Chinese Puns

What are puns?

A pun is a type of joke that exploits a different possible meaning of a word: using a more professional term, puns are homophonic jokes. They are very common in Mandarin because Chinese is full of homonyms: words that sound the same but have different meanings. In ancient times, many Chinese words had very different pronunciations. However, throughout the very long years of the language development they have become the same in terms of pronunciation.

Homonyms in Chinese

Some of the examples are: 公事 (gōng shì, public affairs), 公式 (/gōng shì/formula), 工事 (gōng shì, fortifications), 攻势 (gōng shì, the offensive state). As you can see, they sound all the same, but their meaning is totally different. However, there is more to Chinese homonyms, because there are even more words that sound the same but have a different tone. Chinese speakers are aware of these differences and often joke about a word’s different meaning once you alter its tone. For instance, there is 共识 (gòngshí, compromise), 共事 (gòngshì, work together), 工时(gōngshí, man-hour). As you can see, sky is the limit when it comes to finding homonyms in Mandarin.

There is a very famous poem exploring the richness of Chinese homonyms. It was written in 1930s by a Chinese linguist Zhao Yuanren and is titled “Lion-eating poet in a Stone-den” (施氏食獅史, Shī Shì shí shī shǐ). As you might have guessed already, the entire poem is based on only one word: shi. It goes as follows:












« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.

Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.

Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.

Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.

Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.

Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.

Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.

Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.

Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.

Shì shì shì shì.

Amazing, right? The most interesting part is that this poem would be barely understandable without Chinese characters; some people claim that it was written to prove that eliminating Chinese characters from everyday use would be a bad idea. Here you can see the English translation of the poem:

« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

He often went to the market to look for lions.

At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.

At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.

He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.

He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.

The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.

After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.

When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter.

It is incredible how many homonyms there are in Chinese.

Popular Chinese puns and playwords

Well, this subtitle is partially fake: the popularity of a pun depends on the region, the time, the person and so on. Think of it as of Internet memes: some are popular because they describe a specific situation, some are liked within a certain group of people, some are commonly used as part of traditions, some are just not funny. We have prepared a list of some puns, let’s see if you like them.

Take a look at some traditional ones:

Fú dào le – 福到了 “fortune has arrived” and 福倒了 “fortune is upside down”. Ever wondered why some Chinese people put this sign upside-down on their home door? Now you know: it indicates the hopes for the good fortune to arrive at their house. It is commonly seen across China.

生菜 (shēngcài, lettuce) and 生财 (shēngcái, make money): this one you need to know, because it is part of the Chinese New Year tradition. As you can see, having lettuce on your table during New Year’s Eve indicates a hope for wealth and prosperity.

“发菜” (fàcài, Long Thread Moss) and “发财” (fācái, Get Rich). Again, this thick black algae is a common dish on the New Year’s Eve table because its name its homonymous to prosperity.

8 (bā) and 发(fā) from 发财. In Chinese culture, 8 became a lucky number because its pronunciation resembles getting rich.

4 (sì), on the other hand, is an unlucky number because its sound resembles 死 (sǐ) which means “death”. Some people may actually avoid having “4” in their phone number!

Now, let’s see some popular Internet playwords. In China, homonyms related to numbers are among the most popular because they are easiest to write.

520 (wǔ èr líng) means “I love you”, because its pronunciation is similar to 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ, I love you). It is very well-known in China so some may say it is already a bit old. It also makes May 20th (5/20) a day you may send a message expressing your love to somebody. May 20th became an online Valentine’s Day in China.

If you want to be even more romantic, you can respond: 1314 (yī sān yī sì) what represents “For ever” (yīshēng yīshì,一生一世).

How about some actual puns (jokes)? There are plenty. If you know Chinese well enough, you can even make some. Take a look at this cartoon (its in traditional Chinese):

1. There was a Chinese man who was hungry for days. 2. So he learnt Chinese kong fu (空腹 kōngfù means “empty stomach” but it sounds similar to kung fu, Chinese martial arts).

Was it funny? How about this one (traditional characters again):

1. Why shouldn’t you ever provoke an orangutan in a zoo? 2. Because he knocks his chest (the joke is here: 敲胸 (qiāoxiōng) literally means beating one’s chest, but it sounds similar to 超兇 (chāoxiōng) what means “extremely fearful”.

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