How to Understand Chinese Humor
Not understanding local humor is frustrating, especially when you understand the words but don't know why everybody's laughing. In order to rid yourself of embarrassment, what are you going to do? Pretend to laugh? Come on! You can do better than that. Here are three tips to help you avoid becoming the butt of the joke.
1 Chinese jokes are not always "funny."
If you lived in China long enough, you probably have heard of the term "cold joke" (冷笑话 / lěng xiàohuà). A "cold joke" is not supposed to make people laugh—on the contrary, it makes people shiver in terror at how bad it is! A good example of a "cold joke":
A mantou (steamed bun) was walking down the street one day. He started getting hungry, so he took a bite of himself. Then he was a baozi (steamed stuffed bun). To respond to a joke like this, you can simply say, "it's just cold" (好冷 / hǎolěng) or "I feel a cold wind blowing." (我感到一阵凉风吹过 / wǒ gǎndào yí zhèn liángfēng chuīguò).
2 Chinese humor is often sarcastic.
People complain about or expose bad things through exaggeration, criticism, or underlying sarcasm in jokes. In recent years, "the rich second generation" (富二代 / fù'èrdài)—young people whose parents are extremely wealthy—has come under intense public criticism. One joke about them goes like this:
Son: "Dad, I have a problem. I just came to Germany, but I can't seem to fit in. I am the only kid in my class who drives a Benz to school. My classmates take the train."
Dad: "It's OK, I just transferred 5 million Euros to your account. Go buy a train."
You may laugh at those jokes, but they also serve as an opening point for discussions on serious social issues.
3 Ask tricky questions, and answer wittily.
Many jokes in China are in question-and-answer form, and the answer has to be sarcastic or surprising, such as this one, about rising tuition costs due to the One-Child Policy:
"What's more expensive than going to college in China?"
"Nope, going to kindergarten."
These kind of jokes are fun. You can find lots of jokes online and try them out on your Chinese friends ... they'll probably laugh. Some of these jokes were found at kisshi