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S5, Ep3: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke Told Thrice

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Episode 3 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 Episode 2, Second Time, he re-tells it in a student flat in the mid 1980s.

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

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

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.

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 3: Third Time

As the interpreter translated Mark’s unusual question to his hatchet-faced colleagues, Mark’s NASA co-workers looked at him with raised eyebrows. 

Mark beamed back at them, oozing confidence. But as he tried to remember the details of this elaborate joke, his own brow gradually began to furrow.

But there was no turning back. After an hour of ‘Where are you from in China?’ and ‘Do you like Chinese food?’, everyone at the table was desperate for a fresh topic, and this one seemed, well, intriguing.  

The interpreter asked Mark to repeat the question a couple of times, and eventually all 12 members of the Chinese delegation confirmed they were indeed unfamiliar with this particular story.  

When his NASA colleagues said this was a new one for them too, they were, unmistakably, smirking.

Mark was still styling it out, though. The pause for translation had given him some breathing space to recall that moment with the beers and the paper and pencil, and he was pretty sure he remembered the bare bones of the story.

But, it now occurred to him, even in Chinese the bare bones of the story wouldn’t hack it – this joke was all about specifics. It depended not only on getting the final punchline right, but every single preceding detail as well. In translation, there was zero margin for error.

With fifteen pairs of eyes on him, the dozen Chinese space scientists, their interpreter, and his two NASA colleagues, Mark said,

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

As he began the set-up, Mark felt almost as self-assured as he appeared, but he had a nagging doubt. 

He’d managed to reverse-engineer the whole joke from the final punchline, but he wasn’t entirely sure if that last Chinese character, the keystone on which the entire edifice depended, was ‘swallow’ as in the bird, or ‘swallow’, as in to gulp down.

As he related the set-up, the focus of attention of everyone at the table, Mark began to realise just how much there was that could go wrong. 

He was, to use an electrical engineering analogy, dealing not with room lights that worked independently, but with a series of fairy lights. If one failed, all of them would. The success of each stage depended on him remembering all the individual characters, or at least their English translations.  

He had a dim memory of me with the pencil and paper, along with the beers, but had of course long forgotten what the characters actually looked like.  He could only remember the English translations.

Or could he?

Mark got to the first hurdle, the character for ‘big’. He was pretty sure of this one, and sure enough, albeit after a tense few seconds of translation delay, and clusters of black-haired heads conferring, his guests had clearly got it. 

This provoked no more than solemn nods of recognition, but then this bit wasn’t the funny bit, just the set-up.

Still, Mark’s colleagues were at least showing signs of being impressed at this response, as the interpreter wrote down the character ‘dà in his notepad. He even stood up to demonstrate its resemblance to Lusty Monk’s pose.

This interlude gave Mark a bit more thinking time ahead of the first big test – he was almost certain the next character meant ‘great’, but two doubts were starting to loom:

a) would this English word work in translation as a Chinese punchline

b) would his guests be shocked and appalled that, however elegantly concealed, he’d just made a knob gag at a formal dinner?

With everyone now up to speed on stage one, Mark resumed. With more confidence than he was feeling, he delivered the first test.

‘Ha!;’ cries the monk, delighted. ‘Wrong!’. I’m not big, I’m  ‘Great’!’.

Mark’s voice trails off, leaving the word hanging in the air. 

The blank looks are back. His colleagues start to look at each other.

The interpreter checks how he’s spelling ‘great’. Mark spells it out, still smiling in as assured  a manner as he can carry off.

The interpreter nods solemnly and relays his translation to the delegation, who once again form breakout groups to confer. 

Mark starts to wonder how he’s going to explain this all at his next job interview, which surely couldn’t be too far off now. 

But then, a breakthrough from one of the breakout groups. After an animated plenary session, the delegation turns to him.  

It’s the first time Mark has seen them smile. This may not have been the belly-laugh he’d  hoped for, but nor is it the shocked outrage, or stony disapproval he’d feared. Given the day so far, this is progress.

The interpreter deploys his notepad once more, and this time when he stands to demonstrate the pose again, there are knowing men’s looks, even a grin or two, exchanged between the Chinese delegation and his NASA colleagues. 

When international diplomacy fails, try a knob gag.

Mark is hoping he might be able to bail out at this point, as he’s starting to entertain serious doubts about the final punchline. The more he thinks about it, the less confident he is about the whole ‘swallow’ business. Had it actually been ‘pigeon’?  Or ‘gargle’?

But there’s no ending it here. There must be some universal grammar for jokes, for

everyone at the table knew Winsome Nun must have her chance to turn the tables.

Nothing for it, Mark plunges on.

‘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.’, said Mark to his expectant audience, crossing his fingers he’s going to get the ‘heaven’ bit right.

Yes, the heaven bit goes perfectly. The Chinese, now primed for the format, get it the moment the interpreter relays the word ‘tīan’ to them. They start to smile encouragingly at Mark, ready for the Big One. 

His colleagues are now looking at Mark as if he were some kind of magician.

No turning back now. Mark’s almost there.

‘Lusty Monk starts to advance, but Winsome Nun says ‘No! I’m not ‘heaven’…

It now feels like the whole restaurant has fallen silent. Waiters have appeared with their desserts, but are standing by, courteously waiting for Mark to deliver his punchline. 

Even neighbouring tables have interrupted their own conversations to hear what’s happening at the table with all the Chinese, which after an hour of murmuring and silence, is suddenly buzzing with animation.

’I’m not ‘heaven’…’,  repeats Mark, stalling for time as he fights off his panicky urge to go for ‘pigeon’ or ‘gargle’ . 

No, it must be swallow – but was it ‘a swallow’ or ‘to swallow’? Better not to commit, he thought, before delivering, with a showman’s grin and his outstretched palms facing the ceiling, his final choice…

‘I’m ‘swallow’!’.

Tumbleweed. Crickets.  The waiters start serving the desserts and the neighbouring diners pull faces at each other before resuming their conversations. 

But a current of tension remains around Mark’s table.

The interpreter relays the punchline, the breakout groups form and start brainstorming, his NASA colleagues turn back and forth from Mark, still grinning his fixed rictus, to the delegation, like spectators at a tennis match, wondering what will happen this time.

Mark is starting to think about job interviews again, and just as he was about to try styling out the least graceless climbdown, one of the delegation lets out a Eureka yelp. 

He scribbles a character down on the palm of his hand, as he shouts his solution to his colleagues. A split second of processing, and then….

…well, it’s nothing short of a triumph. The entire delegation is red-faced with mirth, breathless as they repeat ‘tun’ tun’ to each other, theirs is now the liveliest table in the restaurant.  

As the interpreter explains it to his NASA colleagues, Mark struggles to resist the urge to lean over and find out what the actual character looked like – he still has no idea if it’s the bird or the verb. 

Instead, he maintains his sepulchral, oracular poise, accepting the backslaps and plaudits of his colleagues and guests. 

This is cross-cultural communication at its finest. Jokes just don’t get any better than this.

So there you have it, a Classical Chinese dirty joke told thrice, as promised.

Feel free to deploy it yourself, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. Lightning might strike twice, you could be a hero too. 

But I hope you’ve all been paying very, close, attention…