Tom Herbert

China post Learning to Laugh in the Middle Kingdom

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Santonja

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Santonja

According to legendary travel writer Paul Theroux, “the Chinese have 50 different ways of laughing, but few of them actually involve humour. For example, ‘ha ha – we’re in big trouble now!’ or ‘ha ha – don’t expect me to answer that question’”.

The relatively serious disposition many Chinese present to the outside world has led to the incorrect assumption that they have no sense of humour. Of course there are those who don’t appreciate a joke, but there are also plenty of mirthful moments here – some concerning subjects that cross global laughter boundaries, others that travel well across Asia but no further, while some gags leave all but native Chinese scratching their heads.

One area of comedy that tickles funny bones the whole world over comes in the form of good old-fashioned slapstick. From Charlie Chaplin right through to Mr Bean – a hugely popular figure in China – hilarious pratfalls and footballs in the groin are as funny in Chengdu as they are in Chicago or Chittagong.

Another bridge over the cultural comedy chasm is smut. The enjoyment of this rather lowbrow form of entertainment was ably demonstrated by the grass-mud-horse social media sensation that hit Chinese youtube a few months back. In defiance of perceived censorship pranksters put together a fake documentary and song about the eponymous mythical animal, whose name when translated into Mandarin sounds rather similar to a particularly impolite insult.

humour2So far so similar, but as one might expect when more highbrow forms of jest come into play the differences in humour become more pronounced. A good case in point can be found in Chinese Crosstalk or xiang sheng (literally face and voice). At first glance it seems very similar to Western stand-up comedy, with two comics onstage in front of a live crowd engaging in rapid-fire conversation, their interaction following the tried-and-tested recipe of a straight-man acting as an exasperated foil to the muddle-headed clown.

However, as David Moser points out in his essay on the decline of Crosstalk No Laughing Matter, there are subtle differences between the two art forms. Crosstalk mostly features more than one person, and is always a self-contained routine with a fixed narrative or main premise. In this sense, a typical crosstalk piece resembles a scripted dialogue for TV or radio not unlike Monty Python’s ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch or the Two Ronnies ‘Four Candles’ routine. There are hundreds of traditional crosstalk pieces, and although new pieces are written all the time, each new piece is performed to the original premise, leaving the performers free to add material or edit sections according their specific needs.

Laughing buddhaFrom my admittedly limited experience here I’ve also found that sarcasm –at least in the way westerners perceive it – doesn’t seem to translate well, and the ‘lowest form of wit’ is generally not well-received in social situations. The concept seemed a little strange to the Chinese I’ve spoken with about humour, with the idea of saying one thing and meaning another just not seeming that funny.

So what does make the Chinese laugh? In a rather unscientific attempt to try and find out, I decided to ask some of my Chinese colleagues to send me their best jokes. You can see some of the cleaner examples below – enjoy!


A ticket tout (called yellow bulls in Chinese) was outside a stadium selling tickets.

‘Tickets for sale! Tickets for sale! Come and buy your tickets. 350 yuan each!’

A plain-clothes policeman approached him
Tout: ‘How many tickets do you want to buy?’
Policeman: ‘I’m a policeman’
Tout: ‘Oh! For policemen tickets are 320 yuan!’


Once, there was a boy who was an onion. He cried every day.


Teacher: ‘If you had just one day to live, where would you go?’
Student: ‘I would spend my last day in school, in this classroom’
Teacher: ‘Oh! How wonderful! Such an eager student!’
Student: ‘Because time in this class goes so slowly, one day feels like a year!’

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