Archive for August 10, 2012

Why are the Chinese Humorless?

One of my Chinese students wrote this summary response essay on a journal article she read.  It was too good NOT to share.

“According to Xiao (2010) in the article “Historical review, empirical findings, and critical reflectionsin Exploration of Chinese humor, the Humor was first written around 2,500 BC in China when the first Chinese poetry and literary books appeared. Zhuangzi, who is a co-founder of Taoism, is recognized as the very first humorist in China. The main part of Chinese humor is the joke-telling and funny show-performing. Humor has been traditionally given little respect in Chinese culture mainly due to the Confucian emphasis on keeping proper manners of social interactions. Confucius once ordered to execute humorists for having “improper performance” before dignitaries in 500 BC. The term “humor” was translated by Mr. Lin Yu-tang in 1920s and it has been increasingly popular in China. However, humor was not valued by the Chinese and they think humor is least important even though they all enjoyed it. Also, in the long history of China, humor was often considered the least important factor in rational to creativity, and ideal Chinese personality.

Huaji should best encompass the meaning of youmo (humor in Chinese) and should have five different kinds: mean, obscene, witty, ironic(sarcastic), and humorous. These are traditional Chinese humor style and all written in the books. However, Chinese government are not allow these things on books, cause they think it is the defiant action of their power that above everyone.  For example, “literary inquisition” is responsible for the Chinese cultural disregard for humor. “Literary inquisition refers to an unjust charge that rulers in the Chinese history used to persecute intellectuals.”

Literary inquisition refers to the unfair rulers in the Chinese history .The emperor deliberately put writers in prison for having used or abused words and sentences for expressing negative or hostile political, ethical or ideological implications. Such kind of things happened under Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor in China, to use literary inquisition to prosecute people who dared to produce dissident opinions. Specifically, he ordered the law to have 400 scholars buried alive for their writings untimely or unorthodox to his ruling. This is known as the “burning of the books and burial of the scholars” in 213 B.C. and has set a very bad example for instituting dictatorial control over dissent opinions. So, for thousands of year, Chinese governments never want to admit the entertainment was the major function of humor.

I agree with Xiao’s opinion, I saw many Chinese people are too reticent to tell jokes when there are unfamiliar people around them. I think it’s really because of the traditional Chinese thinking about how to perform well. But when Chinese people know each other very well, they will become more different than what they usually act, the word they talk will be more humorous. The old thinking occurs because ancient Chinese governments always considered humor as a vulgar entertainment. They prefer more elegant art, such as poet and painting reflecting beautiful scenery, different kinds of feelings and charming women.

In this situation, Chinese humor can only be followed by folk artisan, written in the folk novels. Though in this kind of situation, Chinese people do value humor even if they aren’t really aware of it. Judge Wu once remarked, “Whereas Westernersare seriously humorous, Chinese people are humorously serious”. Because the education that is according to the Confucianism, Chinese receive in their growing time, most of Chinese people have been highly cautious, conservation and critical with humor.

In conclusion, Chinese humor develops very hard in the long time of history mainly because the Confucianism and Chinese government’s suppress on the growth of traditional humor. And also the environment that Chinese people used to, they are educated not to be focused on when they tell jokes in their daily life which will make them vulgar. However, in fact, Chinese people are both funny and humorous people because they have positive attitude towards life. Therefore, they never lack humor and have been highly creative with their humor.”


Xiao.D. (2010). Exploration of Chinese humor: Historical review, empirical findings, and critical reflections. Chinese Poetry.  23(3). 403-420a.

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