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!


John Pasden

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


  1. John,

    I had a similar thought when reading the same article. Here’s an example (I’m not sure if I can make it make sense in writing, but I’ll try):

    I have a lecture on taking the IELTS speaking test that I give to Chinese students. The lecture is primarily in Chinese. There is a section in which I list strange reactions students have when they don’t understand the interviewer’s question. One of the exaples I give is that students sometimes make a pensive expression as if they’re thinking hard about the question when they really don’t understand the question. In the lecture I ask the question and then pretend to be a student by putting on a pensive expression. The students laugh, and in English the site gag would probably end there. In the Chinese lecture, though, I then say ‘假装思考(they’re pretending to think!)’, and the laugh grows. Then I say ‘但其实没听懂 (but actually they didn’t understand!)’, and the laugh explodes.

    I think this is an example of the ‘explanation-after-punchline’ phenomenon.

    • Ha ha, that’s a great example!

      Because of the nature of humor, every example is going to be pretty different, but I think your story illustrates the principle well.

      Wow, I didn’t know there were Chinese-speaking foreign IELTS lecturers. You must be in demand!

  2. I could imagine an American comedian doing that, if he was in character, trying to imitate non-funny people that do that compulsively.

  3. Though I think it also depends on the story teller. Because if the person can’t pull of the explanation, it’s like…o-k.

  4. There is a good Joe Wong video on ChinaSmack. It’s a YouKu video with the jokes translated into Chinese, sometimes literally, sometimes creatively. It’s clear from the attempt that trying to explain the jokes in real-time is too difficult; understanding what makes something funny requires a lot more background information that can be put into a subtitle window.

    Also, the WSJ article makes it apparent that Chinese shouldn’t be the ones explaining to other Chinese about an American joke. It needs a native or very-long-term resident to know all the nuances.

  5. In my experience, Chinese are more likely to add a “开玩笑啊“ than Americans would be to add a “I’m just kidding.”

  6. “Yeah, there’s the “explaining an unfunny joke” trope.”

    I find there are some people who do actually explain their jokes, or even jokes that they see (my brother does this). I once in a while feel the need to when my joke turns out to be too obscure, but I try to resist it unless there is a good reason (like explaining American cultural references to Chinese friends).

    But yes, it appears much more in fiction. My favorite example: “The hammer is my penis.”

  7. David Moser Says: April 19, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Hi John,
    I’m not sure about jokes in general, but my xiangsheng teacher and others have mentioned one reason why the “straight man” (the penggende) in xiangsheng always explains the joke after the punchline. It’s partly linguistic. Chinese xiangsheng performers were always aware of the numerous speakers of other dialects in the audience, many of whom not only were unfamiliar with Beijing pronunciation and slang, but weren’t even totally fluent in standard Mandarin. The straight man became a kind of safeguard for the semantics by tossing in a brief explanatory remark that would help those in the audience who were a little lost. As time wore on, this became a stylistic feature. I think there’s some truth to this. Chinese performers like Zhou Libo don’t have the comfortable luxury of a nearly homogenous language context, the way Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock do. English doesn’t really have fangyan.

  8. Caridnals Toastmasters Says: October 18, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Just wanted to share a humorous speech from our Toastmasters club about negotiating in China… the Chinese audience in London seemed to like it the most!

    Chinese Takeaway – Laura McCracken

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