CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Sydney launch | China Heritage Quarterly

The Sydney Launch of Humour in Chinese Life and Letters

Stephen FitzGerald
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
29 January 2012

Stephen FitzGerald, scholar, educator, diplomat, public intellectual and business consultant, formerly of ANU, was appointed as Australia's first ambassador to the People's Republic of China in 1973. He has been a prominent figure in Australian public life and part of a widespread political, pedagogical, professional and community effort since the 1960s to see the country slough off its Anglo-centric, racially inflected heritage in favour of an equitable engagement with Asia and the Pacific.—The Editor

I can't think of anyone more appropriate to edit a volume on Chinese humour than doctors Chey and Milner Davis, both nee Milner. The Milner sisters. I've known Jocelyn since we were both studying in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, where she was a minor sensation—but a sensation nevertheless—at privately and comically taking the mickey out of the more patronisingly racist of the British ruling colonialists. And then as colleague, at the Australian Embassy in Beijing in the 1970s, where, with her wicked appreciation of the ridiculous, and ability to do deadpan, she could make even the dourest of puritan Chinese company of the late-Mao period seem like comedy. And when conversation flagged around the dinner table, as it often did because Chinese officials at that time were forbidden to talk unauthorised about anything but the food and the weather, we sometimes invited people to sing—approved repertoire like 'Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman', or Paul Robeson hits such as 'I dreamt I saw Joe Hill'—Jocelyn would sometimes confound the company with her since famous rendition of a nineteenth century English comic song 'There was a lady loved a swine'. And Chinese guests smiled in a sickly sort of way, clearly worried about how to report back on the class analysis of an English woman falling in love with a pig.

There was a lady loved a swine,
'Honey!' said she;
'Pig-hog, wilt thou be mine?'
'Hunc!' said he.

'I'll build thee a silver sty,
Honey!' said she;
'And in it thou shalt lie!'
'Hunc!' said he.

'Pinned with a silver pin,
Honey!' said she;
'That thou mayest go out and in',
'Hunc!' said he.
'Will thou have me now,
Honey?' said she;
'Speak, or my heart will break',
'Hunc!' said he.

I know Jessica less well. We were colleagues when I was working at the University of New South Wales and she was on the Council, but I didn't know then that she is an acclaimed expert on humour studies. Not many of those around, I think, but having read this book I wish there were more. And I have learnt from her essay in the book more about the origins and history of the idea of humour than I had ever imagined. And I've also learnt that what we sometimes describe as a 'humourless' individual, might instead be an agelast, someone unable to enjoy laughter, or more seriously, a gelotophobe, someone who fears being laughed at. I've often thought there's a need for a book on humour in Australia-China relations, and I now know that you couldn't do it justice without agelasts and gelotophobes. I've met quite a few of both, over the years. But in fact, they're a tiny minority, and humour has generally been a great companion on the Australia-China journey.

Jocelyn and Jessica. Humourists both, in at least two contemporary senses of the word. Just two girls who like a joke, we might say.

But as we know from Jocelyn's erudite and entertaining presentation this afternoon, this is not a book of jokes but a serious book about a seriously interesting question and much under-studied subject in the existing scholarship on the sociology of China and its culture. And for good measure, in her own essay in the book Jocelyn also notes, as she goes along, the many areas which remain under-studied or unexplored—Jocelyn the perennial scholar signposting these for a new generation of research.

I like this book for many reasons. For its multiple explorations of the Confucian and the Daoist in the evolution of Chinese humour. And the discussion of the balance and imbalance of 'the humours' in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And of the world's earliest books of jokes. And the translation in Chapter 9 of Lin Yutang's wonderful essay 'On Humour', which is worth a read in its own right. And the study of the social and political context of Lin's essay in Chapter 10. And for all the many other things I never knew.

I wish I'd had this book when I went to China early on. Not so much when I first went in 1965, or in 1968 in the Cultural Revolution. Red Guards didn't do humour in the contemporary sense, and knowing that their humours were out of balance in the ancient sense wouldn't have done me much good when I ran into a lynching party in Changsha. My attempts to humour them by quoting Chairman Mao only inflamed their humours further, until I was saved by a posse of soldiers along the hotel corridor with fixed bayonets. And that was no joke.

But it would have been useful when I went with Gough Whitlam when he was Opposition Leader, with an Australian Labor Party (ALP) delegation and a swag of journalists, in 1971. You've heard Jocelyn talk about xiehou yu 歇后语, a kind of in-joke where the critical words that make the joke are omitted. I hadn't thought about this in the way it's discussed in the book, although I knew it from colloquial expressions of Chinese friends. Like 老太太上电车, meaning 'Old lady getting on a tram'. And you're supposed to know the omitted words are 别吹, 'don't whistle', meaning don't blow the whistle for the driver to start the tram. But 吹 also means 'to boast', so 'Old lady getting on a tram' means you're boasting or stop boasting. But I didn't know that xiehou yu was a well-recognised kind of literary joke with classical and historical allusions, or that it actually had a name. So much for my knowledge of Chinese letters!

In discussing 歇后语, Jocelyn used as a point of reference rhyming slang. Now the point about rhyming slang is that it's an in-joke to begin with, and if you omit the rhyming word it's more than incomprehensible. Mick Young, the Federal Secretary of the ALP, along with several others in that famous delegation, was addicted to rhyming slang which omits the rhyming word, and also used to make it up as he went along, and he used this slang habitually on that trip to China. So, for example, sitting at lunch one very hot day in Nanjing, he said: 'I'll just finish the Germaine, get the Ted, go up to the shovel, unpack the Goldsbrough and put on the Chairman's'. The Germaine was a Germaine Greer, or beer. The Ted was the Ted Hill or the bill, Ted Hill being the then Chairman of the pro-Peking communist Party in Melbourne. The shovel was the shovel and broom, or room. The Goldsbrough was the Goldsbrough Mort, one of Australia's oldest wool trading companies, well known to former shearer Mick Young, so the Goldsbrough Mort was the port, a word for suitcase no longer in widespread use. And when he said he'd put on the Chairman's, he meant his shorts—the Chairman's Thoughts. Beginning with 'why Germaine?', I struggled to explain to the Chinese. What, one of them asked, was the connection between feminism and beer? I dodged Ted Hill and the Chairman's Thoughts, lamely explained the shovel, and tied myself in knots over the relationship between an Australian pastoral company and a suitcase. Had I had a store of these xiehou yu, or even familiarity with the concept and the term, I might have established a new chapter in Sino-Australian communication and understanding.

I also like that from the scholarship presented in this book comes a conclusion that there is a Chinese sense of humour, but it's not unique and there's not much that differs between Chinese and for example Australian humour. This gives us a sense of proportion in looking at things Chinese. And as I read the book I thought of countless experiences of Chinese humour that would raise a laugh with Australians—if they could understand the language.

A teacher I shared with Jocelyn, who loved showing his students how you could play around with puns and word jokes, had one about a man who was fed up with people and dogs urinating against the outside wall of his house. So he painted a sign on the wall saying: 人狗等, 不得在此小便 (People and dogs, not permitted to urinate here). Someone came by and moved the comma, so it read: 人狗等不得, 在此小便 (People and dogs who can't wait, urinate here!) There's a small lesson in Chinese grammar there, which I won't try to explain.

Chinese officials are not known for political jokes about their leaders, but that's not to say they don't have them. A senior official told me this one about Li Peng, who was Prime Minister of China from 1987 to 1998. There was a certain country which required people to prove their identity by demonstrating their particular 特长, which means either speciality or simply strong point, before they could enter the country. The footballer Maradonna arrives and is asked 'Who are you?' and he says ' I'm Maradonna'. And he's asked what's his speciality and he says football and, asked to prove who he is, he demonstrates his football prowess (don't ask me how he does that in the immigration hall). The officials say 'Yes, you must be Maradonna', and he's permitted to enter. Placido Domingo convinces the officials with his singing (also, I think, a challenge when clearing immigration). The list goes on. Then Li Peng arrives and is asked 'Who are you?'. 'I'm Li Peng'. 'How can you prove that? 你有什么特长 (What strong point do you have?).' '我没什么特长 (I have no strong point).' 'Ah! You must be Li Peng. Go straight through.'

And on the Chinese humour goes, through all the possibilities, from all kinds of satire, to situational humour, the equivalent of Irish jokes, jokes humour about priests and religion, and of course physical appearance. Chinese like jokes about foreigners with big noses, and it might surprise you to know that I've had a few about mine. Beginning long ago with the five-year old daughter of one of my Chinese teachers in Hong Kong who said to me: '叔叔, 你的鼻子怎么这么高?' (Uncle, why is your nose so big?) And not so long ago, I went to a meeting in a ministry in Beijing, and as we sat down, a young aide on the other side of the table who I'd not met before whispered to her companion, who I did know, 'Do you see that man opposite?' Yes, he said, looking slightly uncomfortable. 'Why?' And with a wide grin and a low chuckle she replied: 'Did you get a load of the size of his nose!'. Just then the head of the Chinese team spoke to me in Chinese and I replied in Chinese, and the aide turned a brilliant red and got up and fled.

As Jocelyn said earlier, we're not the same, but there is far more that we have in common. And the explosion of Chinese humour and glorious satire on the Internet proves something about the Internet, of course, but more about the humour that has always been there.

When it comes to talking about people and culture in China, or any Asian country, I've always been bothered by the way some people try to explain it using the term 'the other', as though 'other' is some ineluctable condition, fundamentally and unreachably different from our own. It's only the other if you can't walk round and see it from the other side. And that's a problem, because to do that most effectively, you have to have the language. Laughter at something funny is a reaction, immediate, spontaneous. You can translate a joke, but the further away you get from the immediate, and the context, the less you have to savour of its essential funniness or hilarity, and the common humanity beneath. But Australians in general are losing what fragile hold they might have had on reality, in terms of the China that now dominates the news and in some measure them as well, because they lack the means to go round the other side and share the joke in Chinese, hear or read for themselves why it is that Jocelyn can say we're not the same but there is far more that we have in common. Student enrolments in Chinese in Australia are in crisis. There are more studying Latin in schools than Chinese. And it's our national misfortune that we do not have large numbers of Australians who could appreciate the Chinese in their own language; and that, with only two short-lived exceptions—both of them at the state level—governments have never seriously committed to this as necessary or desirable.

The authors of these studies are bilingual, bicultural. And what I find delightful about the book is that, far from being esoteric, it is so cosmopolitan, in subject and in outlook. I'm looking forward to the second volume, and in launching the first, might I suggest to Jocelyn and Jessica a third, that they take up the idea of doing a book on humour in Australia-China relations, a book of scholarship of the high standard of this volume, with the same cosmopolitan outlook, but at the same time a hortatory text on the virtues of being able to mix it with the Chinese in Chinese. And the title? Australia-China Relations as a Joke? Perhaps not. Perhaps, rather, The Joke in Australia-China Relations. I think we're going to need it. Can I then say in conclusion that this book is now launched.