Want to stay in touch? Post a funny joke

Updated: 2013-05-25 07:59

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

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What should you do when you just want to say hello to somebody? You can make a phone call or text a greeting. But the easiest way to keep in touch with people in China is probably by sharing a joke with them through your cell phone. That's what millions of Chinese do everyday.

Among a recent flurry of jokes or wisecracks I've received and reposted was this one from a fellow parent concerned about rising education costs: A student tells his father that he wants to join his school's musical band and he needs to buy his own musical instrument. "Son, we're poor," his father says, giving him a chopstick. "Why don't you try to be a conductor?"

Last weekend, my boss sent me a joke on how anger had affected the lifespan of some famous Chinese people. While laughing at its cleverness, I wondered why he would send me a joke which basically implies the smartest person will neither annoy nor be annoyed by others.

There is no official tally of the number of jokes sent through cell phones everyday. But according to the latest official survey results, users with better education and in higher positions are more likely to send and receive jokes or interesting remarks.

While about 15 percent of the recipients will choose to reply in a few words as a matter of courtesy, more than 40 percent will reciprocate with their own collection. That includes me. I've stored a small trove of funny jokes in the inbox and instant messaging apps on my cell phone, which I've categorized to be shared with colleagues, friends and family members.

But it would be misleading to say Chinese jokes are just a way for people to keep in touch and to network. The most popular jokes are the sarcastic and self-deprecating ones that help people let off steam through laughter.

The typical format of such "gray jokes" or Chinese black humor usually starts with a shared experience and ends suddenly with a twist or punch line. Compared with its English counterpart, a Chinese tweet is less constrained in terms of space because the limit of 140 characters is usually enough for telling a good joke. More significantly, Chinese life plagued by social inequality and corruption has become a rich source of satire, and many funny situations have arisen from the colossal, chaotic side of social change unfolding in China.

As a sign of public anxiety over rampant corruption, a widely circulated joke goes like this: A television journalist asks a migrant laborer on the street: "What do you think about the new, serious anti-corruption measures this year?" The worker replies: "You mean the past measures were only for fun?"

In comparison, off-color jokes that can shock and surprise readers are usually limited to close friends and couples because they risk making people uncomfortable and can even attract lawsuits for sexual harassment.

The fact that many such jokes are part of folklore with anonymous collective authors also contributes to their popularity. Some have different versions because anybody can try to improve their setup and punch lines before they are reposted on the Web.

But the tolerance by regulators is generally considered the key factor to the fast proliferation of the "gray jokes" that often thrive on being irreverent. Sociologists believe the jokes can function as a safety valve to ease social tensions.

Most agree that Chinese people's penchant for black humor will subside only when they find greater harmony in society and their life is less messy and arduous.

If you want to send a joke, send one that helps people see the funny element even in something that does not appear funny.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail: dr.baiping@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily 05/25/2013 page5)