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S5, Ep2: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke Told Thrice

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Episode 2 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

This gag was first written down a thousand years ago – it’s a very old joke.

In Episode 1, First Time, SternWriter explains the joke in excruciating detail. In this second episode, Second Time, it’s re-told in an Edinburgh student flat in the mid 1980s.

This in turn contextualises Episode 3, Third Time, when the joke is told once again in situation of ‘extreme social tension’ at a Californian NASA research centre in the early ‘90s…

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

Next: Episode 3: Third 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 2: Second Time

Can you remember the Tang Dynasty classical Chinese dirty joke I just told you in Episode One?  

Did you follow the gist?  Would you have to listen to it again? Do you reckon you could tell it to someone else now, and make some kind of sense?

You have the admittedly considerable disadvantage of having absorbed it entirely through your ears, but at least it’s fresh in your memory. Maybe the two things kind of balance each other out.

Anyway, you now find yourself in a similar situation to one of my flatmates at university.  Let’s call him Mark, as that was his name.

Mark is one of the smartest people I know. When we shared a flat, I was doing my undergraduate degree in Chinese, and he was doing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. 

Each of us enjoyed hearing the other explain what he did. What for Mark was bog-standard 101 computer science, struck me as voodoo magic, and vice versa when it came to Chinese.

So when I discovered this millennium-old gem of Classical Chinese smut, Mark was one of the first people I tried telling it to.  

Equipped with two beers, pencil and paper, I made sure he got the key points, showing him the characters for ‘big’ – ‘dà, ‘great’ – ‘tài’, ‘heaven’ – ‘tīan’, and ‘to swallow’ – ‘tūn’.

As I thought, Mark loved it. He may have had a big brain, but his mind was as deep in the gutter as any 80s-era student. This joke appealed to both Smart Mark and to Smutty Mark.

We graduated the same year. Like Lusty Monk and Winsome Nun, our lives took very different paths, geographically and career-wise. Still, as the years passed and we entered different worlds, we stayed in touch. 

I joined a Japanese trading company in London, and started flying around the world trading textiles, taking business trips from haute-couture clients in Milan and Tokyo, to factories in Karachi and Jakarta. 

Mark went to California to work for NASA, designing the software control system for the Mars Rover project. 

That was about as far as my understanding of the technicalities of his job went, but, as he’d tell me when our paths would cross, or we’d speak on the phone, his job wasn’t all bleeding-edge hi-tech and staring at screens.

Mark was also a very sociable, easy-going, heart-and-soul kind of guy, character traits not, shall we say, shared by everyone in the computer science community.

Consequently, he was often asked to take visiting delegations on tours of his NASA facility, and to entertain them in the evenings.

Once, there was a delegation from the Chinese space programme. This was still the 1980s, so this was a very unusual visit. China had only just allowed its own citizens to buy a train ticket to another province without an internal visa, and the Chinese space programme was in its infancy, only just reaching out to the rest of the world. 

Mark was delegated to take the delegation. A day taking a dozen Chinese space scientists around NASA had done little to deepen personal ties. None of them spoke English, so all communication went via their earnest, but clearly very nervous interpreter. 

The delegation all wore pins of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping on the lapels of their ill-fitting suits, which still bore labels on their cuffs. The interpreter passed on their serious questions, and they took solemn notes of his translations of Mark’s answers. 

You’ll meet few more personable people than Mark, who has an easy, familiar manner, and a natural curiosity about just about everything and everyone, but even he was finding this chore very very hard going.

And the worst was yet to come. Along with a couple of colleagues, Mark was due to host the delegation for dinner.

Sitting around a big table at a fancy restaurant did nothing to lighten the mood. Quite the opposite. Mark did his best to engage the po-faced Chinese delegation, but as the meal progressed, the conversation became more and more stilted and sporadic.

The interpreter was doing his best, Mark’s colleagues, outnumbered and awkward, were no help at all, and Mark was running out of ideas. The silences between conversational damp squibs grew longer and longer. 

Ordering dessert had provided a decent little canter, but no one had said a word for a couple of minutes. 

Everyone was staring at the table in front of them, willing their orders to arrive so they could all escape this torture. The restaurant, however, was busy, and the silence was getting exquisitely painful.

That’s when Mark remembered the joke I’d told him years before in our shared student flat.

Before he’d time to think it through, he said to the interpreter, ‘Are you gentlemen familiar with a classical Chinese joke about a Buddhist monastery and Buddhist nunnery on neighbouring mountain peaks?’.

In Episode 3: Third Time, we’ll find out how Mark’s ice-breaker went down.