Tag Archives: censorship

Why What’s Funny in China Might Surprise You

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki

Jesse Appell will do anything for a laugh.

“Food poisoning is funny. I got dysentery once. That was funny.”

Well, not quite that funny the moment we sat down to talk over dumplings in Beijing. Appell has lived in Beijing on and off for several years.

Recently Appell has been studying what’s funny in China, which he admits has not been easy.

“When I came to China I initially didn’t have the language ability to make a joke. I would try to make a joke but I didn’t know the cues that you would use to make jokes so when I said stuff wrong people just assumed that i was speaking wrong,” said Appell.

But as Appell’s Chinese language skills have developed — he’s now nearly fluent in Mandarin — so has his understanding of what’s funny in Chinese. He remembers the first day he made a successful joke in China.

“I got a nose bleed in class. The word liuxue means to flow blood but it’s a perfect pun for the word exchange student,” explained

So when Jesse left class to take care of his nose bleed, he called out to the class in Chinese, ‘Don’t worry about me I’m just an exchange student.’ His classmates erupted in laughter he says.

Word play is an essential element in the ancient Chinese art of comedy. There is a centuries old tradition of Chinese stand-up called xiangsheng or crosstalk according to linguist David Moser who has has studied crosstalk in China.

“Crosstalk is a folk verbal art form that similar to beloved classic skits that we know of like the who’s on first routine,” said Moser.

Much like Abbott & Costello in traditional crosstalk there’s the funny man and the straight guy. Crosstalk began in Beijing where some comedic skits go back to the Ming Dynasty. Modern times and modern politics have altered what can be funny in China and crosstalk has adapted. The humor is rather vanilla; this is the opposite of political satire.

“After 1949 they had to clean it all up. They had to get rid of country bumpkin jokes because the peasants were the heroes of the revolution. Of course, all the sex and bawdiness was gone. The one thing you can’t do is do political humor at all,” said Moser.

But according to Moser that doesn’t mean that Chinese people aren’t dishing out the political jokes.

“I almost feel that there’s two layers of humor. One is the public media labor. It’s very prudish, polite; it’s not rambunctious or impolite. Then there’s this other layer which is the average person on the street which is just how it is in any country. It can be really outlandishly anti-authoritarian or smutty or absolutely outrageous,” said Moser.

This other layer of humor takes stage on the internet sometimes inspired by humor from unexpected places like the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Chinese netizens have taken to translating Stewart’s show. He’s actually Jiong Situ in Chinese.

“Very often the subtitles show they didn’t understand the joke, but some of the jokes do translate and that’s good enough,” said Moser.

Good enough that in April of this past year a clip of a joke about North Korea went viral in China. Turns out jokes about North Korea are funny to both Chinese and American audiences. Jiong Situ is still a long way off from gracing Chinese prime time. His jokes are far too politically sensitive.

There are other forms of comedy bubbling up in the bars and clubs of Beijing: improv for one. Fulbrighter Jesse Appell is part of a bilingual improv comedy troupe called BIG.

The troop rehearses in a makeshift theater with tiny stage. If you’ve ever been to an improv show, it’s a pretty familiar scene. The audience shouts out suggestions, the players improvise a scene. Except that here players mix English and Chinese.

The topics were rather tame, nothing bawdy or political. I kept waiting for something controversial to come up. But this is China after all. As I was reminded when a sudden discussion ensued just as I pressed record. Jesse approached me:

“You can record whatever but if we say anything about the government we need you not to use that,” said Appell.

It was a surprising request and as it turned out unnecessary. No one said anything about the government. However, it seems Jesse has learned much more about China then just comedy.

Jon Stewart taking in his Chinese celebrity:

Comedians Guo Degang and Yu Qian:

Jesse Appell performs stand-up comedy in Chinese:

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Observing the Tiananmen Anniversary with ‘Big Yellow Duck’

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

Here’s a post from my Big Show colleague Traci Tong…

June 4 was the 24th anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese authorities against student protesters in Tiananmen Square.

China’s leaders go to great lengths to prevent people from remembering what happened.

That includes banning online searches for words or phrases like “Tiananmen,” “tanks,” or “June 4th.”

Today Chinese censors added another phrase: “Big yellow duck.”

Rachel Lu, editor at Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that analyzes China’s social media, said the big yellow duck refers to a giant rubber yellow ducky, similar to the bathtub toy.

"Tank man" blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.  (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

“Tank man” blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

The duck is 54 feet high and is an art installation that’s been floating in Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor for the past month.

The floating duck has become a minor celebrity. An anonymous poster on the Chinese social media network, Weibao, took four images of the duck and superimposed them on that iconic image of the four tanks during the Tiananmen Square pro democracy protests.

Lu says the duck has now become a symbol to remind the Chinese people about the Tiananmen Square event in 1989.

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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.

Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:

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