You don’t really understand a culture until you can laugh at its jokes. The same goes for cultures of the past. Do we chuckle at the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii, or laugh at the right moments of Shakespeare? Beyond the universals of toilet humor and risque buffoonery, it all depends on much you are in tune with their frame of mind.
One of my recent past times has been a Chinese joke collection from the late Ming era (mid-17th century) known as the Storehouse of Laughter (笑府). It was compiled by the writer and anthologist Feng Menglong, who is best known for his collections of stories in the vernacular language (as opposed to the formal literary language of most written works).
I definitely don’t understand everything – many of the punchlines are still opaque to me, and lots of cultural references are doubtlessly flying over my head – but there’s plenty in there that we can still appreciate in the 21st century, enough so that I feel it’s a work worth sharing, that more people should know about.
Here are some of my favorites (some may be unexpectedly familiar!):
Teaching the son
A rich man was illiterate, and people persuaded him to hire a teacher to teach his son. The teacher came and started by teaching him how to hold the brush. He drew one stroke, and said “this is the number one.” (一) Two strokes, “the number two.” (二) Three strokes, “the number three.” (三) The son then joyously tossed aside the brush, and told his father: “Even ghosts can learn how to write. I don’t need a teacher any more.” And so the teacher was dismissed. Soon afterwards, the father wanted to invite a relative named Wan (“thousand”) to a banquet. He told his son to rise early and prepare the invitation, but after a long while it was still not ready. The father asked what was going on, and the son despairingly replied: “Of all the names to choose, why be called Thousand? From dawn till now, I’ve only managed Five Hundred.”
A teacher was napping in the daytime. When he woke up, he lied, saying: “I was just dreaming of the Duke of Zhou.” The next day, his student also started napping, but the teacher woke him up sharply, saying: “Why are you napping in the day?” The student replied: “I just went to see the Duke of Zhou.” The teacher asked him what the Duke said, and he replied: “The Duke said that he didn’t meet you yesterday, sir.”
This is a reference to the Analects, Shu Er 5. “The Master said: ‘How grieved I am that for such a long time I have not dreamed of the Duke of Zhou!'” （子曰：「甚矣吾衰也！久矣吾不復夢見周公。」）
Hades seeks a good physician
Hades despatched his minions to seek out a good physician in the world of the living, telling them: “You will know when you come to a good physician because he will have no aggrieved spirits hanging around his door.” But at every physician’s doorway, the minions of Hades found plenty of aggrieved spirits. Finally they came to one physician’s house where there was only one aggrieved spirit walking to and fro in front of it. They said to each other: “This must be finally the good physician!” But when they asked, it turned out that he had only started his practice yesterday.
Guarding a monk
There was a soldier who was supposed to stand guard over a monk in prison. As the monk was chanting, the soldier got drunk and passed out. The monk shaved the head of the soldier, freed himself from his chains, shackled up the soldier in his place, and escaped. The next morning, the soldier woke up and couldn’t find the monk. He rubbed his head, and found that it was bald, and that there were chains around his neck. He sighed and said: “Well the monk is still here. But where am I?”
Worrying about King Wen
A teacher was speaking about King Wen of Zhou’s imprisonment, but he was summoned away and did not finish the lesson. One of the students left quickly for home, with an anguished expression on his face. On the road, a colleague asked him what was the matter, and he replied: “Earlier my teacher told us about the great sage King Wen, and how he was imprisoned by King Zhou of Shang. I’m just distressed by this crime.” The colleague said: “King Wen is soon released, he won’t grow old in prison.” The student said: “I’m not worried about his release, I’m just worried that he’ll have a hard time in jail tonight.”
Someone was passing through a wasteland when he saw human bones exposed on the ground. Taking pity on the poor soul, he reburied the bones. At night he heard a knocking on his door. He asked who it was, and the reply: “Fei.” He asked again, and the reply: “I am Yang Fei (the Consort Yang, one of the four great beauties of China). I came to grief at Ma Wei, and my remains were not given a proper burial. I am grateful to you, sir, for burying my bones, and I am here to share your pillow in appreciation.” And so he accepted her offer with great glee. The neighbor overheard this and was jealous. He went to scout out the wasteland, and chanced upon some exposed bones, which he buried. At night, there was a knocking on his door. He asked who it was, and the reply: “Fei.” He asked: “Are you the consort Yang Fei?” But the reply came: “I am Zhang Fei.” The neighbor was shocked, and loudly asked: “Why has General Zhang come back to this world?” He replied: “I came to grief at Lang Zhong, and my remains were not given a proper burial. I am grateful to you, sir, for burying my bones, and I have specially come to offer my hairy bum in appreciation.”
A youth was having an affair with his neighbor’s wife, when they heard a knock on the door. Knowing that the husband was home, they were in a panic. The wife wrapped him up in a large sack, and placed him by the bed. If the husband should ask, they agreed, she would say that it was a sack of rice. She then went to open the door and welcome her husband home. When he saw the sack, he felt suspicious and asked her what it was. The wife was so nervous that she couldn’t answer him, and so the husband raised his voice and asked again. The youth could not help but reply from inside the sack: “I’m rice!”
The Jade Emperor was taking a stroll, when he saw a husband and wife in the bedroom. He asked the Earth God what they were doing, and he replied: “They’re making people.” “How many people can they make in a year?” “Just one.” “If that’s the case, why are they moving so frantically?”