Many of you may have heard the puzzling report some months ago of the Chinese government’s attempt to control puns. Many American late-night comedians and news network broadcasters, armed with a few witty puns, used this occasion to poke fun at this policy. How can someone control pun use? What is the harm of having a few puns? We will have to leave it to others to tackle the first question, but I will try to shed some light on the latter, and through this process, I hope to also shed some light on an important component of the Chinese language, 成语 (chéng yǔ). It has never occurred to me that my penchant for English puns might have any connection to my penchant for Chinese puns, because the ways that we pun in these two languages are quite different. Most English puns play off words with the same spelling but different meanings. For example, I could say, “I used to be a banker, but I lost interest.” The pun is a spin on the various definitions of the word interest. The word could mean “a sense of curiosity.” But in this context, it could also be an allusion to dividends or shares in a financial investment. The person who made this pun is certainly aware of these two definitions; therefore, when an English speaker makes a pun, it demonstrates his or her knowledge of the language. It does not distort the English language, but it is rather a witty play on a word’s different definitions.
In contrast, Chinese puns are mostly based on characters that share the same sounds. For example, the characters for one, aunt, healing, and clothes all have the pronunciation yi. Most Chinese puns are constructed by switching out one character of a phrase with another character of the same sound, thereby changing the meaning of the phrase.
These types of puns are in full display during Chinese New Year or weddings. During New Year celebrations, people like to eat fish because the character for fish, 鱼 (yú), and the character for abundance, 余 (yù), share the same sound. Or the Chinese New Year pastry 年糕 (nián gāo) has the same sound with 年高 (nián gāo), which means rising higher each year. You may see some Chinese families hanging the large character of happiness up-side-down on their doors, because the character for up-side-down 倒 (dào) sounds the same as the character for arriving 到 (dào). Therefore, “happiness up-side-down” also sounds like “happiness arriving.” (Some English puns also play off words with the same sound, but these words are not nearly as common as Chinese words.)
What’s so harmful about these puns? Most of the time these puns are quite harmless, but some advertisers or companies sometimes borrow a well-known idiomatic expression, 成语, and switch out its characters for commercial purposes. 成语 (chéng yǔ) are Chinese idiomatic expressions that usually consist of four characters. These expressions are often linked to ancient myths, historical events, or parables. Their four-character structure makes them easily recognizable, but unless one is aware of the story behind the expression, it would be difficult to understand the meaning.
Think about the English expressions “David versus Goliath” and “Crossing the Rubicon.” We often employ these phrases to describe a sports event or executing major decisions, but unless we are aware of the stories behind these phrases, we cannot understand their full meaning. Take the expression 破釜沉舟 (pò fǔ chén zhōu), which literally means “breaking pots and sinking boats.” What does that mean? The phrase comes from an historical event in about 200 B.C., in which a famous warlord, Han Yu, was about to attack a city. After crossing the Zhang River and feeding his soldiers, Han Yu ordered all cooking pots to be shattered and all the boats to be sunk. This order indicated that there was no going back; to survive the soldiers had to conquer the city. Therefore, people now use this expression, 破釜沉舟, to describe extreme determination.
When Chinese idioms are twisted by homophonic puns, not only is their meaning being twisted, but the phrase itself loses its historical or mythical allusion. Imagine someone saying, “Crossing the Potomac,” or “Daniel versus Goliath” – we would have a more difficult time figuring out the meaning! For people who are familiar with the language, they may be able to figure out the original expression hidden behind the puns. But new students of the language, such as young children, will not only become confused with the meaning of the phrases, they may also fail to recognize the interesting stories associated with these idioms. This concern for preserving the integrity of the language may be one major reason why the Chinese government is attempting to control pun use, especially for commercial purposes.
Puns and idioms may make the Chinese language intimidating, but understanding them may be a gateway to appreciating the richness of Chinese culture. You may not eat fish the same way again with a Chinese friend during Chinese New Year, or lotus seed at a Chinese wedding (I will leave it to you to discover its meaning). Through reading about the stories behind Chinese idioms, you will begin not only to understand the true meaning behind these esoteric four-character phrases, you will also gain insight into famous historical figures and events, as well as colorful myths and parables. More often than not, what lies behind these four-character expressions are not only stories, but also rich moral lessons that the Chinese people cherish. So next time, during a Chinese holiday or festival, invite a Chinese friend to tell you the symbolism behind some of the food. You may learn a great deal about Chinese puns. Or invite a Chinese friend to tell you a story behind a four-character idiom. He may take you on a tour of Chinese mythology and ancient history.
Ryan currently lives in the Boston metro area and is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999.