Jest a minute
Chinese people aren't funny, at least according to a survey of university students in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Associate Professor Yue Xiaodong of City University, who conducted the poll, found that there is a cultural ambivalence among Chinese towards humour.
Asked to rate the importance of humour, the Chinese undergraduates valued it in general but had a significantly lower assessment of their own sense of humour.
The students were also asked to identify the key attributes of humour and of the Chinese character - and the results showed virtually no overlap. The study was recently published in the International Journal of Humour Research.
'Core personality traits of the Chinese are different than, say, those of Americans, who associate humour with creativity,' Yue says. 'With the Chinese, there is no such connection.'
Yet humour and laughter has have long been thought to promote good psychological and physiological health, and have been used as forms of therapy both in Western and Chinese medicine.
The earliest forms of humour therapy can be found in the ancient Chinese medical text Huangdi Neijing, which recommends the use of comedy or clowning to treat patients.
Recently, scientists at Oxford University presented a study on the analgesic effect of laughter. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar led a series of experiments that measured the pain threshold of people after they watched 15 minutes of a video. Those who watched slapstick comedy such as Mr Bean could endure a higher level of pain than those who watched a golf instruction video.
'It's not the comedy that's important, but the laughter,' says Dunbar. The physical act of laughing, especially a belly laugh, activates the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkiller.
'Endorphins are detectable at least half an hour after release, maybe as much as an hour,' Dunbar says. 'The effect of laughter from a comedy video lifts the pain threshold by about 20 per cent.'
Leadership and laughter coach Anand Chulani uses his talents as a comedian to help children cope with pain. He recalls the time when he ran a two-hour workshop at Ronald McDonald House in Sha Tin - a place where seriously ill children can spend time away from hospital with their families - for 200 patients and their parents, without a Chinese translator. An eight-year-old girl, fresh from a chemotherapy session, entered the room.
'I couldn't imagine the physical pain she was in,' Chulani says. 'I couldn't speak to her in English, and I'm coming from a place where I would do anything to put a smile on her face. So I was doing funny faces, speaking gibberish, and pretty soon the entire room started speaking gibberish, too.
'When this little girl opened up and laughed, I saw the tension in her cheeks dissipate and pain release. She told her parents later, 'Until now, I never knew what it was like not to be in pain.''
Chulani developed the LOL Method, which uses laughter to empower children, and has worked with more than 40,000 youngsters around the world who have experienced unspeakable violence. He also helps adults ('retired kids', he calls them) manage daily stress, using silly movements and absurdity to disrupt patterns of tension.
Laughter is a healing tool that can treat anything from intense pain to daily irritations. Using his method, Chulani was able to defuse an angry situation in which he and a Hong Kong taxi driver were screaming at each other in their respective languages. In minutes, after a few choice comments, the screaming turned into uproarious laughter.
'We're all in psychological pain, always trying to blame or force our pain on others,' Chulani says. 'You can use laughter to shift from pain to relief - to connect to others, to heal and to release that tension.'
Yue claims, however, that thousands of years of Confucian puritanism have worn away the instinct for laughter among the Chinese. 'Confucius - he is to blame,' he says. '[ Confucius] despised humour because he was concerned about establishing rule and order in society,' he says. 'Humour tends to jeopardise that kind of formality - it's subversive.'
Because of the impact laughter has on people's wellbeing, Yue works through his research to promote humour in the classroom, hospitals and prisons.
'It is a tough battle to promote humour,' he says. This is because many believe that humour is a specialised skill and not necessarily everyone can practise it. 'It is true, telling jokes is hard, but is humour an innate talent or gift? No, it is something that must be cultivated, and that takes time.'
Jameson Gong, a US comedian, brings laughter to Hong Kong by fostering the comedy club scene and doing stand-up comedy workshops.
'The comedy club scene is growing all over Asia, because people want to laugh,' he says. 'People come to relieve their stress after a long day at work. [Comedians] take them out of the reality of a bad economy. They want to be taken on a journey.'
Gong founded the Takeout Comedy Club in New York's Chinatown after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001. It was a way to use comedy as a response to tragedy. He brought Takeout Comedy to Hong Kong in 2007 to introduce the next generation of local stand-up comedians.
'Chinese people don't laugh as much as they should, but it's changing,' Gong says. 'With laughter, the potential is enormous.'
That's why Takeout Comedy has been performing regularly in Tin Shui Wai, where there is a high incidence of teen suicides, and at the Mental Health Association.
Gong has had to adjust his schtick to a more local sense of humour. He says sarcasm doesn't go over well with the Chinese, who seem to prefer a more slapstick style.
While people feel free to laugh out loud among friends, Gong observes that in larger audience settings, many laugh quietly on the inside. He cites a set that he did when a woman seated in the front row began laughing loudly and was told to hush by her boyfriend.
Silent, mirthful smiles or polite laughter will not trigger that endorphin response, however.
'Polite laughter is not going to do it,' Dunbar says. 'There are two major types of laughter: Duchenne and non-Duchenne laughter. Duchenne laughter is uncontrolled, physically causes creases at the corner of eyes. You can't fake it unless you're a very good actor.'
Vishwa Prakash, a yogic mentor who has taught laughter yoga in Hong Kong and the United States for 10 years, says laughing depends on how free you are within yourself and has a lot to do with culture.
'Asians are padded with inhibitions and with propriety - there is a right way to handle a fork, sit in a certain manner, don't pick your nose, and so on. As a girl, bursting out with laughter is not considered proper,' he says.
Prakash argues that true laughter is less about comedy than a playful state of mind, which can only be generated internally.
'Laughter within must be brought about organically, sweeping away our analytical inhibitions,' he says.
'Laughter provoked by jokes can't deliver this connection.' Casual observers stumbling on a session of laughter yoga might find it unsettling to see grown-ups clapping, waddling around like toddlers and bursting out laughing in unison for no discernible reason.
'The idea is to be playful like a child, to break the barriers,' says Dick Yu, a laughter coach who leads workshops in public parks across the city.
On Sunday mornings, you can find his group in Victoria Park by following the sudden peals of laughter: 'A-LO-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!'
'Normal adults have many boundaries and restrictions. Most Hong Kong people are not so happy. They are under high stress, and it isn't easy to change,' says Yu, through an interpreter.
'So, members of the club come together to imitate this act of laughing. It depends on the individual whether it is a real laugh or starts out as imitation at first - and then real laughter occurs unconsciously.'
Prakash recalls one laughter club meeting where an elderly man, the father of an orthopaedist, came in a wheelchair and clapped and laughed throughout the session. The doctor explained that his father was very ill but wanted to try laughter as a way to help himself.
After a few sessions, the elderly man did not return, and Prakash feared the worst. It wasn't until several weeks later that he returned, but this time with probes, tubes and bottles attached.
'That was a very special occasion,' Prakash says. 'He was immobile, obviously in intense pain, but there was still merriment in his eyes. It touched my heart. I knelt down in front of him, and tears rolled down his face. In the end, he wanted to die with laughter in his heart.'