China's ban on puns reminds us of the power of wordplay
Imagine for a moment that Dorothy Parker is still alive. Imagine that her Algonquin antics have secured her a one-woman tour of China. Imagine her being informed by the snappily titled State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People's Republic of China that puns have effectively been outlawed across media and advertising, as they were last week.
Now imagine Parker addressing her audience: "If all the bureaucrats at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People's Republic of China Christmas ball were laid end to end …," she pauses, "they would make one long line of female State Administrators, and no mistake."
The announcement restricting double entendres - cue headlines about "pun control" - argued, not unjustly, that puns "can create misunderstandings for the public, especially for minors. They need to be firmly corrected."
Ironically, the emphasis on protecting children from the perils of bon mots offers a telling reminder of the anarchic and subversive potential of wordplay. Whether it is a place without rules or with its own self-defined regulations, playing with words challenges anyone intent on propagating absolutist diktats that brook no dissent much less any misunderstanding.
In the appendix to 1984 that defined Newspeak, George Orwell implied that Big Brother's beef with the word "free" was, aptly, that it could mean more than one thing: "The word FREE still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as 'This dog is free from lice' or 'This field is free from weeds'. It could not be used in its old sense of 'politically free' or 'intellectually free' since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless."
This anarchic liberation of meaning goes some way to explaining why monarchs and dictators alike have viewed jokes and laughter with much the same enthusiasm as female heirs and weapons inspectors.
Milan Kundera understood comedy's rebellious power in his first novel, 1967's The Joke. Ludvik, a cheeky but loyal Party member, is imprisoned for sending a postcard bearing the slogan: "Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky!" Ludvik is typical of how dissidents behind the Iron Curtain used wit to blur the communists' doctrinal lines. So: "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is exactly the opposite."
Sadly, Ludvik's fate - forced conscription and several years in a labour camp - was also not unusual. Indeed in East Germany, jokes or Witze cracked against the ruling party were known as 3-7 Witze - 3-7 being the jail term one could expect for being caught in possession of lines such as: "This year they again held the Festival of Soviet political jokes. First prize: 10 years of winter vacation in Siberia."
Nor is England exempt as a censor of wit. Telling the wrong punchline in the early 19th century could land you in jail. Leigh Hunt, the journalist, poet and literary entrepreneur who promoted the early work of Keats, Shelley and Byron, was imprisoned for writing The Prince on St Patrick' Day, a sardonic broadside against the Prince Regent, "a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity".
George IV was also a target for satirist and bookseller William Hone, who was tried on three occasions in 1817 for writing a series of poetic parodies.
Wordplay was also in evidence during the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. "We are in tears - and not because of the tear gas," read one banner. "Be realistic, demand the impossible," was another. Not Oscar Wilde perhaps, but one could argue the paradoxes catch the escalating tension between freedom and restrictions handed down from a repressive centralised government.
One tragedy of banning the pun lies in curtailing China's own grand tradition: Putonghua's homophonic richness is uniquely suited to wordplay. The word "shi" has (at least) 92 meanings, something the China-born, American linguist, educator and composer Yuen Ren Chao exploited in his poem The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den. Every one of its 92 syllables has the sound "shi", which are modulated to mean: "A poet named Shi lived in a stone room/Fond of lions, he swore he would eat ten lions".
Perhaps it's best to go out on a joke, while we still can. "Three prisoners in a Beijing jail explain the reasons for their arrest. The first one said: 'I support Deng Xiaoping'. The second said, 'I attacked Deng Xiaoping!' Both turned to the third man and asked, 'Why were you arrested?' Downcast, he answered: 'Me? I AM Deng Xiaoping.'"