Many Westerners find Chinese humor rather difficult to understand. Most Chinese jokes are full of cultural references that are difficult to translate effectively. And, as I'm sure we've all 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 intonations. 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 (crosstalk - 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! 

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Image: Kongregate



Be Sarcastic Using looks


If you're a beginner with Chinese, you probably do not yet have have enough words in your vocabulary to pull off a joke. But this does not mean you should not try. To get things off the ground, try making sarcastic remarks using looks kàn qǐ lai.

For example,  you look very beautiful today nǐ jīn tiān kàn qǐ lái hěn měi means you look very beautiful today.

But right now, you're probably much more interested in how seems to 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 You are pretty nǐ hěn piāo liàng, which means you're beautiful, rather than you look beautiful 

Apparently, it sounds like weaker. This quality of looks it a perfect tool for sarcasm, as it can easily turn an otherwise offensive statement into a joke.

For example:

It looks like you did not have the legend so much ah

 kàn qǐ lái nǐ yě méi yǒu chuán shuō dí nà me lì hàiāā

 It seems like you're not as good as they said

You look the same with your meal

 nǐ kàn qǐ lái gēn yào fàn dí yī yàng n

You look like a homelsess person.

All you do is a judgment or a comparison and put looks 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.

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Image: China Smack



Three Don'ts of Chinese Humor

Stay away from jokes that make someone lose face. Saving face is extremely important in China. "Face", in Asia, is used to describe reputation, influence, dignity, and honor., You'll make them feel incredibly ashamed. The concept of "Face" is as important in China as independence is in the US. So while losing self-respect is a personal tragedy for Westerners, the Chinese is extremely concerned about losing face. 

Avoid joking about someone's personal life. Romantic relationships are a private matter in China, and jokes about them are considered rude. 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 sexuality. 

For Westerners, it's normal to mock politicians, but in China, you can end up walking on thin ice! Although Chinese people frequently use humor to communicate taboo subjects, I highly suggest that you do not attempt this, especially at the beginning of your Chinese learning journey! 

Source: Chinese Pod