Chinese Resources

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Good Joke

This morning I pulled 《幽默漢語》( Chinese Humorous Stories) off the shelf and opened it for the first time ever. I really need to better understand Chinese humor, and I figure this is as good a starting point as any. I was drawn in by "不安" (Uneasiness), a joke about a thief. It goes like this:


Brilliant right? The book is actually quite good. It has a bunch of vocabulary I've never seen before, and each "lesson" is only a few lines. Heading to breakfast I started tossing around the idea of memorizing a bunch of these jokes. You know, add a few icebreakers to my "routine"... anything to help get me past the "Your Chinese is great! How long have you been living in Taiwan" part of meeting people. But then, I thought, when was the last time I heard anyone tell a joke? It's been longer than I could remember.

The gods must have heard my plea. The minute I finished eating, the breakfast shops owner walked over and asked me if I wanted to hear a "冷笑話" (cold joke). The joke went a little something like this.
There were two ants, a mother and her son. One day as they were looking for food and found a nice pile of shit to feast on. As they were eating the son looked up to his mom and asked, "Mom, why do we always have to eat shit." The mother looked up from her meal with scorn as said, "child, you know you're not suppose to talk about that sort of thing during dinner!"
WOW! 超冷. Now it was my turn. I cleared my throat, and began to tell the story of the thief and his uneasiness. In my excitement I forgot the fact that the thief was talking to a judge. I forgot the the whole "珠寶" part, and totally butchered the tones on “假貨." Basically, my joke sucked hard. After I corrected the tones and added the whole "talking to the judge" thing, my audience got it, and even laughed (I think they were giving me face), but I felt like a fool.

And then it dawned on me, telling a good joke is no easy task. The delivery has to be perfect, you can't mince words, and you certainly can't mess up the punch line.

I think learning to speak a language at a near-native level is very similar to telling a good joke. There is a difference between being able to simply say what you want and talking around what you want. There is a difference between hearing "I know what you mean, but we usually say it like this," and simply saying it how a native speaker says something. And there is certainly a difference between "not sounding like a foreigner," and "sounding like a native."

As I learn Mandarin, it is nice to be reminded of what it takes to tell a good joke. I might be able to talk about a thief feeling uneasy about something being fake... in front of a judge (almost forgot that part)...

But that is still a long way from delivering a perfect punch line.


  1. Great post. Funny jokes. I love that magazine (that one with all the comics in it right?) I got a bunch of those in Shanghai a couple years back. MX loved some of them.

    But jokes are tough. We are constantly trying to be funny on our site in both languages. Sometimes it just doesn't work out well. I get a joke via e-mail everyday and if it's a simple joke I will try to translate it and tell it in Chinese. Usually I crash and burn but sometimes I hit a homerun.

    1. Thanks! The book is actually from BLCU (北京語言大學) back in 2003. I wish it had pictures! These are actually all jokes told in Chinese, so no need to translate the concept from English... capturing that is the challenge. I think you guys do a great job of it on your site.

      Keep up the great work!

  2. Very interesting indeed. I can't come up with examples without thinking about this longer, but certainly have come across similar situations. Another thing related to cold jokes is that people sometimes don't understand that you're joking. They think the foreigner with blonde hair can't possible use 雙關語 and therefore just ignores the joke, their brains just edit it out. This doesn't happen with friends of course, but it does happen with acquaintances. Of course, this is about delivery, too. I don't think cold jokes delivered deadpan without hints in voice or facial expression go down very well in Chinese, even if it might do in English or Swedish.


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