Dashan Live

Master Calligrapher

County official with an outsized reputation is put to the test

Based on a popular story from the early days of China's "Reform and Opening", this piece was originally taught to me by the prominent pingshu perfomer, Tian Lianyuan 田连元.

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English captions are not provided, because this piece just doesn't translate well. Let me explain why.

In this case the set-up and the dialogue are fairly straighforward can be translated easily, but at its core the joke is based on a double meaning that exists in Chinese, but not in English. I could do English captions and they would be fine most of the way through, but the "kicker" at the end just wouldn't make sense in English where the double meaning is lost in translation.

同意 [tóngyì] as an expression is "to agree, consent, approve", but when the two characters are interpreted literally we get 同 [tóng] “same” and 意 [yì] “meaning, thought, intention". In other words, when two people have the "same meaning" (or same thought, same intention) we say they are *in agreement*.

This "master calligrapher" in fact can only write five characters with any sort of calligraphic flair, to write the expressions "agree", "don't agree" and the three characters of his name "Hu Buzi". Hu 胡 is a common surname, no double meaning here. Bu 不 indicates a negative, changing "agree" to "disagree". Zi 字 is a Chinese character (or Japanese Kanji).

The double meaning comes in the interpretation of 同意 [tóngyì], as in 我同意 "I agree" or rearranged into the form 字同意不同 "the characters are the same but the meanings are different". Yes, Japanese Kanji are based on Chinese characters, but the meanings have evolved over time so that the two writing forms aren't always "in agreement". That's the basis of the play on words.

When he's finally cornered into a situation where he can no longer avoid demonstrating his true skill as a calligrapher, Hu Buzi responds by composing a simple poem, repeatedly re-using the only five characters he can write beautifully.

Humour relies on timing, and jokes are to be delivered, not explained This joke can be explained, but the explanation destroys the delivery, which ruins the joke.