So Funny I Forgot to Laugh: A Look at Chinese Sarcasm

Laughing Chinese Woman What Oscar Wilde once called "the lowest form of wit but the highest form of humor" doesn't constitute wit or humor in China. There is no Chinese word for sarcasm and no Chinese people who use it. It just isn't the Chinese way. It is not well-received in social situations and when the type of humor is employed with regard to government or politics, it is even considered subversive. For Americans and Brits, verbal sarcasm serves as a fun and often preferred way to express emotions, obvious conclusions and subtlety. For the Chinese, why would you ever say the opposite of what you mean to say?

The word ??, or fengci, in Mandarin is primarily the Chinese word for "satire" but is also used to describe "sarcasm." And herein lies the problem. This equivocation is tantamount to having the same word in English for both an apple and a banana. Both are fruits, as satire and sarcasm are both humor devices, but they are wholly distinct in usage and property. Granted, sarcasm is often used to achieve satire however the words are, by no means, synonymous. The lack of a unique Chinese word for "sarcasm" illustrates a broad cultural misunderstanding of this type of humor.

I asked a 24-year-old woman who works as an English customer support agent what is the meaning of fengci. She replied that it meant "sarcastic." Perfect. I asked her what she thought the meaning of "sarcastic" was. She replied, "it is when someone believes differently from what is commonly thought to be true." Hmm. She continued, "and it's also when someone makes fun of something." Better. When I pushed further, it became clear she was having trouble expressing the true meaning of sarcasm. And to her credit, many native English speakers struggle with these meanings as well.

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines "sarcasm" as "a form of irony in which apparent praise conceals another, scornful meaning." For example, one might say "thanks a lot" when he means no thanks at all. Insomuch as sarcasm and sometimes irony both aim to ridicule its victim, the two do overlap. The essence of good verbal sarcasm and the element that seems to get lost in China is that the user sounds as though what he is saying should be taken at face value when really, the literal meaning couldn't be further from the intended meaning.

In the Shanghainese dialect, there exists a true example of verbal sarcasm. If in Shanghai, a local were to say, "xia xia nong yi ga men (??????)," literally the expression translates to "thank you to your whole family." However, the true meaning of this phrase is "thanks for nothing" or more accurately, "fuck you." This Chinese expression holds all the properties of a good piece of sarcasm -- it's cutting and it's apparent meaning is the opposite of actual meaning.

In a December 27 China Daily editorial titled "A Laughing Matter," the English-language newspaper discusses the downfall of Chinese comedy and how the traditional comedic art of xiangsheng (face and voice), or "crosstalk" has died in China. Crosstalk, the standard in early 20th century Chinese comedy, features an exasperated straight man and a clownish, stumbling funny man similar to the American comedic duos of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello and the Smothers Brothers.

Throughout the China Daily editorial, the author continually uses "sarcastic" in places where "satirical" would have been more appropriate. For example: "xiangsheng, a traditional art form between two performers conveying sarcasm through funny stories, is known as 'the art of laughter.'" The fundamental element of crosstalk is satire, not sarcasm. This satire may come in the form of sarcasm, but usually not. In crosstalk, performers would partake in a back and forth banter, imitating and satirizing people's voices and actions. Here again, in China's leading daily English newspaper, we find that sarcasm is misunderstood.

Similarly, a January 5 article in the Chinese business newspaper The Standard reported on a new etiquette law enforced in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games. The law, reported by Chinese state media and taking effect February 1, mandates that Beijing store clerks who "vent their anger, act impatiently, glance at customers disdainfully or act absent-mindedly are in violation of the law. Also forbidden under the draft regulations are sarcastic or ironic comments, vague explanations and grabbing customers to coerce them into buying something." Sarcastic or ironic comments? Beijing store clerks are not really known for their snarky quips or use of high-level humor. It's more likely the state media simply meant "rude" or "obnoxious."

The Chinese magazine Southern Metropolis Weekly recently used true sarcasm when it reported that the Chinese government had instituted universal health care for its 1.3 billion citizens and eradicated bribery and corruption throughout China. Clearly, this is untrue and represents a Chinese attempt at cutting edge political sarcasm. The only problem with this sarcasm is that it isn't very funny. The joke more closely resembles the cover of a high school newspaper's April Fool's edition.

This type of political sarcasm is gaining steam in China, partly because of an influx of Western sarcasm in popular American television such as South Park or Friends and partly because in a place where it is still a taboo to criticize the establishment, sarcasm is a way by which to say something without expressly saying it.

In fact, there was a time in China when sarcasm was a popular intellectual device to silence an opponent in debate and literature. In the early 20th century, Chinese essayists and crosstalk artists used sarcasm and irony to ridicule the the poor, the rich, foreigners and religion. This era of political discourse preceded Mao's Cultural Revolution, which abruptly put an end to all sexual humor and poking fun at officials and peasants. And as the vice closed on the existing forms of humor, the art of sarcasm evaporated from Chinese culture.

In an essay titled, "Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese Humor" writer David Moser explains how Chinese comedy diverged from comedy in the rest of the world. He writes, "Crosstalk and other entertainment forms were now called upon to 'praise' rather than to 'satirize.' Few dissenting voices dared point out the obvious problem, namely that 'praise' is not very funny." Within a culture where praise overtook satire, sarcasm was no longer welcome.

And almost 60 years after the revolution, sarcasm has not made a comeback in China. Today, drama dominates Chinese cinema and television and stand-up comedy is about as rare as a fish taco. As Western cinema, television and literature slowly seep into the fabric of Chinese culture, so too will the sarcasm that has become the prevailing type of wit in the West. And maybe someday soon when the Chinese hear a bad joke, instead of laughing politely, they will roll their eyes and with a smart-alecky tone, tell the joker, "very funny."

-David Flumenbaum