deadpan delivery rooted in irony. The backbone of Anglo-Saxon humor, and evidently rare around the world.

  25. About sarcasm and satire:

    They are expressed differently in Chinese. To “fengci” is to satirize. To “jiang fanhua” is to be sarcastic. I wouldn’t say that “fanhua” is irony. In fact, I can’t think of a term that means “irony” in Chinese, though I’m pretty certain that there are several idioms that express the sentiment of irony (here are a couple: tan1xiao3shi1da4 dong1shi1xiao4pin2; more in my book of Chinese idioms). It’s interesting to note, though, that none of the irony observed in the idioms is suppose to be humorous–irony can be deserved, or tragic, and often elucidate, but not really considered a source of humor in Chinese culture.

  26. I loved your blog and would actually like to talk to you as I am a Los Angeles based humorist/comic and I have my first gig in Hong Kong and want to my homework to see what will work and what won’t. I once did a gig for a Chinese audience and bombed as they didn’t understand “self-mocking” humor or “shame based” humor. I said, “I just broke up with my boyfriend… and the whole audience sighed with sadness not understanding that this is a common setup in American standup. Best, Judy Carter, author of “The Comedy Bible”

  27. Humor come from blat of soul! On road to humor, first come annoyance! Englightenment follow like happy bovine with vegeteranian master! Then, the hammering of dish plates!

  28. For years I’ve been trying to explain to my mom the meaning of sarcasm and hypocrisy. I tried to look up the Chinese term for it but I didn’t find any that were an exact translation. If I ever teach English in China, I might have to show the class some Mel Brooks movies.

  29. Re; The Chinese/Japanese Ticket joke.

    Seems the Chinese just need help figuring out what’s going to happen next in the joke. Then they found it funny.

    The very nature of humour is the titillation of making the connection yourself (as Seinfeld put it, the titillation is like a gap the listener has to jump across; if its too wide, they won’t make the connection, if its too easy/short, the listener will have no excitement in the jump/connection, and the laughter is minimal at best).

  30. I think it’s not so much the extent of subtlty but rather the correct pressure points. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate your attempt to understand Chinese humor, I really do. However, I also think the reason you have difficulty identifying what makes satire tick in China is that, well, you lack the required understanding of culture nuances. A lot of Chinese humor is language-based and “phrase” (cheng2 yu3)-based; as with Japanese and French and British and whatever people that is obsessed with their language, Chinese tend to heavily exploit the duplicities and nuances and ambiguities inherent in their tongue, often combined with strategic rhyming and pacing.

    For instance, when sarcastically describing an event, Chinese often twist the original implications of the phrases used into nearly the opposite while maintaining the same superficial meaning. Other times they use phrases that seem inappropriate but click at a more fundamental level. (Trust me, since I didn’t grow up there, I sometimes stil have difficulty understanding the humor, until explained to).

    Chinese humour also depends on not only knowing news events, but also knowing the general consensus/government version of it, for the sake of parody. Case in point: “Q: What kind of people can plummet over a thousand miles without straining his constitution? A: Chinese investors.” While I understand that U.S. has this kind of humor as well, in China it is dominating. Small suggestion: I advise you to read Lu Xun’s work when you have time. His is the quintessential black humor, Chinese-style. Sick and depressing, but also funny – in a twisted, comical, surreal way.

    The above only applies to the older brand of Chinese humor. I have nothing nice to say about the new generation’s; then again, most of them are teenagers, so I guess I can’t really fault them – just as I can’t fault those kids on MySpace for their abuse of English.

    • Satire is a complex thing, and conflating all humor into satire would be a mistake. My observations here refer to the telling of some simple jokes. They’ve recently been echoed by the Washington Post in relation to Zhou Libo.

      Sorry, but I don’t think the “you just don’t understand the culture” argument works here, because we’re not talking about the entirety of Chinese humor.

      Yes, I’m familiar with Lu Xun’s work; his 狂人日记 is one of my favorite Chinese stories. But Lu Xun’s dark humor is just so far from what we’re talking about here…

  31. Thank you for this post. I’ve always wondered about this.

  32. Once we were talking about drinking with some Chinese friends. My husband just made a comment like, “Come to think of it, she didn’t start drinking until she met me!”. The response was “Hmm” with a lot of frowning and some head nodding. As if he just admitted I had a drinking problem. I learned early on how to say “Kai wan xiao eryi!”

  33. Sarcasm in China seems to be scarce generally. It’s certainly something that isn’t as common as in the west. I’m actually in the middle of writing a paper about why that could be. My findings are that it can be attributed to the language. In Chinese it’s more difficult to reason counterfactually due to limitations (compared to English) in the grammar of the language.

    Does that mean that Chinese people are less used to considering the counterfactual, or false, side of things? They generally seem able to understand counterfactual statements when in context but once they exit this realm it gets trickier. Could this explain why sarcasm is not as commonly used in China as in the West.

    This would be evidence for the presence of linguistic relativity in Mandarin and if true would be a great find.

  34. What are the best Chinese jokes?…

    This is a really tough question. The only ones I remember are the ones that I like, and they rely on puns that you’d have to have studied Chinese to get. But even those are probably a poor representation of Chinese humor at large, because I also feel …

  35. […] than in English.  One translation is to ‘ridicule, taunt, mock‘.  Another is “satire“.  But these are all completely different concepts than sarcasm.  Most ridicule and satire […]

  36. (Hello, I kind of stumbled upon this through Google.)

    As someone who’s grown up learning both English and Mandarin I have to say that when I tried imagining the train ticket joke in Mandarin, it simply wasn’t funny until that last additional bit. I don’t believe it means the Chinese can’t make the ‘final connection’ though; at least I caught the punchline of the original version of the joke in English just fine. I don’t know why it is this way but I think in Mandarin, part of the humour is in the explanation of the punchline. When the person telling the joke explains it, we can laugh along with him. I think it’s similar to the Japanese boke/tsukkomi style of comedy, where one person plays an idiot (the ‘boke’) and another person (the ‘tsukkomi’) calls the boke out on his idiocy. Often, the boke’s idiotic acts aren’t all that funny on its own; it’s the tsukkomi’s exasperation at the boke that actually makes the boke’s acts funny.

  37. yes i have this same problem telling serious things to canadians, ‘americans’ And english people are the worst – they say everything in a wry style and think that everything is ironic…give me african humour any day

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