Episode 210: Ancient Chinese Jokes 7 – The Year Of The Rat

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Laugh is a world language. People from different cultures all have jokes and today we will continue the series in our podcast about ancient Chinese jokes and hope you can laugh or smile about it.

One of the most famous book of jokes is called XiaoFu 笑府 by the author Feng Menglong 冯梦龙, who was a Chinese writer and poet of the Ming dynasty, between the year 1574 ~ 1646. This book was introduced in Japan during the Edo period 江户时期, between the year 1603~ 1868 and has been a great influence on Japanese humorous literature. Today we will tell a couple of Japanese jokes originating from a Chinese joke about being born in the year of rat.




The first joke is from the book XiaoFu. In the book, it says, an official had birthday. All the people who worked for him collected money and bought a life sized rat made of gold as a gift. The official received the gift and was really happy and said, “you know my grandma’s birthday is coming soon. And she was born in the year of ox.”




In the Japanese book Hanashibon taikei 噺本大系 from the year 1772, there is a similar joke. It says, a samurai and his servant were walking on the road and saw a dead rat. The samurai asked the servant, “please go and pick up the poor rat.” The servant replied, “but the rat is dead.” The samurai said, “of course I know that. But I am born in the year of rat and I feel pity for the rat.” The servant said, “I am so lucky sir that you were not born in the year of ox.”




From the same book 噺本大系, there is another joke says, a state lord got a crane as a grant from the general. To celebrate this grant, he invited the locale officials for a feast. Everyone came to congratulate the state lord , “this is such a honor for your family.” When the feast started, people were only offered vegetable soup with tiny bit of oil in the soup. The state lord even said, “such a rare and great feast right?” Someone asked the state lord, “did you give the general a lot of money to get this grant?” The state lord said, “more than 1000 bucks.” The person replied sincerely, “it is great that you weren’t granted a turtle.” Both the crane and the turtle represent longevity in Chinese mythology and Japanese mythology. There is a saying in Japanese 鶴は千年亀は万年, literally means cranes live for thousands of years and turtles live for ten thousands of years. The meaning behind the person’s words is that “I am glad you are not blessed to live longer.”



笑府 XiaoFu

噺本大系 Hanashibon taikei

Episode 202: Not here

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Today we will talk about a story from the book YouTaiXianGuanBiJi 右台仙馆笔记, from the Qing dynasty 清朝 around the 19th century. The story is from a Japanese friend of the author YuYue 俞樾 and he wrote in the book.

It says, Japanese people like to eat unagi, which is freshwater eel. However, they also are afraid of them because they think unagi have spirits. Many people wouldn’t kill unagi themselves but to buy in shops. Most izakaya, Japanese pubs would keep live unagi for customers.




One night, a few drunk guys knocked the door of an izakaya. It was midnight and the staff were already sleeping. Nobody responded. So the drunk guys asked, “hi! Do you still have unagi?” This time, they heard all the live unagi in the water answered together, “not any more.”





右台仙馆笔记 YouTaiXianGuanBiJi

Episode 187: Du Zichun – part 3

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Finally, a jailer reported to the King of Hell that Du Zichun had completed the course of suffering. The King said, “This wretch, so cunning, is unfit to be a man. Let him be born a woman in the next life!” So Du Zichun reincarnated to the next life as a girl in the family Wang Quan 王劝. Du Zichuan was born with diseases and took pills every day. She was “accidentally” fell into the fire place and other accidents. But he never uttered a word.

Soon, she grew up to be a woman of surpassing beauty. People regarded her as a mute girl for which she had suffered insults and sexual harassment. Du Zichun kept silence. There was a scholar from the same county named Lu Gui 卢珪, who heard of her beauty and became an admirer. Lu proposed through a matchmaker, but her family declined on grounds of her muteness. Lu Gui replied, “if a wife is able and virtuous, what need is there for speech.” Du Zichun’s family finally gave their consent.

For several years the couple had an enviably loving relationship. Du Zichun then gave birth to a child, who was an intelligent boy. When the boy was two years old, Lu Gui was holding the child in his arms and talked to Du Zichun. She never made a sound. He flew into a rage, saying, “in olden times, Minister Jia 贾’s wife would not smile, for she despised her husband. Even so, she made up for the regret one day while watching him shooting pheasants. After all, I am not as noble as the minister, but how come my knowledge is not compared with pheasants shooting? A man is despised by his wife. What’s the need of having a kid with this kind of wife?” He grabbed the boy’s feet, and bashed his head against a rock. It smashed instantly, splashing blood. Unable to hold back her love for the child the momentarily, Du Zichun slipped an involuntary cry, “Ugh!”

Before the sound died out, Du Zichun found himself sitting in the yard of the same place with the Taoist master in front of him. It was almost dawn. He saw the purple flames of the furnace leaped up and burned through the roof. The entire house was ablaze. The Taoist master sighed, “Look what you got me into.” He threw Du Zichun into the pot of water and the fire was burned out.

The Taoist master said, “you have put behind you all emotions including joy, anger, pity, fear, loathing, and lust. The one feeling you have not yet mastered is love. If you had not uttered that sound, my elixir would have been ready, and you would have ascended into heaven as an immortal by now. How very rare are those with the true makings of an immortal! I can try smelting the elixir again, and there is yet room for you in this world. Take heart and do your utmost!” The Taoist master pointed out to him the distant road back. Du Zichun climbed to the top of the platform to have a look. The furnace had cracked open, exposing an iron rod inside, several feet long, the thickness of a man’s arm. The Taoist took off his robe and proceeded to scrape it with a knife.

After returning home, ashamed of having broken the vow, Du Zichun decided to make amends by volunteering for another effort. But when he reached the Cloud Tower Peak, he could not find even the slightest trace of the Taoist master.




We have talked in our podcast that to be an immortal in Taoism or a Buddha in Chinese Buddism, everyone has a chance. Emptiness is the ultimate nature of things and it is essential to dissipate suffering. Some people think Du Zichun is a humanist in terms of denial of Buddhism and Taosim in order to acclaim fraternity in the world. Some people think the story is about love is the source of trouble and through purification of love and desire can the Proper Way be realized. Some people think contrasting desire and practice of asceticism misinterprets the significance of Buddhism and Taoism because Buddhism and Taoism help heal suffering caused by desire and emotions.

So what is the Japanese version of the story like by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa ? Most of parts are similar. When Du Zichun was in the Hell,he made a sound when the he saw his mother were tortured. And he was back to the reality, he wasn’t even blamed by the master but appraised that how he felt for his parents should be honored. But he didn’t became an immortal since he failed and realized how he appreciate a normal life.




In the Japanese version, he failed because he saw his parents instead of his child. Some people think this might be due the personal experience of the author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa that his mother had a mental illness shortly after his birth, so he was adopted and raised by his uncle. Also the ending was the quite opposite and I don’t know if it is due to Buddhism in Japan is more secularized it in China.



玄怪录 XuanGuaiLu


Episode 186: Du Zichun – part 2

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The third time Du Zichun holding millions cash in hands, he thought to himself, “Everytime when I had nothing, none of my friends or relatives cared to talk with me. Yet this elderly gentleman has been so generous for three times. What should I do to deserve these money?”

He told the old man,“I’ve learned my lessons. I can live on my own. Moreover, there are orphans and widows needed help. Through charity, I shall redeem my past faults. I am profoundly indebted to you for this most gracious favor. When I finish what I am to do, I shall faithfully follow your every bidding.” The old man said,“ Quite right! When you have done your missions, come meet me at the twin juniper trees by the Temple of LaoZi, 老君府 on the ZhongYuan Festival 中元节 of the coming year.” We have talked about ZhongYuan Festival in our Ep. 76 Ghost Festival.

Du Zichun came to the city YangZhou 扬州 and bought hundreds acres of land and built houses for orphans and widows. For his friends and relatives, he returned with favors by distributing the money to the ones that helped him before and revenged of those who treated him with hatred.

Having done all this, Du Zichun went on the appointed day and found the old man whistling in the shade of the juniper trees. Together they set out to ascend the Cloud Tower Peak 云台峰 in the Hua Mountains 华山. They went for miles and arrived at a place where the houses and rooms were holy. It was canopied high above by multicolored clouds and graced by gliding cranes. In the main hall, in the middle of which stood an elixir furnace, more than nine feet tall. Its purplish flames burned brightly, lighting up the windows. Nine female Taoist attendants stood around the furnace forming a circle. Black Dragon and White Tiger were on watch of the furnace.

It was getting dark. The old man reappeared as a holy Taoist in a yellow cap and a yellow cape. He handed Du Zichun three white-stone pills and a goblet of wine, and told him to finish them off quickly. Then he took a tiger’s hide and pu it down near the inner west wall, and sit on it facing the east. The Taosit master warned Du Zichun, “be sure not to say anything. Whatever you are about to see- deities, evil demons, ghosts, fierce beasts, the under world, or your loved ones being tied up suffering great pain—are NOT REAL. Just stay silent and still, and remain calm and fear nothing. No harm will ever come to you. Remember what I told you!” With that, he departed.

Du Zichun looked into the courtyard and saw nothing but a huge pot filled with water. As soon as the Taoist master left, there suddenly appeared a plethora of banners, flags, spears, and armored men outside. Thousands of mounted soldiers filled up the valley. An august personage, addressed as the Great General— exceeding 10 feet in height, along with his ride, in dazzling golden armor, burst into the hall with several hundred soldiers with weapons. They shouted, “Who are you?How dare you not make way for the Great General?” They even pointed the sword on his neck and asked his name. Du Zichun kept silence. The solders got irritated and shouted, “kill him!” Du Zichun kept silence. The general stormed out in a most violent rage with his army.
After a moment, here came ferocious tigers, venomous dragons, lions, thousands of pythons and scorpions appeared. Roaring and snarling, they approached to Du Zichun. Some even jumped on his head. Du Zichun kep silence. After a while they dispersed.



Suddenly thunderstorms came and lightning piercing a darkened sky. Surrounded all sides by rolling spheres of fire and electric flashes, Du Zichun could hardly open his eyes. In a brief moment the courtyard was flooded. In an instant the flood reached where Du Zichun was, but he sat erect and paid no attention. A moment later the General returned with the Ox-head and Horse- face 牛头马面, the two guardians of hell that we talked about in our Ep.12 the Underworld and demons。 They set a large cauldron of boiling water in front of Du Zichun, and threatened him with long spear. An order was made, “tell us your name and you will be set free. Otherwise we will throw you into the boiling water.” Du Zichun kept silence.

So they seized his wife and pointed at her, “tell us your name and we will spare her.” Still, Du Zichun kept silence. His wife was in turn tortured in front of him by wipping, boiling, burning, suffering excruciating pain that far exceeded human endurance. His wife screamed, “true, I am clumsy and not pretty, not a match to a gentleman like you but I have been your humble wife for more than ten years. I am now being seized by these demons, and suffering unbearable pain. I don’t expect you to get down on your knees. But it takes merely a word from you to save my life.”She cursed and swore. Du Zichun kept silence.

The General said, “This wretched one has witchcraft and must not be allowed to live on in the world.” He ordered demons to decapitated Du Zichun. After the execution, Du Zichun’s ghost was led to the King of Hell 阎王that we have talked about in Ep. 12 the Underworld. The King of Hell said, “Is this not the sorcerer from the Cloud Tower Peak? Arrest him and send him to jail.” Thus Du Zichun experienced all the various forms of torture had to offer: being fried in the boiling oil, burned, grinded in the mill, the hill of knives. But keeping in mind the Taoist master’s injunction, he found all this somehow endurable and kept silence.



玄怪录 XuanGuaiLu

Episode 185: Du Zichun – part 1

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Recently I have been reading books by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa 芥川龙之介, who is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese short story”. He was born in 1892 and committed to suicide at the age of 35. If you don’t know him, you might heard about the film Rashomon 罗生门 by Akira Kurosawa 黑泽 明 and the story was written by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. He was a genius writer and some of his works were based on earlier works. One of his short stories is called Toshisyun , which is based on a Chinese mythological story called Du Zichun 杜子春.




The story is most known from the book XuanGuaiLu 玄怪录from the Tang dynasty, around the 8th century. However, it is modified from a story in the book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions 大唐西域记, a 7th century narrative of XuanZang 玄奘, a Chinese Buddhist monk’s 19 years journey from central China to central Asia. The book Journey to the West 西游记 was based on his journey. So originally the story was a Buddhism story. There are other versions of this story in the history including the one in the book Stories to Awaken the World 醒世恒言 published in the year 1627 during the Ming dynasty 明朝 .

Today we will talk about the most well-known version from the book 玄怪录. In the book, it says, Du Zichun was a man who lived around the time of the Norther Zhou 北周朝 and Sui 隋朝 dynasties between the year 557 to 619.

In his youth, Du ZiChun was carefree and never bothered to attend to make money. He indulged in heavy drinking and debauchery. When he spent all of his fortune, he would go to relatives and friends for help They all turned him away for being an idler. It was winter. His clothes were tattered and he was starving, Du Zichun wondered aimlessly. He looked up to the sky and let out a long sigh.

An old man with a cane approached to him and inquired, “gentleman why did you sigh?” Du Zichun vented his resentment at the indifference of his friends and relatives with anguish and agitation.

The old man asked, “How much money would be needed to enable you to live in comfort?” Du Zichun answered, “Thirty to fifty thousand should keep me from starving.” The old man said, “Not enough.” Du Zichun named another figure, “One hundred thousand.” “Not enough.” “A million?” “Still not enough.” “Three million?” “That should do,” the old man agreed finally. Out from his sleeve he took out one string of coins and said, “This should suffice for the night. Tomorrow noon I shall be expecting you at the Persian House by the West Market. Make sure to be on time.” Du Zichun went to the Persian House the next day punctually. As promised, the old man gave him three million and left without introducing himself.

Being rich, Du Zichun lived in his old life style again. He was confident that he would never find himself shelter less again. He rode well-fed horses, wearing furs, and met his drinking buddies. He paid bands to play music for him and spent day and night in brothels. In a year or two, the money gradually dwindled to nothing. His wardrobe changed from the most expensive to the cheapest. Then his horse was replaced by a donkey, and then by his own two feet. Soon he was in the same sad circumstance as before.

Again being desperate, he sighed at the gate of the market. The very moment he uttered the sound, the same old man appeared. Taking Du Zichun’s hand in his, he asked, “how come you are back where you were. How strange! How much money should I give you this time?” Du Zichun was too ashamed to ask. The old man repeated, but Du Zichun just apologetically reaffirmed his gratitude. The old man then told him, “tomorrow noon, come to meet me at the same place as last time.” Du Zichun went like last time and received ten millions in cash.



Before receiving the money, he was determined that he would, from then on, plan for the future. But the moment he took the money in hand, he became just as self-indulgent as before. In a year or two, Du Zichun was poorer than ever. Once again he chanced upon the old man at the same place. Full of shame, he covered his face and tried to run away. The old man caught him by the sleeve and said, “Oh, well. Where are you going?” Then he gave Du Zichun thirty millions cash and cautioned, “If you don’t do something different this time, you are indeed beyond help.”



大唐西域记 Great Tang Records on the Western Regions

醒世恒言 Stories to Awaken the World