Irony in China

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Following up on "Is irony universal?", 10/22/2009, Victor Mair points to Eric Abrahamsen's "Irony is Good!" (How Mao killed Chinese humor … and how the Internet is slowly bringing it back again"), Foreign Policy 1/12/2011, and to Xiang Li, "Irony Illustrated: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Situational Irony in China and the United States", Sino-Platonic Papers 184, 2008:

To analyze a sample Chinese population’s ability to understand and appreciate situational irony and compare its results with a sample U.S. population, surveys consisting of a series of 15 ironic and non-ironic cartoons were distributed electronically to 126 residents in the United States and 212 Chinese residents in mainland China. Respondents were asked to identify their initial reactions as well as rank their understanding and appreciation of each cartoon. Neither the concept of situational irony nor the research purposes of the survey was disclosed to the respondents, assuring that they would respond on the basis of independent judgment and knowledge.

Among Xiang Li's conclusions:

The Chinese sample tends to appreciate the humor within ironic and non-ironic cartoons significantly more than the U.S. sample. However, the Chinese respondents also tend to react more negatively (as measured by initial facial expressions) to ironic cartoons and react more positively to non-ironic cartoons.

But you should read the whole thing.


  1. Marc said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    Aren't they measuring the wrong kind of irony with this?

    I'm pretty sure most Japanese (a language and culture I know) would understand the humor in these cartoons, but any attempt at ironic humor in conversation in Japanese is generally received as iyami, literally disagreeableness, used to mean a mean comment. Saying the opposite of what you mean is taken as an intentional hindering of communication, which is a group activity, and intentionally impeding group activities is (as you can imagine) a definite no-no in Japan.

    Granted, the post is about China, but I mention this because I don't think showing people a few cartoons is going to give researchers an accurate picture of how irony plays there.

  2. GeorgeW said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    Its worth the read just to get to the cartoons at the end.

    I wonder if there is any correlation between irony and freedom of speech.

  3. Mollie said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    When I first arrived in China as a foreign student, I came to believe that the Chinese were incapable of irony. This realization suddenly dawned on me after the 5th time a dormitory worker had woken me up at 8 am to tinker with my broken heating unit. Finally after 4 workers spent all of 2 minutes merely looking at the machine, I asked them (sarcastically) if it was now fixed. Startled, the workers shook their heads. "No, uh, of course not," they mumbled, clearly thinking my question had been sincere.

    After relating this story to several Chinese friends, it was explained to me that it was not the irony that escaped these workers. Instead, they had assumed that I was incapable of irony because the level of my Chinese at that point was relatively low. Simply put, they thought I was serious, mostly because they assumed I was too stupid to be joking.

    I'm not sure that's the answer, but that was the explanation offered me at the time. This post sheds a little more light on the situation. Thank you.

  4. Gaston said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    The whole thing is ironic, given the stereotype (among non-North American speakers of English) that Americans don't understand irony.

  5. Rubrick said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Cartoon #1: A man is holding a glass of wine in which an insect is floating.

    Cartoon #2: An old man is laying dead on the floor. In his hand is a lottery ticket matching the number visible in the newspaper beside him.

    Cartoon #3: A couple is getting married outdoors. It is raining.

    Cartoon #4: A plane crash…

  6. Rubrick said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

    Well I'll be danged. Their actual #6 is the same as my #2. If they also had Alanis in mind, then I'd say it's ironic only because it's referencing her.

  7. Valentine said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 4:19 am

    As interesting as this is, what does situational irony have to do with language?

  8. blahedo said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

    @Rubrick: Keep reading to the end of the appendices….

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    @Valentine: "As interesting as this is, what does situational irony have to do with language?"

    Implicit in this post is the fact that we don't have a good word for "irony" in Chinese. It is usually translated by the word fèngcì 諷刺, but if you back translate that into English, you'll most likely end up with "satire; satirize," which is quite different from "irony." Some people have pondered whether, since it's so hard to find a word in Chinese that means exactly the same thing as "irony" (which, we must admit, is a very subtle concept), irony exists in the Chinese mindset.

    I'm pretty sure that those types of questions were in the back of Xiang Li's mind when she wrote her paper.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    @Valentine: "As interesting as this is, what does situational irony have to do with language?"

    Note also that this began in considering the question "Is irony universal?", where "irony" means something like "saying the opposite of what you mean". However, a prior question is whether that's at all the right way to think about the question. Perhaps "saying the opposite of what you mean" is not a natural class of communicative actions at all, but rather an incoherent amalgam of hyperbole and litotes (of various kinds and used for various purposes), mocking someone by caricaturing their perspective, and so on Certainly "situational irony" is not at all the same as "saying the opposite of what you mean", nor is "Socratic irony", so why do we think that there's a connection? And as just noted, the other things that we call "irony" are pretty diverse.

    Considering the general question in the context of other cultures and other languages may help straighten this all out.

  11. Irony in China | tonycreary said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    […] Source: […]

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    @Valentine: "As interesting as this is, what does situational irony have to do with language?"

    It's interesting to note that Xiang Li, after having read Eric Abrahamsen's "Irony is Good!", but before realizing that Mark Liberman had cited her work in his "Irony in China" post, sent me a personal communication that included this telling quotation from Abrahamsen's article: "Irony, put simply, is a gap between words and their meaning, a space across which speaker and listener exchange a knowing wink. For this knowingness to be mutual, a web of common experiences and beliefs must exist, within which language adopts deeper echoes and associations." Lots of language issues at work there.

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  14. Matt McIrvin said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

    It is apparently a common belief in Britain that Americans are incapable of irony, or do not understand it.

    I recall an online discussion of this–which I don't think was here–that shed some light on the subject. There is, so I am told, a common form of extemporaneous British conversational humor in which someone will open with an ironic or sarcastic statement, and another party will play along with an elaboration of it that leads into several rounds of a kind of shared absurdist worldbuilding. (I've seen characters do this in British sitcoms but never quite believed that it was drawn from real life.)

    In the US, with the possible exception of the culture of extremely nerdy kids, this sort of thing typically doesn't last beyond a fleeting exchange before somebody does the spoken or unspoken equivalent of "no, seriously". An American in a conversation where people draw a shared ironic conceit out beyond the US social limit could well get confused, and start to think they really meant it.

  15. Marc said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    Should this go in the "annals of there is no word for X"? A Chinese friend recently told me quite confidently that "irony" is 反語 fǎnyǔ, although it can be translated a couple of different ways depending on the situation. In the cartoons it would be 反諷 fánfěng because it's not spoken (so -語 -yǔ, meaning speech or words, would be inappropriate).

  16. Ah said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    Irony is such a cultural specific thing, that it is really hard to compare different countries. But after living in China for a while, I have found it very hard to explain the concept of ironically enjoying something, (in the modern hipster sense). This is probably because Chinese culture doesn't have the hypertrophied sensitivity to coolness and authenticity that American culture does.

    In general, terms about coolness are generally the hardest to translate for me. I completly failed at explaining what I meant when I said Marc Zuckerberg was a douchebag to a Chinese friend recently.

    Of course Chinese culture does have Irony. Check out the film Crazy Stone, for an example. It's the best chinese movie of the past ten years in my opinion.

  17. John Cowan said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    Victor Mair:

    I've read the article now, and I was surprised to find the "No Word For" trope in it, referring to 'wince/cringe', and a story about how English-Chinese dictionaries have to draw little pictures of someone cringing. Is this really a lexical gap in the language?

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