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Do the Chinese have a sense of humor?
Hu Ping

As an eight-year-old girl eats breakfast and prepares for school, she asks her mother about the Chinese stories her mother has told in the recent evenings.

Her mother says, “Those Chinese stories are not good. They’re all about murder and revenge. They aren’t wen xing. Chinese people don’t understand wen xing.”

The daughter, an American-born Chinese, does not understand complicated Chinese vocabulary. She asks, “Wen xing? What does wen xing mean?”

The mother translates, “Wen xing means warm, and nice.”

Immediately, her daughter asks, “If the Chinese people didn’t understand wen xing, then how did they come up with the word wen xing?”

A wonderful question! Of course the Chinese understand wen xing, or else they wouldn’t have the word wen xing.

Closely associated with wen xing is the word you mo, meaning humor. What about you mo? Originally, the Chinese language did not have this word, so do the Chinese people understand humor? Do they have a sense of humor?

We know that you mo was the word Mr. Lin Yutang used when he translated the English word “humor.” China didn’t have words that corresponded with humor; the Chinese words meaning funny, laughable, humorous, or charming are all related to the word humor, but are not all exactly the same. With that in mind, one could say that Chinese do not understand humor or have a sense of it. However, after Lin Yutang translated the word humor from English into Chinese, it was immediately understood and accepted by the Chinese people, and became quite popular. The adoption of this new Chinese word for humor, you mo, more or less demonstrated the Chinese people’s recognition towards this type of feeling. Looking at it from that perspective, it is clear that the Chinese understand humor. But in the past, they lacked a specific word that would describe this feeling. When Lin Yutang introduced the word you mo, they understood immediately: right! This is it!

I am reminded of the Chinese words for human rights and freedom; they are both words that did not originate in the Chinese language. Human rights and freedom were not concepts in traditional Chinese culture, but that doesn’t mean that the Chinese did not hope for them and understand them the way they understood and knew the word humor the first time they heard it. We should instead say that the Chinese have always wanted human rights and freedom, but didn’t have the specific phrase or concept.

After finding the words to describe the concept, our pursuits become more clear and specific. Our view of ourselves and the world will then change as well.

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