Translating ‘humor’ into Chinese culture

  • 1 City University of Hong Kong.


The Chinese term youmo for humor is a translated neologism in modern Chinese. It was Lin Yutang who first coined the term in 1924 and introduced and promoted the idea of humor into Chinese culture. Lin's translating ‘humor’ into youmo was a conscious cross-cultural act that mediates and appropriates cultural meaning between East and West. By way of cross-cultural translation, ‘humor’ as youmo takes on a multicultural meaning which not only enriches the notion of humor but also offers an aesthetic alternative to Chinese modernity through creative transformation of Chinese cultural tradition. After recognizing the Western reference of youmo, especially George Meredith's notion of the “comic spirit,” I will show how youmo intends to find a middle ground for Chinese modernity in which Chinese literature and culture can shake off shackles of moral pomposity while still maintaining a gentlemanly style or taste. The primary means for Lin to achieve that purpose is to re-interpret traditional Chinese culture, both Taoist and Confucianist, along humorous lines. And it is in such cross-cultural interaction that Lin Yutang developed his philosophical notion of youmo as “tolerant irony” based on the Taoist ironical stance towards life as well as the Confucian “Spirit of Reasonableness.”

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HUMOR, the official publication of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS), was established over 25 years ago as an international interdisciplinary forum for the publication of high-quality research papers on humor as an important and universal human faculty. The journal publishes original contributions in areas such as interdisciplinary humor research, humor theory, and humor research methodologies.