Humor in China

Today’s post was written by gphomestay’s Program Solutions Team.


Picture this: you just made a joke in your classroom, and everyone, except for your international students, is laughing. Your first instinct would likely be to blame the language barrier and assume that the student simply didn’t understand the joke. But what if there was another element at play? What if the student understood the joke as it was told, but didn’t grasp what made it humorous? This scenario is actually far more common than one would imagine and is due to fascinating cultural differences regarding what is considered comical.

Although there are certain aspects of humor that are nearly universal, there are other components that are more culturally dependent, including the style, content and context. In this post, we’ll juxtapose Chinese and American styles of humor and clarify a few significant differences.


Although American humor features puns and wordplay, jokes tend to be more based on situational or contextual humor. Chinese humor, on the other hand, has historically relied heavily on puns. This is largely due to the fact that the Chinese language is ripe with homonyms and therefore more conducive to wordplay. For examples of Chinese homophonic jokes, which are truly ubiquitous and embedded in Chinese culture, click here.


One of the more prominent difference between American and Chinese styles of humor relates to content. In American humor, jokes often touch on personal topics (e.g. relationships), finances, age, etc.

There are, however, clear boundaries as to what is and is not considered appropriate. In Chinese culture, however, there are far more rules as to what is and is not considered appropriate to joke about. For instance, jokes regarding politics are considered inappropriate and are therefore reserved for anonymous internet message boards and social media. Humor regarding finances or the economy may be seen as too depressing or serious to be funny. Jokes regarding relationships with family or loved ones may be considered too personal to be shared.

One particularly interesting subset of Chinese humor is known as a “cold joke.” These types of jokes are unique in that the content is meant to be exceptionally unfunny. These jokes are named as such because they are ideally so bad that the listener will react to the punchline with a cold shiver. For example try to read this joke without getting a chill down your spine: “There was a hide and seek club at my high school. The president still hasn’t been found.”


Finally, there is a distinct difference in regards to the appropriate context for telling a joke. In the United States, it is typically appropriate for any individual to joke with any other individual. For instance, assuming the situation was light enough, one might joke with his or her boss or superior.

China, however, is very much a hierarchical culture in which relationship type tends to dictate who is and is not) allowed to tell jokes to whom. For instance, it might be very common and accepted for a student in the U.S. to joke with his or her teacher; however, the same behavior in China may be seen as disrespectful given the relationship dynamic (teacher as infallible, parent-like figure) and the context (class time should be taken seriously, and because jokes are not serious, they are seen as a misuse of time).

All in all, despite these cultural nuances, we tend to find that when it comes to humor in differing cultures, there are more similarities than differences. Nevertheless, you should use humor and jokes as a fun opportunity for cultural exchange. For instance, ask your international students to tell you a classic joke from their culture that may or may not translate culturally and to explain why it’s funny. Next, have your domestic students do the same. If done correctly, this exercise can be a fun way to identify some fascinating cultural differences.