Powerful Puns in Chinese

One of the unique aspects of the Chinese language is its use of tones. There are five tones, and each word in the language carries a tone. The tone of a word is an essential contributor to its meaning. Because of the existence of tones to broaden the meanings of a single combination of sounds, there are far fewer “words” (distinct sound combinations) in Chinese. In fact, the rules of pinyin allow for only certain combinations of sounds, so the number of “words” in Chinese is actually very limited, and a lot of specific meaning is derived from context.

One of the effects of this is that it is much easier to make puns in Chinese, because almost every “word” has many different meanings, which are interpreted depending on tone and context. But this property of the Chinese language is so inherent that puns in Chinese have been absorbed into traditional culture and have grown into traditions. This is especially observable during holidays.

Fish is a staple food of Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner. However, you can’t eat all of your fish at this dinner; you have to leave some behind. The reason for this is based on a pun: “年年有魚, 年年有餘” (niannian you yu, niannian you yu), which means “every year there’s fish, every year there’s surplus.” Because the words for “fish” and surplus” sound the same (yu), Chinese people don’t finish their fish on Chinese New Year’s Eve in the hopes that in the following year they will have surplus in other areas of their life as well.

For Chinese New Year, it is also a tradition to decorate with red paper cut into shapes. One of these shapes is a Chinese character: 福 (fu), meaning fortune. This one is pasted upside down, because of the saying “福到了,福倒了” (fu dao le, fu dao le). The words for “upside-down” and “arrive” sound the same (dao), so what this phrase means is “fortune is upside down, fortune arrives.” In other words, if fortune is hung upside-down, then fortune will come to the household.

I just realized the power of puns in the Chinese language as my Chinese class was doing a unit on holidays this semester, and I thought it was interesting that puns, at best a groanable joke in America, are the basis of many traditions in China. I’m hoping to discover some more powerful Chinese puns in the future!

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