Selections from Classic Chinese (Comedic) Anthologies.


Though an almost endless amount of analysis and criticism of Chinese texts has been on classical philosophy, religion, politics, and military tactics, etc., few people know of the ancient collections of jokes and funny stories, such as the Grove Of Laughter (Hsiao-lin), Master Mugwort’s Miscellany (Ai Tzu tsa-shuo), Ticklish Tales (Hsi-t’an lu), Bowled Over With Laughter (Hsiao-tao), Have A Good Laugh (Hsiao te hao) and others. So I thought I would post a few of my favorite classic Chinese tales, being anywhere from 500 to 1000 years old. As there are many spots where the literal translation would obscure or confuse the punch line, I have paraphrased and slightly altered the original text for clarity.


The Man Who Bit Off His Own Nose (from The Grove of Laughter).

While they were arguing, Dingbang bit off Chenglei’s nose. When a government official wished to prosecute him, he claimed that Chenglei had bitten off his own nose. “A person’s nose is higher than his mouth,” said the official, “so how could it be that he could reach his nose to bite it off?” Said Dingbang, “He stepped up on a bed to do it”!

The Ox Year Wife (from Treasury of Laughs)

The subordinates of a prefect who was having a birthday heard that he was born in the Year of the Rat, so they gathered some gold and cast a full-scale solid gold rat to celebrate his longevity. Being much pleased with the gold object the prefect said, “Did you know that my wife’s birthday is coming up soon? She was born in the Year of the Ox”!

Vegetables And Wine… (from Expanded Treasury of Laughs)

A Confucian official named Fu was about to leave his home to meet a superior when a local villager named Chao stopped by for a visit. Not having time to give his wife Bin-bin detailed instructions, he simply said, “Just offer the villager some vegetables, wine, et nihil alter”. His wife, not speaking such literary language, had no idea ‘ex nihil alter’ meant “and nothing else”, thought that he had somehow referred to their pet goat, so she butchered and prepared it, offering Chao a great feast. When Fu returned, he lamented that Bin-bin had misunderstood him. Much chagrined, from then on he made sure to tell her to serve “vegetables, wine, and absolutely not a single bit of “ex nihil alter”!

Pleasing The Archery Target God (from Expanded Treasury of Laughs)

A military general named Anguo was on the verge of being defeated in a bloody battle when a glorious warrior appeared and helped Anguo achieve a great victory instead. Anguo kowtowed before the glorious superhuman warrior and asked his name. “I am the God of All Archery Targets”. But General Anguo was confused and asked, “What virtue does a mere mortal general like myself have that would induce you, oh honoured god, to trouble yourself to come to my aid?” The god replied, “I was moved by the fact that in the past, when you practiced archery on the range, you never once hit me with an arrow!”

That’s Preposterous! (from In Praise of Laughter)

Li-ko, in an attempt to improve his vocabulary, overheard someone say “How can there be such a principle!?” (in English: that’s preposterous!). Falling in love with the phrase, he went about saying “that’s preposterous” wherever he went. While crossing a river on a ferry one day though, he happened to forget the phrase, so he wandered the ferry trying to remember it. The ferryman asked him if he had lost something, and Li-ko replied, “I have lost a sentence”. “Whoever heard of losing a sentence,” said the ferryman, “that’s preposterous!” “Ahh! You found it for me,” exclaimed Li-ko. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

Moving The Statues of Lao-Tzu and The Buddha (from Have A Good Laugh)

There was a certain temple that had clay statues of the scholar/god Lao-Tzu and the Buddha himself, set side by side. Upon seeing this, a Buddhist monk said, “The great teachings of the Buddha are profound. How could you disrespect the Buddha by placing him to the right of Lao-Tzu?” So he moved the Buddha to the left. Upon seeing this new arrangement, a Taoist priest exclaimed, “The Doctrine of the Tao deserved the utmost respect. How can Lao-Tzu be placed to the right of the Buddha?” So he moved Lao-tzu to the left of the Buddha. This continued on, back and forth relentless, until the clay statues crumbled. “You and I were getting along fine,” said Lao-Tzu with a laugh to the Buddha, “until those two nitwits wrecked us with their constant moving!”

Geomancy (from Grove of Laughter)

Chung, who firmly believed in divination through casting earth and reading its texture, always consulted a diviner before he made the slightest move. One day, as he leaned against an earthen wall, it toppled over upon him. Pinned beneath it, he called out for help. His family, knowing of his love for geomancy, consoled him, saying, “Just wait, we will consult the master as to whether today is an auspicious day for moving dirt!”


(source texts from The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (Victor H. Mair (ed.), 1994, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 658-670).


14 thoughts on “Selections from Classic Chinese (Comedic) Anthologies.

      1. We do. So much philosophizing & tragedy was recorded we overlook the laughs. Gershon Legman, was a serious scholar who spent his whole life collecting jokes & lewd poems, he’s little known by most, speaks volumes. He has appeared in a Charlie poem as one of Godly God’s favourite scholars & writers., alongside L. Ron Hubbard.

            1. I sold a few of his books in my shop. But then we prided ourselves on stocking used and hard-to-find titles. We didn’t find many of his, I must admit.

            2. The Horn Book (it has a subtitle, something to do with erotic and bibliography) and The Limerick were the two we saw most often. I think he wrote one on the Templars, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s