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!
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.
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:
> [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.
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.
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.