Confucius, Lao Tse, and the Buddha walk into a bar…

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!):

訓子

一富翁世不識字。人勸以延師訓子。師至。始訓之執筆臨朱。書一畫。則訓曰一字。二畫。則訓曰二字。三畫。則訓曰三字。其子便欣然投筆。告父曰。鬼已都曉字義。何頻師為。乃謝去之。踰時。父擬招所親萬姓者飲令子晨起。治狀。久之不成。父趣之。其子恚曰。姓亦多矣。奈何偏姓萬。自朝至今。[終]完得五百餘畫。

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.”

晝寢

一師晝寢。及醒。謬言曰。我乃夢周公也。明晝。其徒効之。師以界方擊醒。曰。汝何得如此。徒曰。亦往見周公耳。師曰周公何語。荅曰。周公說昨日並不曾會尊師。

Napping

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。」)

冥王訪名醫

冥王遣冥卒訪陽間名醫。命之曰。門前無寃鬼者即是。每[過]醫門。寃鬼畢集。最後至一家。見門前獨鬼徬徨。曰。此可當名醫矣。問之。乃昨日新竪藥牌者。

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.

解僧卒

一卒。管解罪僧赴戍。僧故點。中道。醉之以酒。取刀髡其首。脫己索反紲之。而逸。次早。卒寤。求僧不得。自磨其首。居然髡也。而索又在項。乃大詫曰。僧故在此。我在那裡去了。

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?”

愁文王

有講文王囚羑里者。師適赴召。不竟其說。一士快々而歸。愁容可掬。中途。友人問之。對曰。朝來吾師說文王大聖人也。為紂所囚。吾憐其辜耳。友曰。文王不久便釋。非老于囚者。士曰。不愁不釋。只愁今夜獄中難過。

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.”

學樣

有于郊外見遺骸暴露。憐而瘞之。夜聞叩門聲。問之。應曰妃。再問。曰。妾楊妃也。遭馬嵬之難。遺骨未[収]。感君掩覆。來奉枕席。因與極歡而去。鄰人聞而慕焉。因遍覔郊外。亦得遺骸瘞之。夜有叩門者。問之。應曰。飛。曰。汝楊妃乎。曰俺張飛也。其人惧甚。強應曰。張將軍何為下顧。曰俺遭閬中之難。遺骨未[収]。感君掩覆。特以粗臀奉獻

Imitation

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.”

一少年私鄰家之婦。聞叩門聲。知夫歸。迫甚。婦議以布囊盛之。懸于床側。夫問及。則紿以米。議定。啟門納夫。々見囊。覺其有異。問是何物。妻惶惧不即對。夫厲聲再問。少年不覺于囊中應曰。米。

Rice

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!”

造人

玉帝私行。見夫婦行房者。召土地問之。荅曰。造人。問一年造幾箇。荅曰。一箇。曰。既如此。何消得這等忙。

Making people

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?”

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