China is very attached to its ancient roots, and, as a result, certain cultural practices can be, at the very least, disorienting for foreigners and language learners. Chinese humor is excellent in illustrating this very point!
Many Westerners find Chinese humor rather difficult to understand. Some even speculate that the Chinese have no sense of humor at all. Well, contrary to popular belief, they do! And it’s actually quite similar to Western humor. What makes it hard for the non-Chinese is the fact that most Chinese jokes are full of cultural references that just can’t be translated effectively. And, as I’m sure we’ve all awkwardly learned through experience, having to explain a joke pretty much kills the entire thing.
The language itself causes problems too. In many languages, humor or sarcasm is expressed with the help of specific, generally understood intonations. As you can imagine, things get a lot more complicated when you’re dealing with a tonal language. There are tons of homonyms and homophones in Chinese, so a lot of Chinese humor is pun based.
This custom goes back to ancient China, where such word-play was used in stand-up shows called xiangsheng (相声 – xiàng sheng), or crosstalk, which involved two comedians engaging in an entertaining dialogue. In modern-day China, people still find puns extremely funny, which is great, because a pun is very likely to be your first successful joke in Chinese!
Be Sarcastic Using 看起来
If you’re a beginner with Chinese, you probably don’t yet have enough words in your vocabulary to pull off a joke. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. To get things off the ground, try making sarcastic remarks using 看起来 kàn qǐ lai.
看起来 is typically used to give praise and compliments. For example, 你今天看起来很美 nǐ jīn tiān kàn qǐ lái hěn měi means you look very beautiful today. You can find out more about this type of 看起来 usage, as well as the difference between 看 and 看起来, by listening to this QingWen podcast.
But right now, you’re probably much more interested in how 看起来 can be used facetiously right? My friend in China once told me that if he wanted to tell a woman that she looked beautiful, he’d say 你很漂亮 nǐ hěn piāo liàng, which means you’re beautiful, rather than 你看起来很漂亮 — you look beautiful. Apparently, 看起来 sounds weaker. This quality of 看起来 makes it a perfect tool for sarcasm, as it can easily turn an otherwise offensive statement into a joke.
看起来你也没有传说的那么厉害啊 kàn qǐ lái nǐ yě méi yǒu chuán shuō dí nà me lì hài ā— It seems like you’re not as good as they said, or…
你看起来跟要饭的一样 nǐ kàn qǐ lái gēn yào fàn dí yī yàng— You look like a homeless person.
All you do is take a judgement or a comparison and put 看起来 at the beginning of the sentence or after its subject (你, for instance). This type of humor functions very similarly to how it does in English, so you should be able to use it without any major difficulties.
3 No-Nos in Chinese Humor
- Stay away from jokes about diulian (丢脸 -diū liǎn) — losing face. The issues of, “saving face” and “losing face” are relevant in most of Asia, and China is no exception. In case you aren’t familiar with this concept, here’s a brief explanation: in Asia, face, aside from meaning the thing that stares at you in the mirror, is used to describe reputation, influence, dignity, and honor. If you say or do something that causes someone to lose face, you’ll make them feel incredibly ashamed. The concept of “Face” is as important in China as free will and autonomy are in the US. So while losing self-respect is a personal tragedy for Westerners, the Chinese are extremely concerned about losing face — as in, losing the respect of their peers.
- Avoid joking about someone’s personal life. Romantic relationships are a very private matter in China, and jokes about them are considered rude as opposed to funny. Only the best of friends can exchange the type of jokes you hear in a typical American sitcom. On a related note, it’s also wise to avoid joking about sex or sexuality.
- Don’t make jokes that criticize the Chinese government. For Westerners, there’s nothing extraordinary about making fun of politicians, but in China, you can end up walking on thin ice! Although Chinese people frequently use humor to communicate taboo subject, I highly suggest that you don’t attempt this, especially at the beginning of your Chinese learning journey!
Ever tried pulling off a joke in Chinese? Tell everyone how it went below!
To learn more about jokes, check out our playlist:
Latest posts by Elena Ruchko (see all)
- Chinese Humor vs American Humor, and How to Be Sarcastic Using 看起来 - July 26, 2017
- Red Envelope Wars and What Pokemon Go Has to Do with CNY - February 1, 2017