A daily window into the funny side of China

Times Staff Writer

Consider the tale of the jilted husband who exacted his revenge after his wife ran off: He charged into the shop that gave her a makeover and broke the beautician’s fingers.

Or the diner who speared his tongue with a hook while eating a fish head. The mysterious woman who only walks backward, the farmer whose savings were eaten by rats.

And the spinster who frightens suitors with a strange demand: She wants to be buried together -- in the same coffin.


They can be found every day on the pages of the China Daily, the nation’s only English-language newspaper, little stories detailing the weird and the wonderful, the funny faux pas and folksy tales that offer a taste of the Chinese sense of humor.

“It’s a small window to an unseen China,” said editor Cui Ning, who selects the stories. “The Chinese have a reputation of being so serious. We show the other side of the national character.”

The feature, called China Scene, is compiled from such far-flung publications as the Urumqi Evening News and the Chongqing Economic Daily, the Xiaoxiang Morning Post and Sanqin Daily.

The report, often illustrated with cartoons, is an eclectic mix of the poignant and surreal. There are tales of bungling criminals, taxi drivers with hearts of gold and baffling national trends. Throw in accounts of mass destruction and tabloid schlock and the page rarely fails to entertain and sometimes, editors acknowledge, may even pass along an urban legend as fact.

The section was launched in 2004, conceived as an alternative to the often-grim reports on China Daily’s front page.

“We’ll use an occasional story about sex to spice things up,” Cui said. “But we’re never vulgar.”

One recent item noted that welfare workers in Hong Kong were using puppets to demonstrate masturbation to the mentally disabled in an effort to teach them to deal with their sexual needs.

The brief, which carried the headline “Puppets enlisted to instruct on onanism,” noted that “psychologists said previous attempts at teaching the mentally disabled about masturbation had led to misunderstandings and even proved dangerous.” It did not elaborate.

There are recurring themes.

“At least twice a week, we’ll have some story about a peasant whose fortunes were eaten by rats,” said Jeremy Hartley, a Michigan native who copy-edits the section. “So we try to temper that with tales of happy endings and stories of local people helping to protect endangered species.

“But then out of nowhere you’ll have a story about an abortion or a suicide. You never know what you’re going to read.”

Animal tales are popular. There’s the jealous myna bird that attacks anyone who speaks with its owners; the farmer who taught his chicken to goose-step like a Chinese soldier; the man who spared a duck from his dinner table because he fell in love with its waddle; the horse that developed a taste for meat.

Hartley recalled one story of a couple who punished their pet parrot by making the bird sing songs in the public square as a lesson in being civic-minded.

“There’s usually one item that’s so strange one of us will read it out loud,” he said.

Cultural experts say the Chinese sense of humor is similar to that of Americans -- with some not-so-subtle differences.

“Americans make fun of everything,” said Hung-hsiang Chou, a UCLA scholar who specializes in Chinese culture. “China has taboos. Ancestors are off-limits. They also don’t ridicule their leaders, who are only fair game after they’ve fallen from grace.”

Sometimes the humor comes from literal translations of stories written in Mandarin.

One picture showed a woman sorting through the carcasses of 750 chickens that died after a neighbor had a fireworks display. The caption said the chickens panicked, “flew into the walls of their coop and smashed their little heads.”

Some tales carry a tabloid flair for the ridiculous. Like the one about the Hangzhou man whose wife banned him from the house after he took the couple’s Pomeranian for a walk -- and lost the dog.

In the story about the woman who walks backward, doctors were quoted as saying that “the only cure for this affliction is bed rest, after which she can walk normally again.”

But others can have a subtle humor. One described an award given to security officers in Shanghai who practice nonviolence in the face of abuse. The item said the guards’ patrol duties “inevitably entail questioning people about what they are doing,” adding, “but this has led to beatings, from strangers and residents.”

But China Scene comes with contradictions in tone. One story described a man who rescued his stolen myna bird when he heard it reciting poetry -- from beneath the thief’s coat. Alongside it was a brief about how officials in Shaanxi province had allowed a condemned man to talk to his parents.

“Separated by a glass wall, [he] chatted with his parents through a special phone for 15 minutes,” the story said. “He was put to death by lethal injection the next day, in accordance with the law.”

Most stories highlight the foibles of rural life in China.

One report described how a man in Jilin province found $400 in the stomach of a rotten fish that his dog had dug up at the garbage dump. The man figured that the money had been placed there as a surprise gift and he wanted to return it. The headline read: “Cash Prize for Anyone Who Can Describe a Fish.”

There was the item about the student who offered a gas station his report card as an IOU: “The owner noted the student’s grades were good and accepted the report.”

There’s the migrant worker pulled from a river in Guangdong province. Police thought the man was trying to commit suicide. The man said he jumped into the river just to clean up.

The headline: “It’s Not a Crime to be Clean, Police Agree.”

Hartley says many stories seem too strange to be true. China Scene recently ran an item about a company in Shandong province that was to hold an “unpopularity” contest to identify the three least-liked people, who would all be fired.

“Maybe somebody hears some gossip in their rural village and calls the local newspaper,” he said. “Then we pick it up and run it. In the end, it’s like a comedy of errors, passing on these urban legends.

“But I guess that’s the way things work in China.”