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A Joke About Speaking Mandarin


Two brothers who were in business picked up some Mandarin. Just before [they] arrived home, the elder one went to the other side of the river to relieve himself and asked the younger one to go see their father first.

Their father asked, “Where’s your brother?”

The younger one said, “Passing faeces.”

The father asked in astonishment, “Where did he get killed?” [1]

The younger one said, “South of the river.”

As the father was beginning to wail, his elder son showed up. The father raged at his younger son, “How can you talk nonsense like that?”

“I was just speaking Mandarin!” said [the younger one].

The father said, “Mandarin like this does nothing but scare your own father.”


* From Youxi zhuren 遊戲主人 (fl. 19th century)  ed., Xiaolin guangji 笑林廣記 12.4b-5a:


[1] The language-related jokes in this collection mostly reflect features of Wu Chinese. In Mandarin, 撒屎 (“passing faeces”; pinyin: sāshǐ) and 殺死 (“killed”; pinyin: shāsǐ) share the same vowels (including tones) and are mainly distinguished by their different combinations with the retroflex /ʂ/ and the denti-alveolar /s/. In most varieties of Wu Chinese, however, this major distinction is absent as all four characters of these two words share the same initial /s/. The compiler of the Xiaolin guangji also notes that these two words are homophones ( Moreover, 撒 and 殺 (/sæʔ5/) end with a glottal stop, a linguistic feature preserved in several regional languages but not in Mandarin. After the father apparently mistakes “passing faeces” for “killed”, the younger son must have understood his father’s question as “Where is he passing faeces” before he gives the location.  

"Maijiang tu" 賣漿圖 (Drink Sellers) by Yao Wenhan 姚文瀚 (fl. 18th century)

Image credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei


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