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S5, Ep1: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke Told Thrice

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Episode 1 of A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke Told Thrice – First Time, Series 5 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast

In Episode 1, SternWriter explains why the premise of this podcast series is impossible, and then attempts to pull it off.

It’s a storytelling high-wire act, but if nothing else you’ll end up knowing a thousand-year-old knob gag you almost certainly didn’t know.

Next: Episode 2: Second Time.

Or if you want the whole shebang in 27 minutes, here’s the omnibus edition.

Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter

Audio Production by Rupert Kirkham

The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories is a See Through News production.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.

If you enjoyed this series, why not try these ones…

The painting in the cover image is a detail from a painting in the Smithsonian Institute collection. It’s dated from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), which makes is younger than this joke.



Episode 1:  First Time

Is this story even worth attempting to tell in a podcast? 

What are my chances, simply by means of whispering in your ears, of landing a more than thousand-year-old dirty joke I learned nearly 40 years ago?

The joke, by the way, is not only filthy, but in Chinese. Not just in modern Chinese, but classical Chinese, their equivalent of Latin. 

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not a visual joke that hinges on you being able to read Chinese script.

I mean, this is ludicrous. The entire set-up requires you to know how to write three relatively common Chinese characters, meaning ‘big’, ‘great’  and’ heaven’.  

What chance, then, of my English words delivering the punchline, for which you need to be able to visualise the more obscure Chinese character meaning ‘to swallow’?

And, having made this quixotic attempt to translate a Tang dynasty joke, I’m then going to tell it to you a second time, and then a third. 

Second time round, I’ll be passing on a story a student flatmate friend told me, about his foolhardy decision to try to remember it YEARS LATER, with no props or safety net, in a social situation of extreme tension.

Well, I like a challenge, so I’m up for it if you are. Here goes.

The set-up is actually very straightforward.  It’s almost a Tang dynasty version of two men going into a bar. It goes like this.

Many years ago, atop two neighbouring mountain peaks, were a Buddhist monastery and a Buddhist nunnery.

Every day at the crack of dawn, it fell to one of the junior monks, and one of the junior nuns, to go down to the river between the two peaks, to collect water for the morning ablutions. 

The young monk, and the young nun, would hoist a split bamboo pole onto their shoulders, attach two empty pails, and make their way down narrow mountain paths to the stream in the foothills to fill them.

One day, the water-collection chore falls to a particularly winsome young nun. As she approaches the fork at the bottom of the mountain, where the paths from the monastery and nunnery meet, a particularly lusty young monk blocks her way.

‘I’m a sporting man’, declares the lusty monk. ‘Rather than simply having my way with you, I’ll ask you a riddle. Answer it correctly – and you may continue unmolested. Get it wrong, and, well – I’ll have my way with you.’

The water being needed, the path being narrow, and clearly finding herself in a joke, the winsome young nun agrees to the lusty young monk’s terms.

The monk faces the nun, spreads his feet wide, his arms wider, and asks ‘What character am I?’

The nun replies, without hesitation, ‘You’re clearly ‘dà’’.  

(I should explain here that the monk’s pose resembles the common Chinese character ‘dà’, meaning ‘big’. It looks like a headless stick person with their feet planted wide and arms outstretched.)

‘Ha!;’ cries the monk, delighted. ‘Wrong!’. I’m  not da, I\m ‘Tài’!’.  

(OK, pay close attention here. The Chinese character ‘tài’, which means ‘great’, is identical to the character ‘dà’ – meaning ‘big’, remember – with one critical addition. Between the spread legs is an extra downward stroke, that looks, when you think about it in this context, not to put too fine a point on it, like a massive cock.)

Lusty Monk starts to advance towards Winsome Nun, who says, ‘Wait! You claim to be a sporting man, so permit me a riddle in return. If you answer correctly, you may proceed, but if not, you must let me pass unmolested’.

The water being needed, the request being reasonable, and clearly finding himself in a joke, Lusty Monk agrees. 

Winsome nun removes the pails from the split bamboo pole. She then balances the pole on her head before adopting the same pose as the monk had, legs apart, arms stretched wider.

‘What character am I?’, she asks.

The monk replies straight away. ‘You’re ‘tiān’’. 

(Now, if at the very top of the character for ‘big, you add one extra horizontal stroke’, it turns into the character ‘tiān’, meaning ‘heaven’.)

Lusty Monk starts to advance, but Winsome Nun says ‘No! I’m not ‘tiān’, I’m ‘tūn’.

Now, if I were telling you this in Chinese, and you had basic Chinese literacy, you’d be kacking yourself with laughter, trust me. 

You see, if, at the bottom of the character for ‘heaven’, which, remember, looks like someone balancing a pole on their head with their legs apart and arms outstretched – you add three strokes, a short downward one, a right-angled one, and another short one below, you make a little box. 

On its own, this little box is the character for ‘mouth’. If you add the character for ‘mouth’ to the bottom of the character for ‘heaven’ – which is what the nun now looks like, having balanced the bamboo pole on her head, remember – this addition forms a new character, the character ‘tūn’, meaning ‘to swallow’. 

This mouth, or box, between the spread legs, suggests, in this context, not to put too fine a point on it, a massive vagina.)

OK, maybe you wouldn’t be kacking yourself, but you must admit, that as painfully explained jokes go, this one has more legs than most.

At the very least, you might be able to imagine what a thrill it was for an undergraduate Chinese major to stumble across this thousand-year-old dirty joke.  

To put it in context for me, I’d just spent years being over-awed by the exquisite poetry of the Tang dynasty poets like Li Bai, Du Fu and Bai Juyi. The more layers of untranslatable genius were revealed to me, the more I felt I was barely scratching the surface of these literary demi-Gods.

With this joke, they’d suddenly revealed themselves to be mortals, up for a smutty snigger, even if it was wrapped in calligraphic allusion. It was like finding the Queen sparking up a crafty fag inside her horse-drawn carriage, or asking the Queen Mother to pull her finger.

You might also be able to imagine I was keen to share this gem with others.

As you’re now painfully aware, it’s never a good idea to explain a joke after you’ve told it, and it’s a worse idea to explain it in order to tell it. 

In Episode 2, Second Time, I’ll explain what happened when I told it to one of my student flatmates, who was not studying Chinese, and what happened when, years later, he thought it might break the ice with a table-full of Chinese VIPs.