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The Best (and Worst) Jokes of the Qing Dynasty

A joke book compiled by the "Master of Games" showcases Chinese humor from centuries ago

The elements of a good joke are tough to pin down, but ancient Chinese at least had some ideas about how people should conduct themselves when trying to be humorous. According to the 11th century's Book of Songs (《诗经》), a proper and respectable Confucian comedian is one who is “good at making jokes, but not cruel (善戏谑兮,不为虐兮).”

Perhaps this is the standard the creator of the joke book Xiaolin Guangji (《笑林广记》 , literally "Extensive Gleanings from the Forest of Laughter") adhered to—though they strayed into more scandalous humor on occasion, including one gag about a bride who was supposed to be a virgin but instead gives birth to a boy on her wedding day and then reveals two other sons to her mother-in-law.

Compiled during the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911) by an unknown author (or group of authors) who goes only by the name "Master of Games (游戏主人)," the book is divided into 12 volumes with thousands of jokes from the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing period. The jokes deal with nearly every aspect of life, from corrupt officials to unscrupulous doctors, acts of stinginess, and the dark sides of human nature—it's clear the Master of Games, along with his editor, identified only as “Householder of Laughter (粲然居士)” finds humor everywhere.

Here are some of the best (and worst) jokes from the book:

The Carpenter

A homeowner hired a carpenter to install a locking bolt for his door. But the clumsy carpenter mistakenly installed it on the outside of the door, rather than the inside, meaning anyone could open the lock and enter. The homeowner was incensed, and raged at the carpenter, telling him he must be blind. The carpenter answered back: “It’s you who is blind.”

The dumbfounded homeowner asked: “Me? Why am I blind?”

The carpenter replied, “If you had insight, you wouldn’t have hired me.”

A Debtor's Dream

A man in debt said to his creditor: “I will die soon, because last night I dreamed about my death.” The creditor comforted him, saying “Dreams always represent the opposite of reality. You will live a long life.”

Cheered, the debtor continued: “I had another dream, actually.”

“What’s that?” asked the creditor.

“I dreamed that I repaid all the debt I owe you.”

Year of the Ox

At an official's birthday party, his subordinates sent him a gift at great cost: a life-size rat made of gold, because his Chinese zodiac animal was the rat. The official was ecstatic, and said: “You know, my wife’s birthday is also coming up...”

“Oh, we didn't know that. What’s her zodiac animal?” his subordinates asked.

“She is one year younger than me. Her zodiac animal is the ox.”

Unfamiliar Portraits

There once was an artist who made a living painting portraits. But his business was suffering—he just couldn't sell any art. A good-willed friend advised him to draw a portrait of himself and his wife, so that customers would realize how beautiful and realistic his art was when they came into the shop. The painter took his friend's advise, and painted himself and his wife together.

One day, the painter's father-in-law visited his workshop and saw the new painting. He pointed to the painting and asked: “Who is this woman?”

“It’s your daughter,” the painter replied.

Puzzled, his father-in-law asked: “Then why is she sitting next to a stranger?”

No Dinner Invitation

A guest once came from far away to visit a friend, and stayed until dinnertime. Though there were many chickens and ducks in the the yard, the host claimed he had nothing to give the guest to eat, so it was inconvenient for the guest to stay longer. Suddenly, the guest asked to borrow a knife from the host, claiming he would slaughter his own horse for food. “Without the horse, how will you go back home?” asked the host.

“Well, I can borrow one of the chickens or ducks here to ride,” the guest quipped.

Doctor's Medicine

A doctor recently moved house into a new neighborhood. To ingratiate himself with his new neighbors, he gave each of them packages filled with medicine as a gift, saying: “Sorry for disturbing you all; I have nothing else to give, so please accept this medicine.” The neighbors all tried to decline, saying they were not ill. “But you will be after taking my medicine,” said the doctor.

Flea Poison

A street vendor who sold flea repellent had a sign reading “First-Class Flea Poison.” A customer came up to the seller and asked: “How do I use this?” To which the seller replied: “Just catch the flea and put the poison into its mouth. It will die soon after.”

The Illiterate Rich

An illiterate but rich man once hired a teacher to instruct his son. They began with writing numbers. On the first day, the teacher taught the son that one horizontal line is “one” (一, in Chinese), two horizontal lines is “two” (二), and three horizontal lines is “three” (三). After class, the son was very satisfied and told his father that he had already learned how to write characters, and didn’t need a teacher anymore. The father was pleased, and promptly fired the teacher.

After some weeks passed, the father wanted to invite a friend surnamed Wan (万, "ten thousand" in Chinese) to come over for a drink. In the morning, the father asked his son to write up an invitation. But by noon, the son still hadn't finished writing. The father was confused, and went to ask his son what had happened. His son complained: “Why is his surnamed ‘万?’ Since morning, I have still only drawn five hundred horizontal lines.”


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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