Storehouse of Laughter (笑府)

Introduction

The Storehouse of Laughter is an anthology of Chinese jokes by the Ming-era writer Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574-1646), writing under the pseudonym of ‘the Master of Mohan Studio’. Feng wrote or compiled works in several genres, including historical novels, vernacular stories, and humor. He is best known for his vernacular stories, known collectively as the Sanyan, or “Three Words”, because each collection has the character ‘yan’ (言 ‘word’) in its title.

Selected translations

I have translated here selected jokes from the Xiaofu into English. The transcription is based on the digital edition available from Ctext. Corrections and comments are welcome in the comment fields.

Structure of the text

The Xiaofu is headed by a preface by Feng Menglong, wherein he lays out his philosophy of humor. The rest of the book is divided into thirteen chapters, each with a short introduction of its own. Each joke has its own heading, and sometimes several jokes on the same subject may share the same heading (indicated by the character 又). The jokes themselves are short, no more than a few sentences each; typographically they always occupy a single paragraph. After many of them, Feng makes additional commentary, which may sometimes include other versions of the joke that he has encountered, or alternative punch lines and set-ups. Explanatory notes are occasionally given, especially when the joke hinges on wordplay in a regional dialect. The printed edition has many characters which are nonstandard today, but that simply reflects the prevalence of variant characters (異體字) and homophonic substitute characters (俗字) before modern efforts at standardization. The reduplication mark (or iteration mark), transcribed as 々 but closer to a hastily written number two 二 is also used as a copyist’s shorthand when two characters are repeated in tandem.

Contents

The characters that feature in these jokes come from all levels of society – not just the scholar-officials who constituted the literate elite, but also farmers, tradesmen, religious practitioners, prostitutes, soldiers, and criminals. The humor is sometimes literary (making allusions to classical works), frequently bawdy or scatological, and almost always critical. They don’t shy away from satirizing those who would present themselves as serious and respectable. One could argue that the view of human weakness here is relentlessly cynical – there is no monk here who is not lecherous, no husband who is not henpecked, no scholar who is not a fool. The reader would certainly no longer accept unquestioningly the myth that Chinese society in the imperial era was eternally tradition-bound, sexually repressive, and somber. The truth was surely somewhere in between these two extremes. People needed to be hectored on morality because their natural tendencies lay otherwise, whereas satirical and humorous writings were popular because they provided some relief from the wearisome nagging of the pious.

Editions

The book’s survival and transmission to the present day is largely due to copies that were brought to Japan in the 18th century. At the same time, many individual jokes were copied verbatim by subsequent anthologies, such as the Grove of Laughter (Xiaolin 笑林). The entire Xiaofu has been translated into Japanese by Matsueda Shigeo, whereas selections from the Xiaofu and other Chinese jokebooks have been translated by Herbert Giles (with some bowdlerization) as Quips from a Chinese Jest Book, and Howard Levy focusing on sex jokes in particular in Chinese Sex Jokes in Traditional Times.

Resources

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