China’s “Humor” or “Youmo” According to Lin Yutang

Another of my Chinese students wrote about humor, somehow this slipped my attention. There’s some worthwhile quotes he used according to Suoqiao (2007) in article “Translating ‘humor’ into Chinese culture:”

It was Lin Yutang who first coined the term in 1924 and introduced and promoted the idea of humor into Chinese culture. Lin’s translating ‘humor’ into youmo was a conscious cross-cultural act that exchange meaning between East and West culture.

To non-Chinese speakers, the Chinese term “youmo” may not have an clear relation with ‘humor.’ To Chinese speakers, “youmo” has become such an accepted term in modern Chinese today that it is used in daily life. But to bilingual speakers of Chinese and English, it would not be hard to notice the effect of transliteration between “youmo” and humor. In fact, “youmo” is one of hundreds of new words that appeared in modern Chinese. Unlike other new words, “youmo” has a specific translator—Lin Yutang, and his translating ‘humor’ into youmo was a conscious cross-cultural act that played an important role in the modern transformation of Chinese culture.

In the Chinese literary and cultural world, however, Lin Yutang was best known as ‘‘Master of Humor’’ for his translation and promotion of ‘humor’ into Chinese culture. In 1932, a group of Western-trained professionals and writers, among Lin Yutang, assumed an active leading role, launched a literary periodical “Lunyu” to introduce and promote humor into Chinese literature and culture. Because the journal was an instant success with its inaugural issue, youmo suddenly became the talk of the town so that writers of different styles and backgrounds were all tempted to try “humor”. In any case, while there is still debate concerning the politics of Lin’s journals in the 1930s, youmo has been used for so long in the Chinese language.

In ancient China, a famous Philosopher Zhuangzi said, “Above ground I’ll be eaten by crows and kites, below ground I’ll be eaten by mole crickets and ants. Wouldn’t it be rather bigoted to deprive one group in order to supply the other?’’ (Zhuangzi 1968: 361). We do not know if Zhuangzi ever had any funeral as most Chinese people do in the end. But as Lin Yutang points out, it is precisely in Chinese funerals that the Chinese sense of humor is supreme. If life is a huge farce and human beings are mere players in it for a short time, there is really no need to take death seriously. Therefore, in the Chinese mind, as Lin tells us, ‘‘A funeral, like a wedding, should be noisy and should be expensive, but there is no reason why it should be solemn. Solemnity is already provided for in the grandiloquent gowns, and the rest is form, and form is farce’’.  And Lin holds that Western observers who fail to appreciate the humor of a Chinese funeral are probably in want of humor.

Lin Yutang did a lot in his translating ‘humor’ into youmo. And the most important thing that in the case of Confucius is: Only when one’s personality is naturally developed and given full play can one achieve a high-mindedness and become broadminded and tolerant toward life with a ‘‘smile out of understanding-of the- heart/mind’’.

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