Lifestyle & Belief

China: If The Onion isn't funny, what is?


Chinese President Hu Jintao (left) and Premier Wen Jiabao (right) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.


Frederic J. Brown

HONG KONG — Just because the editors of a Communist Party mouthpiece don't know a joke when they see one doesn't mean that satire is dead in China.

After People’s Daily published its gloriously earnest slideshow of Kim Jong Un in honor of his selection as the "Sexiest Man Alive" by The Onion, Americans could be forgiven for wondering if China lacks a certain sensitivity to sarcasm. If The Onion isn't seen as funny, what is?

The answer is, well, lots. While the Communist Party has arguably had a stifling effect on the more ribald, rebellious forms of traditional comedy — especially on the public stage — a strong strain of subversive humor has sprouted online. And that's not counting the videos, puns, and skits that make up China's contemporary humor scene.

Here's a brief guide to what's funny in China now.

Internet wisecracks

If you have any doubts about the popularity of sarcasm in China, look no further than Weibo. The rise of Twitter-like microblogging services has permitted an explosion of biting mockery by ordinary people who are as creative in dodging censorship as they are in crafting punchlines.

Users have to be particularly creative in their punning, to the point where it’s almost like Cockney slang. People who complain about censorship say they were “river crabbed” — a homophone for “harmonized,” which is mocking slang for “censored.” During the 18th Party Congress, Weibo users mocked “Sparta,” which sounds like “Big 18,” the Chinese name for the event.

After the People’s Daily gaffe was exposed, Chinese Weibo users were quick to pounce with the gibes. China Digital Times translated a selection:

“You really don’t get it. The People’s Daily Online is also a parody site!” wrote one.

“You really can’t blame them,” wrote another. “Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to find great, glorious, and correct events. Stretched as they are for positive news, they would seize this opportunity like a fat kid on cake.”

“If the Party says he’s sexy, he’s sexy,” said GeLeixia.

More elaborate political satire is by necessity more conceptual, subtle, and indirect than in the US. This month, a post that went viral on Renren (a Facebook knock-off) cleverly couched a critique of the government in a story ostensibly about going shopping with a tyrannical girlfriend.

“Today is the eighteenth time I have accompanied my girlfriend to go shopping,” it began, alluding to the 18th Party Congress. “Whenever my girlfriend goes shopping, she tends to get overly serious and way more than just fidgety about the whole thing ..."

Crosstalk and skits

A more traditional form of comedy is called xiangsheng, or cross talk. Invented in the Qing Dynasty, cross talk is basically a scripted skit in which two or more performers make witty, punny repartee. The style is often compared to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” sketch.

Still, the humor can take a lot of linguistic and cultural savvy for a non-Chinese to understand. Jesse Appell, an American Fulbright scholar in Beijing who is studying to perform cross talk, says that it takes him multiple watchings to get the jokes by Zhao Ben Shan, arguably the greatest performer of the art form.

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“As a student of comedy in China, I’m never completely confident that I picked up everything, period," he says. "I don’t know if there’s every really a point that, not growing up in this culture, I can be as confident I get it as when I see a sketch on Saturday Night Live."

In this sketch, Zhao Ben Shan plays an old man who is trying to convince a TV host over dinner to make his insipid granddaughter a star.

While some practitioners say that Communist bowdlerization has killed cross talk's racy, freewheeling side, it remains a staple on China’s annual TV variety shows, and has undergone something of a recent revival.

Foreigners doing ridiculous things

One surprisingly reliable source of laughs for Chinese audiences is watching foreigners do Chinese things — especially speak the language. On variety shows, fluent Westerners are often called upon to recite ancient poems, sing Peking Opera, or say Chinese tongue-twisters.

Appell, for one, has become a minor celebrity in China for making a video parody of Gangam Style in Chinese. His video, “Laowai Style,” shows him boasting that he can eat with chopsticks, ride a motor scooter, and avoid getting ripped off in Beijing. It has racked up over a million views on YouKu, China’s version YouTube.

“I made it with a Chinese audience in mind,” he says. "I wanted to use the video as a way to break down stereotypes about foreigners in China."

Mike Sui, whose father is Chinese and mother is white American, catapulted to even greater fame after making a video in which he imitates the stereotyped speech styles of Americans, Taiwanese, Beijingers, Russians and Japanese, among others. His video has been viewed over 6 million times in China, earning him contracts with Puma and Nescafe.

Sui has said he views himself as bringing a more self-deprecating style to Chinese comedy.

"No comedian mocks themselves, which I think is what makes my videos popular. It's about not being scared to touch sensitive subjects," he told the Global Times.

Whether Sui is truly breaking new ground or not is, of course, debatable. Long before the Mao era, intellectuals such as Lin Yutang celebrated the Chinese people's frank, earthy and irreverent style of humor in his class work, "My Country and My People." While years of repression drove much of that irreverence underground, Lin's words still ring true more than 75 years later.

“The abysmal ignorance of the foreigner about China and the Chinese cannot be more impressive than when he asks the question: Do the Chinese have a sense of humor?" he wrote.

"It is really as surprising as if an Arab caravan were to ask: Are there sands in the Sahara Desert?”