Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

What Onion saga says about China's sense of humor

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
updated 2:13 AM EST, Fri November 30, 2012
Too sexy to be true? Kim Jong-Un (L) at the 100th birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung on April 15, 2012.
Too sexy to be true? Kim Jong-Un (L) at the 100th birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung on April 15, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese news site lampooned after taking an Onion satire for a real story
  • Onion reported that North Korea's Kim Jong-Un was "sexiest man of 2012"
  • The joke belies a strong sense of humor in China, China watchers say
  • Chinese writers, artists, cartoonists use satire to mock, question, challenge

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- China's state-run People's Daily newspaper is known for political correctness rather than a sense of humor.

So when a report surfaced this week that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had been named the 2012 "Sexiest Man Alive", the self-described mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party cheered its Korean comrade on its website -- only this "news" came from satirical U.S. website, The Onion.

China is North Korea's major ally and aid provider. Reporting something flattering on Kim must have been considered politically correct. Its website editors even built a gallery of photos to accompany the report, with slides featuring Kim riding a horse, inspecting troops and being hugged by female soldiers.

While the item spiced up the usually staid pages of the website, it led to wave of sniggering as international media lampooned Chinese state media for being fooled by a bogus report from a well-known purveyor of offbeat humor and satire.

Read: Onion: We just fooled the Chinese government!

Was the omniscient People's Daily really this gullible or was it the work of a mischievous insider with a penchant for satire?

China falls for 'Onion' jab on Kim
Sorry China, Kim Jong Un not 'sexiest'

On Wednesday, a woman who took our call at the website's office in Beijing insisted that it was "impossible that the People's Daily would quote from any unreliable media -- we do verify our news and sources."

The woman, who declined to identify herself, said the story and pictures had been removed a day after being posted.

But the damage had been done and The Onion was relishing the publicity.

"Please visit our friends at the People's Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion," read its statement. "Exemplary reportage, comrades."

Chinese micro-bloggers couldn't resist getting in on the act too.

"The world was fooled by the People's Daily, because no Chinese believes this paper," wrote @Hai_Dao_Wu_Bian.

So the Chinese have a sense of humor?

Christopher Rea, who is writing a book on the cultural history of humor in modern China, says the Chinese have "a robust sense of the farcical and the absurd, as well as a keen appreciation of watching those in power screw up."

Rea, a scholar at the Australian Center on China in the World, says "the Chinese sense of humor runs the same gamut as elsewhere."

Linda Jaivin, a veteran China-watcher and co-author of "New Ghosts Old Dreams," a book on Chinese literature and culture, said Beijing people's sense of humor tends to be "very topical, political and satirical."

When a giant statue of Confucius suddenly appeared in Tiananmen Square, not far from Mao's iconic portrait early last year, tongues wagged about what it all signified politically -- was Confucius back to dislodge Mao as China's spiritual leader?

The statue was moved off the square just as abruptly a few weeks later, prompting some in political circles to joke that the venerated sage, who hailed from rural Shandong, had been busted for not having a Beijing residence permit.

The primary lesson that all journalists -- not just Chinese -- should draw from this is that all information needs to be verified before it is published.
Richard Hornik

For centuries political satire has been a staple for much of Chinese humor, and remains so during the Communist era.

In the 1980s, when the first signs of official corruption related to economic reform began appearing, humorists cleverly minted ditties like these:

"I'm a big official, so I eat and drink, eat and drink..."

"It's not my money we're spending after all, so eat and be merry and let's have a ball!"

Nowadays, Chinese writers, artists, cartoonists, comedians and netizens resort to humor and satire to mock, question, challenge and document social phenomena, events and incidents.

"A lot of Chinese humor is pun-based and probably always has been," said Jaivin, who speaks Chinese fluently. "The Chinese language is exceptionally rich in homonyms and is ripe for punning."

Much of it can be lost in translation but some does overcome any linguistic limits.

When some Beijing residents nicknamed the new Koolhaus-designed office complex of CCTV, China's flagship television network, "da kucha" (the Big Underpants), for its resemblance to underwear, the government tried to give it a nicer sounding moniker.

"So they tried 'zhichuang' -- Window on Knowledge," recalled Jaivin. "Catchy but worse, because as Beijing funsters worked out in about a microsecond, it's also a homonym for hemorrhoid."

The Chinese sense of humor has also become more global, Rea said, citing the "E'gao phenomenon" of spoofing and parody on the Internet that started in 2005 and is still popular, especially among tech-savvy youths.

"It draws strongly on international influences, down to the images, sounds, and texts used in video mash-ups," he said.

So if Chinese humor is so robust, why did the editors at the People's Daily get duped?

"Maybe because many Chinese editors and journalists lack good knowledge of journalism and English so they find it hard to spot satire," suggested a graduate student in journalism in Beijing. "Maybe because there is so much fake news and they lack the ability to distinguish real news from the fake."

Rea blamed the "pervasive plagiarism of foreign news outlets in the Chinese official news media, combined with shoddy quality control or fact checking."

Is there a serious lesson to be learned here?

"The primary lesson that all journalists -- not just Chinese -- should draw from this is that all information needs to be verified before it is published," said Richard Hornik, a lecturer in journalism at Stony Brook University, who once covered China for Time Magazine.

"Since new media such as Weibo, Facebook and Twitter have made all of us publishers in the digital era, all responsible citizens should verify information before they publish, forward, 'like' or retweet it."

How embarrassed should the People's Daily be?

"Extremely," quipped Jaivin. "That said, I do hope no one gets sent to a labor camp over it."

CNN's Wendy Min contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
updated 11:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
updated 8:20 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
updated 3:07 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
ADVERTISEMENT