Are Jokes Easy to Make in China?

Word of the week kāi wán Xiào


When I first arrived in China I thought it was really easy to make jokes because there were so many homophones, two words with the same pronunciation, and so puns were easy. Later I found out that there weren’t quite as many homophones as I thought due to the tones. I’m certainly not the first and won’t be the last English speaker the think they’ve just made a terrific pun in Mandarin, whilst the Chinese listener stares on thinking “what the hell are they on about?”

As difficult as it might seem in the early stages of learning Chinese, if two words have different tones they are not homophones to Chinese people. They are completely different words that, to the Chinese listener, sound completely different.

This doesn’t mean you can’t crack jokes. In fact Chinese people are often very fond of what they call “cold” (lěng 冷) jokes. When they say lěng it means “cheesy” or “corny”. If you can crack a couple of successful lěng jokes then you’ll be quite popular.

comic book crazy kwai boo is known for its cold jokes

comic book crazy kwai boo is known for its cold jokes

In Mandarin there are many verbs that, due to their versatility, are not easily translated into English. The word kāi 开 is one such word. It most often means “open” or “turn on”, but can also be used to mean “crack” as in “crack a joke”.

wán means play and xiào means to laugh or smile, so if you “open a laugh smile” kāi wán xiào 开玩笑 then you’re making a joke. This could be to tell a joke, as in “why did the chicken cross the road…” but it could also just mean to make people laugh by acting sill or saying stupid things.

tā jīng cháng kāi wán xiào

He often cracks jokes/ he is often clowning around

wǒ kāi wán xiào

I’m joking/ I’m kidding

bié kāi wán xiào

Don’t joke/ don’t say stupid things

There is another verb, dòu 逗, which means to make people laugh, wind people up, or joke at them.

wǒ dòu nǐ

I’m winding you up/ I’m pulling your leg

If somebody often winds you up, says stupid things to see if you believe them, or generally acts silly you can also use dòu as an adjective


Mr bean hěn dòu

Mr. bean is always acting silly

Interestingly the word dòu is also a homophone for the word “bean” (this time I mean a real Chinese homophone with the same tones) Considering how surprisingly famous Mr. Bean is in China I always feel there should be a pun to be made regarding his name (dòu) and his nature (dòu). If anyone thinks of one please let me know.