Thursday, November 5, 2009

Doing a class about Humour with Chinese students.

Doing a conversation class with Chinese students about humour can be torturous.  What happens is you tell jokes that the students don't understand and the students, in turn, tell you jokes that you don't find funny.  As well, you will get no where asking students about the whole idea of humour i.e., why do humans laugh? (Do animals laugh? I ask as well.)  I tell them the observation from the alien character in Heinlin's "A stranger in a Strange land" that humour is based on things going wrong, but they don't get it.
But that doesn't mean you should give up all hope that the students don't learn or tell you anything.  Recently, for the first time ever in a humour conversation class, I had a student tell me a joke that got me laughing:  Eve asks Adam "Why do you love me?"  Adams replies "Do I have any choice?"   HaHaHaHaHaHaHa!  I asked this student if it was possible for the Chinese to make jokes about their leaders as Americans make jokes about their Presidents.  He said it was a big taboo.
In America (and in Canada), making jokes about political leaders is an accepted and often celebrated tradition.  It is all in keeping with America being a democracy.  And it contradicts the charge that America's presidency has become imperial (although I do agree that too much power and pomp is invested in the executive branch of the U.S. federal government).  In recognizing that our leaders are human and have foibles, we respect their position but not necessarily their person.  The fact that in China, Chinese can't make jokes about their leaders shows how illiberal their country currently is.  It may also show how different their culture is.

Joke-telling about political leaders in America has not been without its pratfalls.  Political Correctness means even the most biting of Comedians must be careful  Conservatives, for example, have contended that Obama has been lambasted less, than his predecessors, by the professional comedian class because they are afraid to violate taboos about race.  Vice President Joe Biden instead has often served as the comedic foil for many comedians because he has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth  and he is not a minority.  And even if acceptable, jokes can betray a political bias.  Jokes about George W. Bush became so predictable after a while that one sharper observer said that "jokes about Bush's supposed dimwittedness were the things that only stupid people could laugh at."  I would say that jokes about Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney fell into this class too.  These jokes were of the politically biased type that left half the room laughing and the other stewing.  So the trick with jokes about leaders, in a democracy, is to find those that everyone, regardless of political persuasion can laugh at.  

It is almost enough to want to ban the telling about jokes about leaders, but as I said almost.  Nothing is more confining than the straitening jacket of having to take something on this earth too seriously.  Chinese leaders are a goldmine for any aspiring comedian.  Chairman Hu, for example, looks like the fat kid from The Lord of the Flies is he had lived to grow up.

Would in be the interest of the current Chinese ruling class to permit professional comedians and the population to make these kind of jokes?  Sadly, the answer is no because as stated earlier, making jokes about the ruling class is democratic, and the Chicoms don't seem interested in loosening the reins of power.  The political disruptions of the late late 1980s in China ended in a killing of political humour for the foreseeable future and till the current dynasty collapses.  

I wonder, at this point, if maybe not joking about leaders is also something, culturally, the Chinese are permitted to do.  Of course, all one should do is see what happens in Taiwan.  Taiwan is famous for having brawls in its legislature  -- a thing I wish would happen in Canada and America.  There is a goldmine of humour in that.  Talking to an Canadian in Taiwan, he told me that while Taiwan is liberal, jokes about leaders are rarely made.  So there may well be a cultural aspect to not telling jokes about leaders in China as well.

Be that as it may, it would be a joy to see the Chinese lightened up about Grandpa Wen and Porky Hu.  For as it stands right now, Chinese development has a malignancy at its core.  For how can you create a paradise without Mirth?

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